Rappie pie is possibly the culinary magnum opus of Acadian culture. In Nova Scotia, Canada, it's a bizarre delicacy; a visually unsettling mishmash of gooey potatoes, protein (usually chicken, game, or clams), and pork fat—for flavour, of course. It's like comfort food on steroids, indulgent in a way that, like poutine, is quintessentially Canadian. It's also a food that's come to beautifully represent the culture responsible for its conception—being at once humble, deceivingly complex, and incredibly communal.
In order to experience it properly, you have to track down someone's mother who lives outside a tiny town in southern Nova Scotia and implore her to show you the way. I did just that, enlisting local musician, businessman, and Acadian culture enthusiast Trevor Murphy to take me to meet his mother on the outskirts of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and have her make me the most beautiful, grandiose rappie pie there ever was.
The Acadians were French settlers on the shores of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and some of Quebec in Canada in the 1600s, before being forced from their land and deported by the British. A large portion of the Acadians journeyed to Louisiana, giving birth to what's now Cajun culture. Dealing with the tragic upheaval of its people has been a long battle for the Acadian—still marginalized as a French-speaking culture in a largely English province. In a lot of ways, the effects of the deportation are still very much felt throughout the culture.
As soon as we set foot in the door, there was a great round of hugs and introductions and then, as quick as lightning, we seemed to be right in the middle of making rappie pie.
It's an all-day affair. Since rappie pie is a time-honoured Acadian tradition, it has to be done right. In our case, it was a bit less of a chore because the chicken had been boiled the night before, but it's still a six-hour ordeal if you want to do it right. It used to take even longer, because people used to prepare the potatoes by hand—shredding them, squeezing them in mesh bags. After a while a machine was invented to do the work for them, but these days most people "cheat" and go with the pre-packaged, dehydrated potatoes.
"We typically have rappie pie on special occasions, so it's a dish that holds a lot of weight for me personally," says Murphy. "Rappie pie is the dish of choice in our house as a Christmas Eve supper, so it always makes me think of the holidays."
Rappie pie, much like Acadian culture itself, is tough to explain to someone who knows nothing about it. Acadians are very talkative—there's a sense of them wanting to relate their story, that Acadian story, to whomever they can to keep it alive. Murphy's mother Ruth is quick to tell me about all of the different ways you can make rappie pie and how her process has evolved over the years. (She makes sure to throw in a few hilarious anecdotes while she's at it.) There's a fierce sense of identity that comes with being an Acadian, she tells me, and it's sometimes not obvious to those who aren't really aware of the cultural baggage.
Acadians are close-knit because they know they can depend on each other, and they've had to in the hardest of times. Even after many were deported, some Acadians stayed, but were ostracized as French-speakers in the English provinces—and that attitude still prevails in a lot of ways. The Acadian language is often dismissed as a remnant from long ago, and there's very little support for French-speaking citizens of the province. Acadians are fiercely protective of their culture because of that—they don't want to lose what little they have—but they'll also let in anyone who is willing to listen, and share with them whatever they can.
"You grow up with an understanding that your ancestors were not only kicked out of this province; some of them came back!" says Murphy. "Like rappie pie, the knowledge of the deportation—even if it's not in your blood lineage—is something that binds the culture together. It's the origin story of our people, and it's a hell of a story. Why wouldn't you wear that on your sleeve a little bit?"
In that way, rappie pie is reflective of Acadian culture because it comes with its own baggage, and it's not necessarily immediately welcoming. Its reputation definitely precedes it—being a somewhat disconcerting, mucky mixture of gooey potatoes, pork fat, and meat—but it's almost a sacred thing to Acadians. As Murphy puts it, try and show it to someone who's never heard of it and they'll say it sounds terrible, and that it looks even worse. Once your fork breaks that beautiful golden-brown crust, however, and those ooey-gooey potatoes and tender chicken start to melt in your mouth, you realize just how utterly amazing and delicious it truly is.
There's a rich and storied history that lies under that delicate, golden-brown crust. For the Acadians in Nova Scotia, times were tough, and families were big. Because rappie pie is such a huge, communal dish made out of whatever you can spare, stretched as far as you could stretch it, it became about bringing people together and proving that no matter how hard times were getting, they would persevere.
"Rappie pie is a familial dish," explains Murphy. "Your grandparents made it best, your parents are starting to nail it, and you're just starting to learn all the trade secrets. Since rappie pie a common dish, it's those nuances—the ones you learn from your grandmother or your mother, your great uncle or your dad—that get passed down in an oral fashion and help you develop your own personal expertise when it comes to making the dish."
Rappie pie's day-long timeframe stems from tradition and community. It's not just cooking it that makes it an ordeal—it's factoring in all of the conversations you'll find yourself getting into when you're making it; the drive you're going to take down to the thrift store in nearby Tusket while it's cooking; phoning around to make sure everyone's still coming over to help you eat it; and most importantly of all, eating it.
"Regardless of your community, your dialect, your age, your beliefs, rappie pie is a common thread," says Murphy. "That doesn't mean, however, that all rappie pies are alike. In fact, where you grew up will typically determine your rappie pie preference. Different communities have different preparations when it comes to the consistency and texture of the dish. Some will add extra broth to make it a little more watery, while others prefer a more firmer texture."
I grew up on Brier Island, which is in Digby County, not too far from Yarmouth. As a child, I was pretty familiar with rappie pie and loved it. Since moving away, though, I hadn't tasted it in nearly 15 years, so I was anxious to see if it lived up to how I remembered it being—gooey yet crispy, salty and melty and beautiful—or if it was just an upsetting, anaemic-looking pile of goo.
Ruth's rappie pie was nothing like any I remember eating, and yet so instantly familiar and comforting. All of the amazing memories and smells and times just came flooding back in an instant. It doesn't matter how soupy or firm it is, or how you brown the crust, or if it's chicken or rabbit. What matters is the history, and the idea of community, of sticking together.
"I don't think that gatherings are hyper-specific to Acadians, but I think a reason it seems to be a calling card in our culture goes back to the idea of community interconnectedness. Getting together is just something we do," says Murphy. "If you want to get a little metaphysical about it, I think there's a spiritual connection to the tribulations of our ancestors. It's like there's an unspoken, yet shared, understanding that if we can get through something as brutal as the attempted genocide of our people, then we can get through anything so long as we're doing it together."
Acadians have always had a rough go of it, even lately. The fishing industry has taken a big hit, the economy isn't what it once was, the population of Acadians is slowly dwindling, and fewer and fewer young people are growing up speaking French. Still, there's a unifying sense of history and community that keeps the culture going strong. Rappie pie is infamous for a reason—it's a dish with the kind of sincerity and honesty that defies any generational or political gap: it's community, pure and simple. Endurance has long been a part of the Acadian spirit, and they'll not be broken of it any time soon.
And that they can do it all while making a simple dish of starch and meat taste like absolute heaven is nothing short of inspiring.