Steak, blé d'Inde, patate. Ground beef, corn, and mashed potatoes. These are the three key ingredients you need to make Chinese pie, or pâté chinois — a hearty and humble layered casserole.
Now, pâté chinois might sound and look a lot like your average shepherd's or cottage pie that's so popular in the United Kingdom, but don't let appearances fool you. French Canadians will tell you pâté chinois isn't British at all. In fact, it's the unofficial national dish of Quebec — a traditional dish so beloved in French Canadian and Franco-American home cooking that it has inspired poetry, books, and even TV shows.
WBUR producer Amanda Beland grew up eating pâté chinois in New England with her French Canadian family. And when she got curious about her roots, and its origins, she soon realized that despite its fame and ubiquity, no one seems to know exactly where Chinese pie does come from, let alone how it got that name. And those questions began to eat at her.
In this episode, Beland searches out historians, culinary experts, and her own family members to help solve the mystery of pâté chinois. And Beland reveals an intriguing theory that connects this unique dish to New England's labor and immigration history, World War I, and xenophobia, while also discovering what Chinese pie means to her past, and her future.
- "The noble pâté: Quebec's national dish" (Le Devoir)
- Foundation to Commemorate the Chinese Railroad Workers in Canada website
- "Save The Fleet, Eat Less Wheat: The Patriotic History Of Ditching Bread" (NPR)
- "A Culinary Exploration of WWI" digital exhibit (National WWI Museum and Memorial)
- Franco-American Centre website
- "When an Influx of French-Canadian Immigrants Struck Fear Into Americans" (Smithsonian magazine)
- About A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans by David Vermette
- Paul Marion's website
This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text.
Nora Saks: Have you ever noticed how food has a way of being claimed? Chicago has its deep dish pizza, New Orleans with the po’boy, and New Jersey’s pork roll — or Taylor ham, depending on who you ask.
Amanda Beland: But for my French Canadian family, nothing beats a Chinese pie: a layered casserole of ground beef, corn, and mashed potatoes on top. It looks like shepherd's pie. But it’s not.
Nora: That’s WBUR’s Amanda Beland. And Chinese pie is something her family has eaten for generations.
Amanda: And we’re not the only ones …
Fabien Deglise: It's very intimate. It's something that you eat here from childhood to the end of your life. It's very, very common.
Amanda: Fabien Deglise is a journalist for the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir. Chinese Pie, or pâté chinois, as they call it there, is so popular that in 2007, Le Devoir named it the unofficial national dish of Quebec.
Deglise says it's so popular that not only do most households cook it — there’s even TV shows about it.
Fabien: And then one of the character tried to recall the recipe of pâté chinois … she said ground beef, corn, potatoes, no potatoes, corn, ground beef …
[TV show audio clip]
Fabien: And that was very funny, because there is no recipe for pâté chinois.
Amanda: That’s right, no recipes. Despite this national obsession, no one, I mean no one, knows its origins.
Jean-Pierre Lemasson: Probably if I find the real origin of pâté chinois, I would get the Nobel Prize. And I would be very proud of that.
Nora: Welcome to Last Seen, a show about people, places and things that have gone missing. From WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
I’m Nora Saks. Now when it comes to Chinese pie — it’s not clear if this dish even comes from Quebec — or Canada for that matter.
And that’s been eating at WBUR producer Amanda Beland. So today, she’s taking on the mystery of the dish with the unusual name and in the process — discovers a whole lot more than just its origin story. This is Chinese pie.
Amanda: On the night I turned 33, I was staring at a computer screen — on it, was my family tree, documented for me by my partner Elio on Ancestry. I always had some curiosity in the back of my mind about my heritage, but never had any real facts about where I came from. That all changed that night.
Turns out, I’m about as French Canadian as a person can be. And with that change, came more curiosity about a dish I grew up eating, the one with the unusual name.
It was a name I thought only my family used, one that I wondered if I should say so loudly in public.
In Quebec, that unusual name is pâté chinois. Technically, pâté chinois translates to China pie or Chinese pie, depending on who you ask. And that’s what my grandparents called it, according to my dad.
