14.2.11

As the French say: "Good appetite."

The peril of working as far as I do from the wheels of economy is that there are very few places to buy a lunch, save for the CanEx convenience store.

Or, to put it another way, the peril of being as lazy as I am is that I tend to eat very poorly, because I shall invariably have bread, sliced meat, cheese, and mustard lined up in my fridge at home, while I juggle loonies in my pocket, choosing between novelty Dorito flavours.

Today, though, I attempted at least a semblance of home cooking, and picked up a shepherd's pie frozen dinner. As I unwrapped it for the microwave, however, I noticed something odd...

...the French name for the dish was "pâté chinois".

Chinese paste? I know Québec is further from China than Vancouver is, but surely they must have heard of soy sauce. I did a little research, and the answer delighted me.

First of all, it's described as a dinner similar to Shepherd's Pie. Oh, those clever rascals in frozen dinner factory! No doubt they can justify using two terms for the same dish by pointing out that their "Shepherd's Pie" is similar to Shepherd's Pie, as well. There are plenty of marketing tricks out there but this is the first one I've seen that depends on inductive reasoning. It's like getting Socrates to prove that salsa is a vegetable.

Anyway, that doesn't solve the mystery, nor do any stories of Chinese immigrants in Québec. No, the truth lies to the south, in the town of China, Maine. Apparently, that was a popular place for Québécois lumberjacks to work for the summer. And while in the work camps, this dish was the main feature on the menu, as it was hot, hearty, healthy, and most important of all - able to be cooked up in huge quantities.

And when those lumberjacks returned home, they would have developed a taste for "China Pie", and taken the recipe with them. And thus, an entry in Québec cuisine was born.

And best of all? They took the term "pâté chinois" back to Maine with them, where (if Wikipedia is to be believes) the name of the dish got transcribed as a "Chinese party."

In addition to the general beauty of such a term, the other thing I love about this story is how succinctly it captures the story of linguistics. Two cultures meet, exchange customs and goods, and each side returns to their own people with something they took from the other side, but still manage to make their own. We may think of proper English as following a strict set of rules, but the history of language is a spontaneous and unpredictable jam session.

It's a wonderful thing to ponder, as you dig in to your microwaved corn and mashed potatoes.

2 comments:

Adam said...

Heh. I'd wondered why it was called that in French. I was always worried that it might be some kind of racial slur, and I'm happy to learn that I was incorrect.

The Capillary said...

I love your history lessons.

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.