It would be three years before I would learn in culinary school that the pork pie was simply a rustic version of the French pâté en croûte and 12 years before I would write a book called Charcuterie, in which, among the sausages and confits, there is a variation on Elizabeth Morgan's pork pie. At the time, though, it merely promised to bring me, in a way that went beyond our letters, closer to Uncle Bill.
I followed his elaborate instructions to a tee, molding dough around a six-inch-wide container to create the shell and leaving it in a cold foyer overnight, simmering a stock from scratch, et cetera. Much of this labor, I would eventually figure out, was unnecessary—just hurdles born of the Brits' eccentric culinary heritage (and former lack of refrigeration).
The pork pie is very simple: meatloaf in a piecrust. When properly seasoned, though, and gently cooked, it is delicious, with a peppery, garlicky filling and a soft, delectable pastry moistened by the dish's self-contained sauce (the French would call it aspic, but to the English it's just jelly). I knew I had achieved a pie worthy of my ancestry when my oldest friend visited on Christmas Day and swooned at the taste. He was living in London at the time—the man knew a good pork pie.
But for me, success was not a matter of mere gastronomic accomplishment. Pork pie signified how I wanted to wake up on Christmas morning and begin the day of celebration. A slice of it, a wedge, a piece of pie, dense, rich, offset by hot English mustard—one spicy food the English do so well—is satisfying and nourishing, especially when preceded by, as tradition had it, a Bloody Mary.
Yes, Bloodies are a part of Bill's recipe, which begins, "Two or three days ahead, boil the bones," and concludes, "On the 25th, it is pork pie time (breakfast at our house after Bloody Marys)."
I make pork pie at Christmastime, too. Not always—sometimes we're away, and sometimes it's too crazy with the kids and relatives and friends staying with us. But it's always a goal. And I alter it as I see fit, since I'm comfortable with piecrusts and forcemeats (which is the culinary term for a ground-meat stuffing), and I'm sure it tastes better each successive year.... But, in writing this, I've suddenly become ashamed of myself. I wonder if I'm a hypocrite, extolling the value of culinary traditions when I sometimes fail to follow my own. Or perhaps I'm simply lazy. Or dulled by our cookbook-flooded, 24-hour-food-TV culture.
Elizabeth Morgan was never too busy to make pork pie. Had she been, it might have said to her young son that, however much you may like this pork pie, it's not an essential part of your heritage. He might not then have made it a tradition in the United States, and then I might never have had that connection, through food, to this man who scarcely knew how important he was to me.
Elaborate though his recipe is, he was nonetheless compelled to pen a two-page postscript, with diagrams, addressing the thickness of the crust and other matters of finesse he felt, on rereading, the recipe lacked. He ended in customary Bill style.
"But here I go, saying both too much and too little. In the end it's a matter between you and the cooking gods. May they smile on you."
Uncle Bill died of a stroke in 1999. Would that I had time enough for one last letter to say the words I never did.
Dear Bill, they have, thanks for everything.
We Hear You!