Mincemeat Pie

2012-12-24 17.58.37

Christmas pies.

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.

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My little sister and I, in our Christmas outfits.

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.

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The mincemeat on the stove.

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.

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Me and my dad.

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Maitlin and the Moon

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Me at around a year old, with my dad.

When I was a baby, one of the only ways to get me sleep was to drive me in the car. At least that’s how the story goes. My dad said he would take me in the truck and drive the long circle of 35th to Sand Point Way and back around to 90th. If I wasn’t asleep when he came back to the house he’d make the loop again. It was a treacherous way to get a baby to sleep, especially as this was the early 80’s, before detachable car seats, when the whole endeavor could unravel if I woke back up while being moved from the car to the bed. I, of course have no memory of this, but I know the route. I’ve had the early Seattle houses where I lived pointed out to me by both my parents: the apartment on 15th just off University Avenue where I was born, the married student housing near U Village where my sister was, and the Wedgewood house we moved to next. This one I do have memories of, it was up the street from a Catholic school with a playground we dubbed “The wiggly bridge”. When I was just past the age of needing to be driven to sleep, my dad and I would walk down there in the evenings, stopping at the tree by the parish residence to construct “cakes” out of leaves and grass.

I don’t know if the driving bedtime rituals were the inspiration behind the story of “Maitlin and the Moon” but it’s hard to imagine they were completely unrelated. “Maitlin and the Moon” was the first in a long, long, series of bedtime stories that my dad told me and my sister nearly every night for years and years. It was the only one I remember being repeated more than once, and the only one in which my sister’s alias, Balin, was not present. Once Balin came on the scene the stories changed nightly, the ongoing adventures of Maitlin and Balin lasting through at least two more houses. The only one of the later stories I remember details of was the one he told to prepare us for the move to Japan. In this story, Maitlin and Balin take a ship to a faraway land inhabited by people with straight black hair and white teeth. I think there may have also been more than one featuring adults slipping on banana peels, during a phase where my sister and I considered this to be the height of comedy.

Because this was my reality growing up, I didn’t realize until much later how absolutely remarkable the ritual was. To have a father who not only sat with his daughters every night when they went to sleep, first between our two futons, and later in the narrow hallway between our separate rooms, but sat there telling original stories night after night, about two little girls with slightly more exciting lives, but with names that rhymed with ours.

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My sister, my dad, and me on the porch of the Ballard house.

Maitlin and the Moon

I know at some point my dad wrote this story down, but I can’t find it, so this is my best recollection of how it went. I think that sometimes he made it longer by having the trip to the moon and back repeated several times before the curtains were closed all the way.

One night when Maitlin’s dad put her to sleep during the full moon, he closed the curtains, but not all the way. After he left the room a moonbeam came in through the window and tickled Maitlin’s cheek, waking her up. She crawled up the moonbeam, and when she reached the moon she curled up into a little ball and fell back asleep on the moon’s broad face. A little while later her dad came in to check on her, but the bed was empty. He saw the open curtain and understood. He went outside and started up the truck, then he drove it in circles faster and faster until it lifted up off the ground and he drove it all the way to moon, and parked. There on face of the moon he found Maitlin fast asleep. He picked her up carefully, buckled her into her car seat, drove back down to earth, carried her to her bed, and tucked her in. Then he made sure the curtains were closed all the way so that no more moonbeams could come inside.