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.


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.

photo mince

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.


Me and my dad.

With gratitude, and not despair

2012-11-22 12.54.47

It’s Thanksgiving. This is the time of year we look forward to, the time when we gather with family and friends and spend all day making piles of good food, and all night eating it, being liberal with the wine or eggnog. The time we spend telling stories and playing games and watching the small children run in circles around the sofa. My dad loved Thanksgiving. “What a feast!” He’d always say, surveying the turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie I made from scratch almost every year (short of roasting my own pumpkin, even my lofty baking ambitions have their limits.) “What a feast!”

Unlike other holidays, Thanksgiving serves no purpose other than the making and sharing of food. There are no gifts exchanged, no mass attended. The only ritual, the most important ritual, is to be close to those you love and to eat too much. It’s a holiday that doesn’t divide very well, it’s possible to do a sort of pub crawl among several different dinners, but I’ve always felt that misses the point. Better to pick one table and fully commit.

I learned this lesson the first Thanksgiving after my parents divorced. That happened the summer I was twenty, going into my junior year at Cornish College for the Arts. It was the first genuinely terrible thing that had happened in my life, my first great loss. That year at Thanksgiving, all four members of my family arranged to be out of the city. We didn’t talk about it, but somehow my mom, my dad, my sister and I each managed to line up trips or visits that had us outside of Seattle on Thanksgiving day, away from our broken family table. I went to New York City and stayed with my friend Catherine who was doing a special semester of college there. I wandered the freezing streets in my flimsy little Seattle scarf, going to the bars Catherine had pre-screened as having lax carding policies and visiting museums. On Thanksgiving day we went to a French/Asian fusion restaurant in Brooklyn with a group of her friends, and I ate Tempura Soba and drank white wine.

The following year we tried to have it both ways. My sister and I ate lunch with our mom at Cosca’s on the Ave, and then went to our dad’s house for dinner. He’d prepared it the way he did most of his cooking those first years after the divorce-by using the PCC deli to its full advantage. The food was pretty good, but none of us was really in the mood to celebrate, and he’d mistakenly grabbed the vegan pumpkin pie, which was neither sweet or spicy enough, and tasted distractingly like tofu.

By the third year my dad had begun dating Sonia, and the whole family had figured out that the only way to deal with Thanksgiving was to alternate, with each parent getting us every other year. I had graduated college and was house-sitting for my friend Elizabeth, who had gone down to Oregon for the holiday. I had agreed to go up to Sonia’s for Thanksgiving, despite only having met her once, briefly, and having giant emotional reservations about my dad having a girlfriend. I brought a pie, homemade and perfectly seasoned and set out to Lynwood determined to get through the night in one piece. I’ve been a fish eating vegetarian since I was eight years old, but somehow this crucial piece of information had not been communicated to everyone cooking the food. So of course, the salad had bacon in it, the stuffing was prepared with chicken broth, and the things I could eat were alien dishes that had never before graced my Thanksgiving table. Things like Jello and green bean casserole. I pushed some mashed potatoes around my plate and made small talk, then I escaped back the house that wasn’t even mine where I ordered a pizza and called my mother. I broke down in tears as I relayed to her the ordeal I had suffered through, and lamented the general unfairness of everything. “And I LIKE her!” I wailed into the phone, this seeming like the ultimate cherry topper of unfairness, that in spite of everything I genuinely enjoyed the company of the woman who would later become my Stepmother.


My dad and Sonia’s Wedding: me, my sister, my dad, my stepmother, my stepsister and my stepbrother.


Thanksgiving in the years since has been a marked improvement. When it was Dad and Sonia’s year I could count on a piece of salmon just for me, and I began to look forward to the green bean casserole, especially once my stepsister’s husband began making it with fresh green beans and homemade roux. I still brought pie, the usual pumpkin and one or two new ideas, attempts at pecan, or maple nutmeg custard. I continued to enjoy Sonia’s company, and loved my new, ever expanding family, my new rituals.

This year will be the first Thanksgiving since my dad passed, and as luck would have it, it’s his year. I was tempted to leave the city again, to run off to Canada for the weekend, or spend all day hiding in my room, or at a bar. But I’m not doing that. I’m going to go and have dinner with Sonia, and my sister, stepbrother and stepsister, and their spouses and children. I got up early so I could bake three pies before my roommate needed the oven for turkey. This year I made pumpkin, sour cream apple, and a new recipe I found for a cranberry/almond/caramel tart. I’m doing this because in spite of the great losses we have suffered, we are still family, and we are still very capable of making and eating good food.


my cranberry, almond, caramel tart.


My stepmother emailed me and my sister earlier this week, to check in on us, and she said she is determined to get through this holiday season “with gratitude, rather than despair.” It’s a mantra I will try and return to over and over as we move forward into through Thanksgiving into Advent and Christmas. I will try with everything I have to stay focused on gratitude. To remember the many good years we had together, to toast his memory. I am grateful, I had thirty two years of having a fantastic relationship with my dad, it’s a gift I don’t take for granted.

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