In the Community: Music and Franco-American Food

 

Sometimes, a concert’s setting can make all the difference. When Lowell National Historical Park first thought of partnering with the Franco-American Day Committee to help celebrate Franco-American Week in Lowell, we planned on presenting a Franco-American/Irish concert on Park grounds. But after much thought and discussion, we all realized that the better idea was to pair the Park-sponsored concert with a community event — the traditional ham and bean supper, which is typically held in a French Church Hall. This year, the supper was served in the Immaculate Conception School Hall. When we arrived around 4:45 p.m., the hall was full of people, many of whom had grown up in Lowell and the surrounding communities. Although there were some children about, the average age was about 75. French was being spoken and the aroma was heavenly. Home baked hams and plenty of Cote’s beans, both the light and the dark, were being served.

 

People socialized and ate from 4:30 to 6:30. Music was scheduled to start at 7:30. Several hours before members of the “Irish-French Connection” took the stage, they rehearsed in the Park’s Visitor Center conference room.

The leaders of this band – John Whelan and Donna Hébert –are icons in their Irish and Franco-American musical communities. Each brings 40 years of performing, teaching, and recording experience to the newly formed band.

 

The tunes and songs they performed during the evening concert were once commonly played and danced to in Irish and French-Canadian immigrant communities throughout the Northeast, where both groups migrated in the 1880s to work in the textile mills. Indeed, when we asked the 135 audience members how many had relatives who had worked in the Lowell textile mills, about half of the hands went up.

Seated at one of the many tables was Lowellian Raymond Breault, who throughout the evening played his wooden spoons and clogged his tap-soled shoes in time to the music. On more than one occasion, he made his way to the front of the hall to demonstrate his rhythmic feet. This delighted the musicians. As Donna remarked from the stage, “There is no better compliment to a fiddler than to have someone who is moved to  get up and dance.”

Franco-American and Irish Tunes in Lowell

John Whelan and Donna Hébert: The Irish-French Connection will perform Wednesday, June 23 at Immaculate Conception School Hall, as part of Lowell’s Franco-American week. The free concert is sponsored by Lowell National Historical Park and Massachusetts Cultural Council as a way of honoring Lowell’s Franco-American and Irish American cultural heritage. Come experience award-winning French-Canadian fiddling, legendary Irish button accordion, brilliant flatpick and fingerstyle guitarists, and powerful songs in Gaelic, English & French.

Icons in their Irish- and Franco-American musical communities, John and Donna spark the Irish-French connection to life onstage! Each brings 40 years of performing and recording experience to this new group. In their stage and educational programs, repertoires and traditions stand distinct and separate and then find themselves blending and reinventing into something new, as did the Irish and French-Canadian immigrant communities in the northeast where both groups migrated in the 1880s to work in the textile mills.

This free concert will take place following the ham and bean supper in the school hall of Immaculate Conception School, 218 E. Merrimac Street, Lowell, MA. Concert at 7:30 p.m. All welcome. Free parking behind school.

The King (and Prince) of Beans

The reason why we exist is because of pork scrap and Lowell’s famous baked beans. Pork pies. We have a little niche that has kept us in business since 1917.

Roger Levasseur, owner of Cote’s Market

“I’ve been doing beans since forever, almost. It seems forever. We started buying [beans] from Frankie Rochette and then he took in my father, who was like a son. Frankie Rochette, who pioneered the Lowellian type of bean, was known as ‘King of Beans.'”

So what makes Cote’s beans so special?

Perhaps it is the use of small Californian white beans, which have been aged for up to three years. Or the extremely fresh salt pork imported from Canada. Whatever it is, the beans made at this local corner market have found a way into local’s hearts for generations. Customers include elderly people who have been shopping at Cote’s for sixty or seventy years. Even people who have moved away will come back every Saturday to get their beans and their brown bread. Kurt Levasseur: “Recently, we had one woman who was moving to California, not out of choice. She was beside herself that she could not get Cote’s beans every Saturday.  It was something that she did as a child, something that’s ingrained in her French-Canadian roots, and she was literally in tears. . . she liked my grandfather’s homemade sauce. We sent her off with six quarts of sauce; I think she had more food than luggage.”

When Frankie Rochette handed the recipe over to Roger Levasseur of Cotes market, he told him, “Don’t ever change the recipe. And always keep my secret.” Roger adds, “Of course, the secret is pretty obvious. The secret is use the best ingredients and you’ll be in business 30 years from now.”  Roger is now in in early 60s and his son, Kurt Levasseur, is helping to carry on the business. While big chain supermarkets have all but put small local grocers out of business, Cote’s is thriving. 

Some of Kurt’s earliest memories are of helping to make beans in the store. “I started when I was very, very small. [My father] would make the beans at night around seven, eight o’clock. Which would seem really late to us at night.” From helping his father scoop the dry navy beans, to pouring the beans in the pot, or stamping bags, Kurt has been in this store since he could walk. Below you see him holding the “special scooper” used in measuring out the beans. “Gosh, if I lose that scooper it would be World War III. That thing has to have a GPS on it. It’s like an heirloom.”

“My father is 62 years old. He’s worked really, really, really hard his whole life. I’ve watched him work, watched the sweat roll off his forehead,to give us a good childhood. He worked hard, so I want to give back now and take care of my mother and father, just like he does with his.”

Photos by Maggie Holtzberg