Dad: Ah, pâté chinois
Amanda: They did?
Dad: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Amanda: So interesting. (Laughs.)
Dad: I know. And I didn't remember that until you said it, and then it rang a bell that yeah, that's right. That's what mémère used to call it and pépère too.
Amanda: My grandparents, my mémère and pépère, were Franco-American. They lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, a once bustling mill town on the Merrimack River.
[Home video audio:
Pépère: OK, pépère give you a kiss.
Mémère: There. Wanna come see mémère?]
Amanda: That’s them right there. This is taken from a home video, recorded when I was a baby. I also grew up in Manchester. So did my dad. My mom grew up in a neighboring town called Goffstown. We’re a part of the roughly two million people living in New England who claim French Canadian heritage. And Chinese pie, or pâté chinois.
Dad: Mémère made it all the time. And Mom made it often enough, but not that often because you didn't care for it.
Amanda: I definitely didn’t like vegetables as a kid.
Dad: Yeah, we would have it. It would be like a pretty quick meal, you know, mom would make the mashed potatoes and then, you know, fry the hamburg and then take the corn.
Amanda: But it wasn’t just my parents. A lot of us Quebecers, including my extended family, ate Chinese pie.
Dad: I think all of mémère's sisters made it also. You know, Aunt Bea, Aunt Irene, and Aunt Elaine. And I think my Uncle Rudy liked it, so. I know they used to eat it, so I think they all used to make it, so they must have gotten that from my grandmother.
Amanda: That’s how Chinese pie spreads: from generation to generation, mother to daughter. My mom got her recipe from my grandmother. And I got mine from my mom. It’s made in many restaurants, but not often. And when it is, it's mostly in Quebec. No other province in Canada claims pâté chinois like Quebecers do. And it’s mostly kept within families and neighbors. Documented through recipe cards, but more often, through word of mouth.
Dad: You have all of mémère’s recipe cards, right?
Amanda: I do, I looked around and there isn’t a recipe that I could find in there for Chinese pie.
Amanda: This is partly why the origin of Chinese pie is a mystery. And it’s that mystery that inspired food historian Jean-Pierre Lemasson to write an entire book called "Le Mystère Insondable Du Pâté Chinois" -- The Unfathomable Mystery of Chinese Pie.
In it, he looks for a clear origin for the dish and the name — but finds none. Except to confirm it belongs to Quebec:
Jean-Pierre Lemasson: One of the interest of that book, in my opinion, if that destroy all explanation about the origin of pâté chinois will prove that every current explanation are wrong. But I am unable to prove what is a good history.
Amanda: As I see it, there are two known unknowns here. One, where does the dish come from? And two, what’s up with that name? Both histories are tied together but I’m going to explore each separately.
First, let’s dig into the history of the dish - which I think will lay the foundation for the name.
As Jean-Pierre writes in his book …
Jack Lepiarz: N'est-ce pas là un étrange paradoxe d'être à la fois tous unis dans le même amour gustatif et également solidaires dans l’ignorance de son histoire …
Amanda: Isn’t it a strange paradox to be both united in the same love of taste and also united in the ignorance of its history?
Many Quebecers are also united in that same ignorance and history, one that Canadian musician Gordon Lightfoot knows well …
Gordon Lightfoot: (Sings “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run / When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun …
Amanda: Here’s how the legend goes: pâté chinois was created during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Chinese Canadian railway workers made the dish during construction. White Canadian workers adopted the recipe, and named it after them.
Seems almost too perfect, doesn't it? That white and Chinese laborers were just out there, working on the railroad, trading favorite recipes?
I didn't quite buy it. So I started digging into the facts. And when I did, the legend began to fall apart.
Paul Yee: Like I've said, I’ve never heard of this, this is an interesting story.
Amanda: That’s Paul Yee, a historian and author of Chinese history in Canada, including the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Paul: So the grand mystery to me is what the Chinese connection is, because in terms of ingredients, not so great. In terms of cultural history or culinary history, no connection either.
