Suppose, hypothetically, that you are visiting your husband's ailing grandmother in the hospital.
Suppose she is in her 90s, frail, and in recovery from a recent heart attack. Suppose she has just been diagnosed, in the hospital, with an advanced form of cancer.
Suppose this lovely, kind-hearted elderly lady -- who lived through the Great Depression and the Second World War, raised several children, grew her own vegetables, washed cloth diapers by hand, sewed her own babies' clothes, and continued to support a large family after being widowed much too soon -- who yet, now lies helpless and tethered under harsh lights in a hard and unfamiliar bed in a room with no windows -- tells you a story, while you are visiting her, about the near-magical powers of spiritual transportation possessed by her mother's legendary Christmas mincemeat pie, the mystic recipe for which has been tragically lost to time.
What can a granddaughter-in-law, universally known in her spouse's family for reliably producing cheesecakes, brownies, and holiday pies of several flavors do, under such a circumstance, but promise to return to the hospital with a home-baked mincemeat pie?
Even if said granddaughter-in-law has never before, in fact, cooked, or even tasted, mincemeat pie?
Indeed, it seemed such a logical and obvious notion that I hardly knew the words were leaving my mouth before I heard them hanging in the air: "Oh Grandma, I'll bring you a mincemeat pie! I'll make one."
I didn't really feel the pressure of this promise until later that night, when I got home.
A mincemeat pie?
A mincemeat pie?
What, exactly, goes in a mincemeat pie?
Specifically, what goes in to a mincemeat pie so powerfully good that the mere memory of its taste could transport an ailing woman 80 years back in time to a the heavenly aroma of a warm Christmas Eve kitchen?
I did what any Millennial housewife would do under such a circumstance; I consulted Google.
Do you know that there are approximately eleventy frillion different varieties of mincemeat pie?
Well, now you do.
There is mincemeat pie with meat.
There is mincemeat pie without meat.
There is mincemeat pie without meat, but with beef fat.
There is mincemeat pie with nuts. There is mincemeat pie without nuts. There are mincemeat pies made primarily of apples, and mincemeat pies made mostly of pears; there is mincemeat made with brandy or mincemeat with sherry or mincemeat with bourbon whisky. And there are mincemeat pies that are alcohol-free.
Trying to find some signpost that might point me in the direction of the One True Pie, I studied up on regional variations of mincemeat. On the history of mincemeat. The more I read, the more I realized I was chasing a culinary unicorn.
Mincemeat, you see, was essentially a fancy way for the medieval British lady (who was then, after all, still the Hlaf Dy -- the Giver of Loaves) to say, "It's the middle of winter. We're almost out of everything useful. And you're asking me for a holiday pie? Tell you what. Let's take what ever scraps we've got left in the larger, chop them up, douse it all in sugar, spices and enough alcohol to sterilize rot." It was the original Mom's Famous Leftover Casserole.
THERE IS NO ONE TRUE RECIPE FOR MINCEMEAT.
I was going to have to gamble on a random internet recipe, or make it up as I went.
When backed into a corner, do true baking heroes follow, or lead?
I decided to make it up as I went.
The only thing I knew for certain going in was that Grandma preferred nuts to meat, and sure as hell would not want me to omit the alcohol.
I went to the store to shop for ingredients. My husband, ever a hunter-style shopper (plan it grab it and go before you have time to realize you are shopping) , followed me, perplexed and annoyed, as I pulled things off shelves and put them back, squeezed and prodded and smelled fruits and nuts and spices, and considered bottles of bourbon with a critical air. "Can I help you?" he asked. "Can I get something? What's on your list?"
"I don't have a list," I said. "I'm making it up as I go depending on what strikes my fancy, and on what else is here in the store. I'm shopping. For the best stuff. Like a cook does. Don't you ever watch Food Network?"
He was not amused. He paced in a way I have seen fictitious fathers-to-be pace on television outside a hospital delivery room. My husband knew this business of Making The Pie for his grandmother was not to be trifled with, and yet, being, as he is, an utter novice to the mysteries of baking, he could do little but watch anxiously, second-guess me, and annoy me with questions.
I can't tell you exactly what I put in the pie.
Not because it's a secret, but because I really don't know. I didn't measure a damn thing. A pinch of this. A splash of that.
I used a base of prunes, raisins, and a shredded fresh Granny Smith apple my son hand-picked off a tree. I added orange and lemon zest I candied at home. I added nutmeg and cinnamon and cardamom and allspice in nebulous quantities. I soaked these things in a liquid mixture of bourbon, Triple Sec, apple cider and lemon juice for over a day. I poured it all over chopped pecans and wrapped it in a butter-based crust out of a 1950s cookbook. I guessed on the oven temperature and the baking time.
I was half-convinced the pie would overflow, or scorch, or melt, or catch on fire and cause my stove to explode.
But it came out looking like this:
Which is pretty much how a mincemeat pie is supposed to look.
When I bought it to my husband's grandmother to taste, resigned to the fact that, whatever it was, it almost certainly wasn't her mother's pie, she took one bite, and said, "Ah, I see you found the secret ingredient!"
"Copious quantities of bourbon?" I asked?
"No," she said. "A pinch of love.
"It's what my mother always put in her pies. It's what she always put into everything she cooked. That's what she taught me to do with my own cooking. That's what I missed. The food here, it's all right. But no one puts any love into any of it. I can tell you put love into the food you make, though. Who cares if your pie tastes like hers? "
Of course you've heard this cliche of a cooking proverb before -- this adding a pinch of love.
I'd heard it before, too.
But I've never heard someone mean it so much. She looked me in the eye as she said it, with the intensity of a sage trying to impart some sort of sacred knowledge to an untutored acolyte. And as she said it, a flood of taste memories returned to me. The impeccable fresh peach ice cream served shyly to me by a silent girl on a Mennonite farm during a feast made as thanks to a midwife. The wine-soaked, melt-in-your-mouth poached pears I made on a whim in a rusty old oven with my best friend in the world. The wedding cake I baked myself, because we had no money to buy one, that managed somehow to come out soft as velvet despite my mixer having broken. The soup my grandmother taught me to make with fresh vegetables out of her garden on the day I first saw beans on a vine. My great-grandmother's apricot preserves that seemed like captured sunlight in a jar. The first tomato of the season plucked off the vine I raised from seed. One thing tied them together: an ingredient that is never in the recipe.
Cliche or not, I have tasted that pinch of love. But I've tasted it less and less often as I've grown older. The bustle of life has, more and more, habituated me to the life of a hurried, distracted cook and a hurried, distracted eater. Once I used to savor an hour spent over the stove, creating some alchemical reaction in my pot; now more often than not, I pop in and out of the kitchen, watching the clock impatiently. Someone or something else always wants my attention. To grant full mental focus to the food I'm creating seems like an indulgence I no longer have time for. After all, I'm a busy woman. I'm somebody's mother!
Which is all the more reason why I need to remember more often to add that pinch of love.