Every year for Christmas there were two pies: apple and mincemeat. The mincemeat pie was for my dad. It was dark and fragrant and smelled of spices and alcohol; it had a beautiful lattice top crust that my mother would intricately braid. The apple pie was for everyone else. When I got a little older I started to try the mincemeat pie, I’d take tiny slices and only eat enough to get a good crust to filling ratio, I had to have crust in every bite and when it was used up there would be a pile of discarded mincemeat on the plate.
When I was growing up, the mincemeat came in jars, and was spooned into the pie crust unadorned. I remember one year when I was very small that my mother had somehow forgotten to get it, and me and my dad went on a pilgrimage, circling further and further out to try and find a store that was open. Back in the early eighties in Seattle this was a tall order on Christmas Eve. All the big grocery stores were closed up tight, and the occasional gas station mini marts we found had lights on, but nothing so exotic as mincemeat.
During the Japan years the mincemeat had to be special ordered from the States, or purchased at the tiny international grocery store that took two train rides to get to, and charged ridiculous prices for such luxuries as peppermint tea and refried beans.
After the divorce, I took over the sacred duty of making these pies. I would craft the apple with its abundance of cinnamon and nutmeg, use tapioca instead of cornstarch to avoid sogginess, and carve “Merry Christmas” into a top crust with a generous crimped edge. I would find jars of mincemeat and carefully braid the lattice top the way my mom had taught me.
One year it snowed in Seattle, 2008, I believe. The city froze over, buses ran hours behind schedule, ambitious cars slipped and skidded trying to make it up Seattle’s ice covered hills. And I confidently put on my roommate’s hiking boots and tramped the half hour walk to Whole Foods to buy mincemeat for Christmas. Only that year there wasn’t any. And there wasn’t any at QFC or Safeway or Met Market. I was told everywhere that they stopped carrying it, and so I decided that I would simply make my own.
This proved harder than anticipated. Every recipe I found online called for “a jar of mincemeat” as its first ingredient, and then followed with ideas of how to make it better with nuts and butter and extra apples. The other recipes were for the older English version from which the Christmas confection evolved and the first ingredient listed was ground beef.
I turned next to my old friend, The Joy of Cooking, where sure enough there was a recipe for “Mock Mince Pie”. The ingredients looked nothing like I thought they should but I’d never been entirely sure what mincemeat consisted of so I gamely cooked up a batch. The results were akin to a spicy applesauce studded with a few lonely raisins. There was no mincemeat pie that Christmas.
The next year I returned to the internet and dug down further until I finally found a recipe that looked plausible. I went to several different grocery stores to track down all the kinds of dried fruit and candied peel it called for. I went to the liquor store to buy cheap rum and brandy. I used butter instead of suet, and at the end of it all I had a pie worthy pot of mincemeat and the whole house smelled like Christmas.
The following year jars of mincemeat were back of grocery store shelves as if they had never left, but for me the tradition had shifted. The act of creating my mincemeat from scratch became part of the ritual of making this pie for my dad and I to eat on Christmas. We were usually the only ones. The rest of the family ate the apple pie. “Don’t you like apple pie?” My Stepbrother’s wife asked me last year. “I love apple pie,” I answered, “but mincemeat is for Christmas.”
When I found the mincemeat recipe online I wrote it down on the back of an envelope that had once held a medical bill. For several years this floated among my piles of cookbooks and I managed to find it again every year. I never followed it exactly, but I liked having it there, guiding me as I threw piles of raisins and brown sugar and rum into the pot. Somehow, after lasting so many years, my mincemeat envelope didn’t survive my recent move to Bothell. After tearing apart all the cookbooks last night, I tried to find it again online. It wasn’t there, but I found one that looked to be along the same lines, and I pretty much have the thing memorized at this point. Right now my mincemeat is cooling on the stove, ready for tomorrow.
Because it wouldn’t be Christmas without this pie, even if I’m the only one who eats it this year. My dad loved mincemeat because his mom, a native New Englander, had made it part of every Christmas, and he managed to pass his love of mincemeat on to me. Perhaps in the years to come my nephew, my step nephews and nieces (who currently claim to not like any pie and only eat the ice cream), and perhaps even one day my far off future children will take small slices and eat only bites with sufficient crust, leaving discarded piles of mincemeat on their plates.