Amanda: The construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway began in 1881, and lasted for four years. Roughly 15,000 Chinese workers were hired for the project. The majority of them built the western leg of the railway, through the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia. Few worked in the province now known as Quebec.
Little information exists about the Chinese railroad worker experience. But what’s documented shows they didn’t eat very well. Rice was a staple for them, yet many suffered and died from malnutrition.
Binh Chow is a descendant of these railway workers, and spoke with them and others about their experiences building the railroad.
Binh Chow: They were working in a very primitive condition in the middle of nowhere in the bush. If they can plant something during the summer, they got some fresh vegetable. Otherwise, they were eating preserved meat, frozen meat.
Amanda: Chow is a member of the group called Foundation to Commemorate the Chinese Railroad Workers in Canada. He’s also never heard of pâté chinois, or its connection to the railway.
Still, there’s something else happening in Canada and in the US that’s crucial to this theory, says Paul Yee.
Paul Yee: Living in that early period was overshadowed by huge amounts of white racism because the Chinese were not wanted at all in Canada.
Amanda: When construction wrapped up on the first leg of the railroad, Canada instituted its first head tax. This forced Chinese immigrants in Canada to pay an annual fee for living in the country. Canada would raise that tax two more times before passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923.
Binh Chow says of the more than 15,000 Chinese brought in to build the railroad, roughly a quarter died in its construction.
Binh: If they fell into the valley or whatever, they don't look for them and they just leave them there to die like an animal. At the time, the white people, for some reason, they hated the Chinese so much. Even after the Chinese, they would that they don't like them buried in Canada. At night they cut up their body and threw them out.
Amanda: Chow describes a photo taken when the last spike was driven into the ground in 1885. He says as you look at the image, all you see are white workers.
Binh: They don't want the people to know the Chinese contribution. The reason is very obvious. It's racism. There's a systematic racism in the Canadian community.
Amanda: Canada’s exclusion act was eventually repealed in 1947. And in subsequent decades, the Canadian government would include Chinese immigrants in the political and social fabric of Canada, and recognize their past contributions to the country.
Still, why would a country’s workers with documented and persistent racism against the Chinese name a dish in their honor? It doesn't make sense at all. Couple that with the location of the Chinese workers, and the ingredients available to them, I think we can count this theory out. Thanks Gordon Lightfoot …
Gordon Lightfoot: (Sings “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) But time has no beginnings and the history has no bounds / As to this verdant country they came from all around …
Amanda: OK, so aside from the "we've been working on the railroad" theory, there are many, many more about the origin of this dish. It seems like everyone has a favorite or two. Montreal journalist Fabien Deglise says a meat and rice casserole inspired the dish and the name. It could be linked to a cone shaped strainer called a chinois. Or, tied to Chinese domestic workers, who may have made it for their white bosses.
Some say it comes from China, a small town in Maine. Those believers say the dish was created by French Canadians living in the area.
Seemed plausible, so I reached out to the Friends of China Maine group on Facebook to see if anyone knew of, or made, Chinese pie. Dozens of people responded. As I scrolled through the comments, it was clear there was a common theme.
[Montage of Facebook group comments:
I made one today with corn, and that’s the only way we’ve ever made shepherd’s pie.
French Canadian heritage here also. I’ve never heard it called Chinese pie or pâté chinois. We called it shepherd’s pie, always.
My 76-year-old French Canadian dad still makes this all the time. And we’ve always called it pâté chinois or shepherd’s pie too, I guess.
I grew up with it, called shepherd’s pie, and continue to make it.]
Amanda: And this set me on a new culinary path about where the dish comes from. Tons of cultures have potato and meat pies, but there are two that most resemble Chinese pie. Shepherd’s pie is traditionally lamb or mutton, peas or carrots, and potatoes.
And then there’s cottage pie, made with beef and potatoes. Both are from the British Isles.
Annie Gray: People argue about it over here. And I mean, you do get purists who say absolutely not, a cottage pie has to involve beef and a shepherd's pie, obviously, it's all in the name, it’s lamb.
