Photo: Ann Stratton
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.