SKOWHEGAN, Maine — Growing up in northernmost Maine, the Rev. Paul Dumais polished off his share of ployes. The nourishing, springy, buckwheat pancake-like flatbread, traditionally served with beans or chicken stew, was a staple in his Acadian village of Madawaska.
In preparation for the World Acadian Congress, which starts this weekend in The County, Quebec and New Brunswick, the Lewiston Catholic priest recently shared his knowledge and expertise of this food tradition Acadians brought with them when they fled Nova Scotia to the Upper Saint John River Valley in the 1700s.
Like music, art and storytelling, food keeps heritage and culture alive, bite by bite. If a priest is a man of tradition, then who better to fan the flames of the Acadian pancake than Dumais?
“I am reintroducing the authentic Acadian flatbread, because it’s been forgotten. My 93-year-old great-aunt had a faint memory of her mother making it some other way, but she didn’t know how,” Dumais said.
He spent the winter researching and developing a traditional recipe that was used before baking powder was invented.
At last month’s Kneading Conference in Skowhegan, the affable priest made ployes from scratch, with a naturally leavened agent and with mixes — one of which is sold by his cousins out of their garage in Frenchville.
“Many people had heard of these. But when I polled them, they had only heard of these in some connection from the St. John River Valley,” Dumais said, to impress they are not Canadian, from Montreal or Quebec.
Looking like a backwoodsman in a plaid shirt, Dumais taught a gathering of foodies, recipe developers, bakers, millers and journalists how to prepare ployes. He encouraged audience participation, and several people stepped up to help.
Maintaining the tradition started by farmers like his great-uncle Lawrence Dumais, who planted and milled buckwheat into flour for ployes in Frenchville, Dumais clued the uninitiated into the secret of this mysterious flapjack. In case you were wondering, “ployes” rhymes with “toys.”
“When you say buckwheat pancake, everyone thinks breakfast,” Dumais said while expertly ladling out batter on a griddle like a skilled short-order cook. “These are decidedly not for breakfast.”
They are for sopping up your favorite goulash or for spreading butter on top of. To Acadians, this is bread.
“Delving deeper, the ployes of my mother’s generation, the ployes of my grandmother’s generation and her grandmother’s,” is what inspired his quest for “the story behind the story.”
Bread is biblical. As a man of the cloth, the connection to his calling and this hearty, ancient flatbread was cemented early on.
“Religion is tradition: It’s the passing on of practical and speculative wisdom in an oral fashion. There is a sense that ployes are religious,” he said.
Dumais fears that, like Catholicism, if food traditions do not survive generations, ethnic staples such as ployes will fall by the wayside.
“If you don’t pass it on, it’s going to get lost. Like language, like religion, food also shares that quality. These foods are going to be lost, just like our language could be lost and our religion can be lost,” he said. “Catholics are losing track of this. They used to give up meat on Fridays, but we are becoming absent minded. When you do that, you lose it.”
Though his ployes were delicious, Dumais is not operating under the illusion they could become the next exotic “it” food, such as a banh mi or a dumpling, and that’s fine with Dumais.
“It’s not food worship; it’s really the conveyance of culture. … Food conveys culture, and food conveys religion. Talk to the Jews, talk to the Muslims, talk to the Catholics,” he said.
Like monks brewing beer in monasteries or making jams and jellies in abbeys, “I think it’s appropriate and even synergistic for a priest to be attuned to traditions in a broad sense — the folk customs of people. What captures that better than food, music, stories, location?”
As tortillas are to Mexicans and pitas to Middle Easterners, ployes are to Acadians. And Acadians, who celebrate their heritage this month, are eager to keep this alive.
“What I love about ployes in northern Maine is that it’s unconscious, it’s unpretentious. It’s just what we have for lunch,” he said. “It’s bread, and it’s good bread. It’s ployes.”
For Rev. Dumais’ ployes recipe, click here.