Amanda: That’s Annie Gray, an author and food historian, specializing in British food history. If people are making a dish with beef, corn, and potatoes and calling it shepherd’s pie, or cottage pie, could Chinese pie just be an adaptation of those that caught on among the wider French Canadian community?
It’s possible, says Gray. Canada became a British colony following the French and Indian War. And both shepherd’s and cottage pies were ubiquitous in Britain by the 19th century.
Annie: Cultures always collide, cultures always interact with each other, French Canadians always had connections with British Canadians, and British Canadians always had connections with Americans, so there would have always been this constant loop.
Amanda: And the ingredients – potatoes and beef – were also widely available throughout Canada, specifically braised beef which some older Quebecers use instead of ground meat in the dish.
Corn has long been a major crop in Quebec, called blé d'Inde, meaning Indian wheat.
Annie: It's not surprising to me that all of these kinds of elements would come together and people might go, okay, I've heard about this recipe from my parents. Or actually I met these British fishermen or Scottish fishermen, as they certainly would be, and they were doing this thing and they called it a shepherd's pie. And that's kind of cool but weird. So let's French-ify this as we would with anything.
Amanda: I talked to a lot of food historians, and one of the things they can all agree on is that change in food is super common. Dishes are always evolving and ingredients are always being swapped out based on preference. In a sense, that is the only thing constant in food history.
Annie: You know we codify things, but we do not invent them.
Amanda: So food changes, but it still doesn’t explain one of the things I find fascinating about Chinese pie, which is how prevalent it is among French Canadian and Franco-American communities.
How does it become so tied to Quebec culture? I think it takes a dash of innovation, and a global event like World War I:
[World War I speech by Warren G. Harding, U.S. Senator from Ohio:
Harding: The fate of the nation and the safety of the world will be decided on the western battle front of Europe.]
Amanda: After the US enters the war, there's a push by a new federal agency called the United States Food Administration to change eating habits.
Lora Vogt: They were encouraging everybody that it was your patriotic duty to support those on the front line by just shifting how you cook.
Amanda: This is Lora Vogt, a curator at the national World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. This shift that she’s talking about encouraged eating less wheat. This was so the grain could be sent to the troops overseas. Instead, there were government posters and cookbooks pushing another ingredient.
Lora: And at the very top it says “Corn: the food of the nation, served some way every meal; appetizing, nourishing, economical.” And it shows a woman who's using cornmeal and grits and hominy.
Amanda: People in the US and Canada were being encouraged to “Save the Wheat”. At the same time, both country’s views of food change considerably. The study of nutrition and what people are eating becomes important. Commercial canning is hitting its peak. And one of the canning industry's earliest hubs is in New England and it's mostly corn.
This is where we get back to French Canadians, who are now migrating from Quebec to New England to work in the mills.
And it’s in this sea of change, that corn becomes more prevalent.
Lora: There was this encouragement to be using it in a variety of different recipes, to using it in really creative ways. And, you know, very likely encourages folks to add what wasn't traditional to a shepherd's pie, but throw in a little extra corn certainly wouldn't be a bad thing.
Amanda: All of this makes sense and certainly explains how corn showed up to the party. But still leaves me with a big mystery: where does the name Chinese pie come from? That’s the next piece of the puzzle … after the break, my theory on how one politician, a government report, and an ideology led to the dish with the unusual name.
Amanda: Taped to the wall in front of my desk are dozens of post-it notes. Facts and names that led me to my theory on the origin of Chinese pie. It should have been a relief. But I was still feeling totally stumped on why Chinese pie is called Chinese pie. That is, until I found Paul Marion.
Paul Marion: Make sure your son knows about Chinese Pie, pâté chinois, baked by your mémère …
Amanda: That’s Marion reading his poem called “Chinese Pie”, from his collection “What is the City?” I found Paul Marion via Jack Kerouac, thanks again, to my partner Elio.
