Colonel Gray immersion students learn Acadian culture through food, music and nature

Musician Michael Pendergast taught students traditional Acadian dances that were accompanied by accordion music. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC - image credit)
Musician Michael Pendergast taught students traditional Acadian dances that were accompanied by accordion music. (Aaron Adetuyi/CBC - image credit)

Traditional Acadian food involves a lot of potatoes. There's usually meat, salt and pepper, and animal fat.

"When I describe Acadian cooking to kids, I say there's probably a total of seven ingredients in all the dishes put together," said Jean-Paul Pendergast. "And that's an exaggeration, but not by much."

Growing up in western P.E.I., the Pendergast family may not have your stereotypical Acadian family name, but they embraced the culture.

"We all participated in the cooking when we were kids," said chef Robert Pendergast. "We'd haul up 30 or 40 pounds of potatoes, wash them, peel them, shred them and we'd learn how to make the dish."

So when Pendergast had to teach a group of Colonel Gray students how to make Acadian food like fricot and râpure, he wasn't sure how it would go.

Aaron Adetuyi/CBC
Aaron Adetuyi/CBC

"It's probably something new for most of them," he said. "It's teaching them that there are lots of things out there to discover and that one way to do it is to ask people about their food."

Cultural connection

The lesson was one of four workshops for Grade 10 French immersion students on a field trip to the North Shore Community Centre. It was teacher Jean-Paul Pendergast's idea to get the 75 students out of the classroom and speaking French in the real world.

"Because that culture is all around us, right here on P.E.I.," he said. "A day to live the culture, not just sit and learn about it, or sit and listen to a concert, which is good too, but this was a chance to actually do things."

Students could choose between the Acadian cuisine workshop with Robert, a plein air workshop with Jean-Paul, an Acadian music and dance workshop with third Pendergast brother Michael, or a quilting workshop with matriarch Eileen Pendergast.

"I was definitely excited because it's something interesting and different than school," said student Hailey Matheson, who was in the quilting workshop. "But I've never done sewing or anything before so I was a bit nervous."

Aaron Adetuyi/CBC
Aaron Adetuyi/CBC

Erin Fraser says although she spends her days speaking French at school, the quilting – or courtepointe – workshop taught her some new terminology.

"It's good to just be able to have more conversations about different things with people because I would have never talked about sewing in French," she said.

After the workshops, students got to dig into the food made by their classmates.

"It would definitely be something that I would eat more of," student Elliott Leyenaar said of the râpure. "It's just a basic food that seems, by the way that my friends have made it, like something that I could make easily."

Madison Martin was one of the students in the cooking workshop. Since her grandmother is Acadian, she was already familiar with some dishes.

Aaron Adetuyi/CBC
Aaron Adetuyi/CBC

"The food is definitely close to my heart," she said. "I would say that I can kind of understand the background of where the food came from, so I definitely feel more connected than I was before."

A traditional Acadian frolic

The field trip was organized in partnership with the Department of Education and Canadian Parents for French. Jean-Paul Pendergast says this was the first time he's done a trip like this, but he wants them to continue with even more workshop options.

"If there's someone who speaks French and can teach these kids how to make eel spears and take them spearing eels, that'd be fantastic," he said.

Aaron Adetuyi/CBC
Aaron Adetuyi/CBC

After the food was eaten, students gathered to meet one of their curriculum requirements: attending an Acadian kitchen party. But they didn't just attend one, they hosted one, with singing and dancing and Michael Pendergast's accordion music turning it into a traditional Acadian frolic.

"Frolic was that phenomenon of everybody working really hard on the farm, building a barn, cutting wood, doing the hay. And after several days of that, they would have a celebration," said Robert Pendergast. "And I think everybody is going to come away having learned something."

For students like Lily Flood, the day has motivated them to continue their language learning, and have some fun in the process.

"I haven't really spoken French outside of school before too much," she said. "But definitely I know I do wanna keep speaking French."