A holiday morning meal involving—gulp—cold pork pie with a dollop of mustard on the side? Believe it or not, you'll be singing "Joy to the World."
My Uncle Bill was a deeply literary man and a superlative writer to whom I attached myself during my haphazard young adulthood for no clear reason other than that I knew he could show me the writerly way. Born in Shropshire, England, in 1910, Bill was the kind of man who simply assumed that I would learn Italian in order to research a travel story on Carrara, Italy. He was from an era when real writers did such things.
I only met the man twice, and for a matter of hours on both occasions. Our relationship was conducted almost entirely through letters. It began after I paid an impromptu visit to his home in Santa Barbara when I was 22. A revered but distant part of our family, he had called our house in Cleveland five years earlier, asking for my father. I answered, and his voice and his care were so immediately compelling to me that when I finally found myself in California, I knew I had to meet him. It was a lovely, unremarkable afternoon, one I was glad to have spent, but I had no idea that it would have life-directing consequences.
His first letter arrived a month or so later, dated August 27, 1985, just after I'd arrived in New York City to begin my first job, as a copy boy at The New York Times. "Bless you and may you live a thousand years!" it began, and went on to discuss details of our visit the way one might review a book, addressing themes and ideas the event inspired.
His next letter began, "Let's see if, at long last, we can get off to you something that might, with some plausibility, be called a letter." And for five single-spaced pages of easy prose, he discoursed on family history, worried over my parents' separation, critiqued my own writing, dismissed the stream-of-consciousness conceit of Joyce, mapped out his own notions of art, discussed the "metaphysics" of "Oriental" cuisine, and offered a remark on a potato he'd eaten years ago during a meal at Galatoire's in New Orleans that would forever guide me in my culinary pursuits.
"Naturally I had had potatoes thousands of times before," he wrote, "but I felt that I was suddenly realizing for the first time what a potato really was (or what 'potatoness' is in the Platonic sense). There were no fancy sauces, no tricky seasonings, no admixture with other ingredients—just plain small cubes of potato cooked in such a way that the surfaces were delicately crisp and crunchy and the inside rich, smooth, and flavorful. One was simultaneously aware both of exquisite texture and marvelous taste. How it was done I don't know, but the lesson it taught me was that the chef hadn't used the potato as a basis for displaying flashy flamboyant skills but had placed his skills as an artist in the service of the potato."
I listened to this man, so when he mentioned that pork pie, made by his mother, my great-grandmother Elizabeth Morgan, was at the center of Christmas mornings in Shropshire, it piqued my interest. Pork pie? Bill, what the heck is this pork pie?
He wrote: "For many of the uninitiated, the very notion of pork pie at all (served cold with Coleman's mustard)—let alone as a breakfast dish—stirs grimaces of revulsion. But we know of no one who, having come to scoff, hasn't remained to pray."
Pork pie! What an idea it was to me, a hobby-cook. That a pork pie might be exquisite. That it might be so powerful in its effects as to become a tradition that would stretch from World War I–era Shropshire to modern-day Santa Barbara. That it made some want to pray! This I had to understand.
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.