Lemme explain. Elio suggested I look for clues through Jack Kerouac, the Franco-American poet from Lowell, Mass. It was in that search that I came across Paul Marion, who edited Kerouac. And when I found Marion's poem “Chinese Pie” it would blow the lid off my search:
Paul Marion: In 1881, a politician labeled the Massachusetts French the “Chinese of the Eastern states” industrial invaders, not a stream of stable settlers …
Amanda: Could it really be that simple? That the name Chinese pie comes from the phrase “Chinese of the Eastern States”? To suss out that theory, we have to go deep into the French Canadian story in New England. Between 1840 and 1930, roughly 900,000 French Canadians made the journey to the region.
Sarah Dery: They were coming down in families. If they didn't know somebody already in the town, they might live with another French Canadian family just before they can get their bearings. They would immediately get jobs in the mills.
Amanda: That’s Sarah Dery, of the New England Historic Genealogy Society. She specializes in French Canadian ancestry professionally, but also she has French Canadian roots, herself.
Life was tough for these immigrants. Men, women, and children worked long hours in the mills, where they earned very little money. My grandfather and his siblings all worked in shoe factories, doing various jobs, in Manchester.
When it came down to eating, Dery said it was all about convenience.
Sarah: We have a family story that my grandmother would buy one pound of meat a week and she had to stretch that for five individuals for five days. And by the end of the week, you have a bunch of leftovers and you just kind of throw them all together into a casserole.
Amanda: These Franco-Americans lived in areas known as Little Canadas, where they closed themselves off to American culture. There, they spoke French and kept their customs.
David Vermette writes about New England’s French in his book A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans: Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife.
David Vermette: They were very much into the idea that they would remain a separate group loyal to the United States, working for the United States, and yet separate and this comes from their background in Canada.
Amanda: Starting in 1763, parts of Canada were under British rule. In Quebec, some of these French speakers resisted assimilating into British society, fighting strongly to keep their language and their customs. That nationalistic resistance became known as “La Survivance”.
David: This was an ideology. You know, it was something that was strong. It was promoted by French Canadian elites and Franco-American elites, by their priests, by their journalists, by the professionals and educated people among them.
Amanda: But here in New England, they were met with even stronger pressure to assimilate, viewed with skepticism in part because of their Roman Catholicism.
David: They did crazy things like having these huge religious processions with hundreds and thousands of people, you know, through these industrial towns with the priests in full regalia with big crosses and incense, and they're marching through the streets. And the majority Yankee population was like, “What's this? This is totally weird. You know, what are these people doing?”
Amanda: And it’s in this powder keg, that someone lights a match. And that person was Carroll D. Wright, director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wright is looking into the merit of a law that would restrict the work day to ten hours. He gets intel from informants that French Canadians are resisting the change; this builds on the growing skepticism of these Canucks in the community. So he notes that resistance in his 1881 annual report. David Vermette reads some of that for me …
David: With some exceptions the Canadian French are the Chinese of the Eastern states. They care nothing for our institutions, civil, political, or educational …
Amanda: The phrase “Chinese of the Eastern States” is both racist against Franco-Americans and the Chinese. It draws on anti-Chinese rhetoric happening in the US, and as you’ll remember, in Canada, too at this time. A year after the 1881 report, the US would pass its own Chinese Exclusion Act.
The phrase “Chinese of the Eastern States” also catches on beyond New England. A few months later, The New York Times repeats the slur in an editorial. In that piece, they say of Franco-Americans:
“They are for the most part, ignorant and unenterprising, subservient to the most bigoted class of Catholic priests in the world … a peasantry belonging more to the 18th than the 19th century”.
To say the local Franco-American community is incensed by the report would be an understatement.
David: The various French Canadian clubs and societies and the Little Canadas wrote to the state legislature, and they tried to refute this report. And there was even hearings in Boston, where French-Canadian witnesses came forward to try to claim that they were loyal citizens and good workers.
Amanda: But it’s too late. That report by Carroll Wright has a domino effect, crystalizing racism against a group now feared and hated by many in New England. A portion of the report, using the phrase “Chinese of the Eastern States” is even read into the record at a labor hearing on the Senate floor in 1883.
At the same time, a conspiracy theory also starts to form about Franco-Americans.
David: You have reputable newspapers like The New York Times, for one, they're spreading these conspiracy theories that the Catholic Church had deliberately sent these French Canadian workers into New England in a bid to take over New England.
