Today, we begin a four-part examination of what is unarguably the most wondrous thing to come from 1,500 years of English influence, and possibly all of Western Civilization: the mincemeat pie.
Scoffers! I sense scoffers! I can feel their disdain gnawing at my nethers. Pshaw! they sputter. Can Cope be serious that a mere pie—and a mincemeat pie, at that—is the most remarkable gift the British Isles have ever bequeathed to Mankind? What about Dickens? What about Rolls Royces and Kipling and fish and chips? What about Helen Mirren and the Magna Carta and the English setter and Lord Wellington and Sherlock Holmes and Benny Hill? What about Shakespeare, for God's sake? Surely, Cope doesn't hold that a mere pie is a loftier accomplishment than the works of William Shakespeare!
I do. At least, for this column and the following three, I do. After that, I may take a fresh look and see if I still feel that same way. But for what remains of the month of December, mincemeat pie shall remain at the top of my "Greatest Things Mankind Has Ever Come Up With" list, and nothing you can say will sway my conviction or my intent.
In introduction to the magnificence that is the mincemeat pie, allow me to relay some personal history. I have always adored this grand thing, this crown jewel among baked goods, this pie. Cherry pies are good, too, and if it weren't for mincemeat pies, cherry pies would likely be my favorite. There is, in fact, an ancient song about the natural affinity betwixt cherry pies and boys named "William." To wit: "Can she bake a cherry pie, Billy boy, Billy boy / Can she bake a cherry pie, charmin' Billy?"
That may be first song my mother ever taught me. Before "Itsy Bitsy Spider," even. And on the virtue of that old ditty alone, I would be writing this series about cherry pies, were it not for me Mam's magical way with mincemeat. In other, less auspicious seasons, she turned out gooey cinnamon rolls, steaming peach cobblers, chewy molasses cookies, and yes, many a cherry pie.
But come the Yuletide, she forsook all the other, lesser pastries and put her prodigious talent to producing the finest mincemeat pies one could find outside of Yorkshire, Wales or Marie Callender's. Plump raisins, tart apples, nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves and spices even the Magi couldn't get their hands on—and of course, whatever that stuff was that passed for meat—all encased inside a golden crust that melted like manna on one's tongue. Forsooth, I was no more than a sprout when I decided there could be nary more satisfying, more heavenly, more meaningful in my mouth than a forkful of hot, buttery mincemeat pie.
Mams, being no slouch at knowing what made her little Billy happy, extended the mincemeat pie season to include Thanksgiving. I would slog through portion after portion of turkey, gravy, candied yams and cranberries, but my heart was set on what came after. Had she lived longer, I'm convinced Mams would have come to understand that mincemeat pie is every bit as appropriate at Halloween as the more somber holidays. I believe I could have even convinced her that Labor Day, possibly even the Fourth of July, would go better with a mincemeat pie.
But alas, she passed. And for the intervening years, I have had to be content with mincemeat pies from a box, purchased from strangers who plied their skinny, heartless pies from inside impersonal emporiums with names like "Albertsons" or "Fred Meyers." Still, until this last Thanksgiving, the pies could be found. There was no mother's love in them, no sense that they were baked with me in mind, but they could be had.
On the day before Thanksgiving, I went on a mission to bag me a pie. My daughter was with me. She can testify for me on this, if my word alone isn't enough. I could not find a mincemeat pie. Not even one! I drove and drove. I crisscrossed Meridian as though we were looking for a lost puppy. In emporium after emporium, I begged, I whined, I cried. I did everything short of leaving Meridian's downtown area in hopes that some outlying establishment might, perchance, have a proper pie! As night drew nigh, I lurched into a family restaurant begging, "For the love of God, do you have a mincemeat pie?" My daughter feared for the health of my mind.
That evening, I discussed with my wife what to me seemed the only reasonable option: calling off Thanksgiving entirely. What's the point? I offered. What's the point of anything anymore, if something this fundamental to the human soul is lost?
But the bird had been thawed, the family was set to gather, the yams were candied, the green beans casseroled, and there was no going back. Besides, my wife looked at me with that curious combination of love and disgust that I have seen so often, and said, "Oh, I'll bake you a damn mincemeat pie, if it's that important to you."
But why, you ask, make a column of it? And why a four-part series?
Ah, only a knave unacquainted with the splendor of the subject at hand could ask the first question. From my horrifying experience the day before Thanksgiving, I learned I could do my benighted neighbors no greater favor than to reintroduce this great marvel. It is my gift to you, dear Humanity, and hopefully, I have offered it early enough that the usual emporiums will stock up on mincemeat pies as they would tinsel and widescreen TVs.
And as to why it will take me four installments to explore this subject thoroughly? You see, Boise Weekly will close its offices for the holidays, though the paper will still come out every Wednesday on schedule. Which means, they expect everything to be written and tucked safely to bed in the master computer by mid-December. Which means, I have less than a half of a month to dash out a whole month's worth of column material. Which means, at this very moment in time, I am scraping the floors for column material.
But despair not! For those who think they already know all they need to know about mincemeat pies, you are in for what I anticipate to be a most pleasant and illuminating adventure. Next week, for example, I will expose the part that monster Oliver Cromwell had in the history of this delectable sweetmeat. And after—in Part III or possibly Part IV—we will delve into what it is about mincemeat pies that has made so many modern Americans forget there is such a thing.
So don't tell me this journey through the glorious king of pies won't be exciting. As with the pie itself, it's all about what goes into it.