The Upper Saint John River Valley on the Maine-New Brunswick border is home to New England's oldest Acadian community. This ancient Maliseet homeland was settled in the 1780s by French-speaking Acadians who had escaped deportation from Nova Scotia in 1755 by taking refuge in Canada's Lower St. Lawrence Valley. After the Treaty of Paris (1763), they migrated with their Canadian spouses to southern New Brunswick. When 12,000 Loyalists flooded into that region at the close of the American Revolution in 1783, local Acadians, feeling again endangered, sought lands elsewhere in New Brunswick. Nineteen families landed in the Upper St. John River Valley around 1785 and were soon joined by their Canadian kin. Although their flourishing farming community was divided between Canada and the United States by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 which made the St. John River an international boundary, the descendants of these intrepid pioneers have nonetheless sustained a rich, vibrant French heritage.
The Tradition of Ployes, the French Acadian Buckwheat Pancakes:
Buckwheat pancakes are a venerable old mainstay of French cookery and one finds variants of them in many parts of French North America, including the St. John Valley, the Acadian Maritimes, and Quebec.
We know that buckwheat has been cultivated in the upper St. John River Valley of Maine and New Brunswick since the late 1780s. However, for the first fifty years of settlement, farmers in the “Madawaska Settlement” (as it was then known) grew very little buckwheat. Wheat and oats were the big cereal crops until the 1830s: on average, a typical Valley farmer in the 1830s produced 111 bushels of wheat, 74 bushels of oats, and only 3 bushel of buckwheat! So Valley farmwives probably made some kind of buckwheat pancake, but what their families ate three times a day was more likely to have been wheat bread.
In the mid-1830s, however, the Valley’s thriving farming community faced a crisis when wheat midge (an insect) and rust (a disease) ruined wheat crops throughout the Northeast. In response, local farmers began to substitute oats and buckwheat. By 1850, buckwheat emerged as the grain crop leader in the Valley, representing 40-45% of all grain production.
By the 1850s, visitors to the Valley commented on the delicious buckwheat pancakes which local farmwives served their families at every meal instead of wheat bread. Making buckwheat pancakes (crêpes or galettes) from buckwheat flour was a tradition which Valley farmwives inherited from their French-Canadian and Acadian ancestors. But ployes, to use the local term, were really a griddle “bread”--one served three times a day: at breakfast, as a main dish accompaniment, and for dessert. Their importance as a regular part of daily diet, and the many recipe variations which developed over succeeding generations, make ployes a truly distinctive Valley tradition.
From the 1850s until the 1950s, ployes were served in many Valley homes three times a day. Local life has changed greatly over the past fifty years, and inexpensive, ready-made breads, cereals, pasta, and cakes have largely taken the “every meal” place once held by ployes. But the ploye is still cherished as the best accompaniment for a good chicken stew, and a necessity at any meal which celebrates Valley heritage.
Lisa Ornstein, Director
Acadian Archives/Archives acadiennes
University of Maine at Fort Kent