Amanda: David Vermette says he found no evidence of this but the theory still spreads and even leads to people trying to ban the French language from being taught or spoken in schools.
This period of time was when my French Canadian family, like so many others, were trying to make a home in New England. It’s really hard thinking about them living and working in these times.
Despite all of this, immigration to New England from Quebec doesn’t slow down, in fact, it speeds up. And the growing community keeps fighting.
David: They were used to the idea of we're going to build a fence and we're going to fight. So I think that's what they did.
Amanda: This fighting and prejudice continues throughout the early 20th century. Franco-Americans became targets of the eugenics movement and of the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was headquartered in Maine, in 1924, and research shows there were regular attacks and shows of force against Franco-Americans.
And this brings me back to Chinese pie. Here’s a dish prevalent in this community, it makes sense to me that they would take back a name used against them and turn it into a rallying cry: you’re trying to drive us out, but you can’t.
It’s also possible, this was the name given to the dish by the outside, but adopted for the same reasons as that rallying cry. A dish that came down from Quebec, now has a name that travels back up home through generations. A big middle finger to the majority elite. Here’s Paul Marion, again with his poem “Chinese Pie.”
Paul Marion: Attacked for loyalty to culture, the Canucks counterpunched, and the next government report was kinder. You can order pâté chinois in Montreal, one recipe the immigrants sent back …
Amanda: Marion said he wrote the poem for his friend’s son, to preserve the memory of the dish. Like me, Chinese pie for him was just a given for most of his life. He didn’t think much about it until he started writing his poem.
For him, this is just a theory, and that’s what this is for me, too. There’s no documented definitive history of Chinese pie, but this history here is what makes the most sense to me.
I only became interested in my family’s story in my thirties, but by then, it was almost too late. Both sets of my grandparents had died, and my mom passed away when I was in college. My dad’s memories of his family are what I have as mine. I can’t begrudge younger Amanda for not having the foresight to ask questions about how my mom grew up.
[Home video audio:
Mom: Say, I love you mommy.
Amanda: I love you mommy.
Mom: You’re special mommy. Amanda: You’re so special mommy. Mom: Daddy’s gonna film mommy and Amanda?]
Amanda: Or what it was like for my grandparents.
[Home video audio:
Mom: Can you do it again?
Memere: How about mémère? Give a nice kiss to mémère.
Mom: Blow a nice kiss to mémère.
Pépère: You like that? That’s for my girl.]
Amanda: The best thing I can do now is make sure my future family knows all of this history, that I pass down my memories, and my family’s memories to them, that I pass down Chinese pie.
Alright, so we’re going to put this in the oven. Let’s do bottom shelf and broiler at the end? Let’s do thirty minutes. (Oven buttons beep.)
Nora: This episode of Last Seen was reported and written by Amanda Beland.
It was produced by Amanda and myself, Nora Saks. Jeb Sharp is our story editor. Mix and sound design by Emily Jankowski. Production help from my WBUR Podcasts teammates: Paul Vaitkus, Matt Reed, Dean Russell, Amory Sivertson, Megan Cattel, Quincy Walters, and Grace Tatter. Our digital producer is Megan Cattel. Ben Brock Johnson is our executive producer.
Big thanks to David Vermette, Jean-Pierre Lemasson, Sarah Dery, Laura Vogt, Fabien Deglise, Paul Yee, Binh Chow, Annie Gray, Paul Marion and the dozens of other people who shared their research and insight on food history with us.
More thank you's to Don Beland, Elio DeLuca, Walter Wuthmann, Aimee Moon, Chris Citorik, Vanessa Ochavillo, and Jack Lepiarz.
And big thanks to Gordon Lightfoot for the music, and the Library of Congress for that World War I sound.
You can find all of our stories and show notes at WBUR.org slash Last Seen. And Follow us on Twitter @LastSeenPodcast
And can always pitch us your story ideas about people, places, and things that have gone missing. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
Next up: the beginning of a three part mini series investigating a killing in Boston’s Haitian community.
Thanks for listening.