JANE: Okay, Alan. This time I have a snack and a mug of coffee close at hand.
Tell me the other half of the mince story.
ALAN: At Christmas (and at no other time of the year) the British eat mince pies. Mince pies, of course, are filled with mincemeat (all one word). However mincemeat is actually minced up fruit and consequently mince pies are really fruit pies which contain no meat whatsoever. Is that odd, or is that odd?
I ate my first mince pie at around the age of five – my mother offered me one on Christmas Day. I took a huge bite and was horrified to find fruit instead of the meat I was expecting. I spat it out and I have never eaten a mince pie again from that day to this. Childhood traumas scar you for life.
It seems to me, again from reading American novels, that in America pies are invariably fruit pies which are often eaten cold (I have read of pies being placed on the windowsill to cool.) However in England (and New Zealand and Australia), pies are almost invariably filled with meat of some description and they are eaten hot as a main course. Do you have meat pies in America?
A proper steak and kidney pie is just gorgeous…
JANE: Actually, Alan, maybe you just didn’t like fruit mince. Mincemeat pie is an American holiday tradition as well, and I’ve never found one I liked.
“Cold” for American fruit pies is not quite accurate. In fact, some fruit pies are usually served hot or at least warm. The problem is that when hot a good fruit pie can’t really be sliced. The crust breaks and the filling slides. So you let the pie cool enough for the filling to firm up.
Possibly the most American of all desserts is apple pie. This is usually served at least warm, often with vanilla ice cream or a slice of sharp cheddar cheese. My dad’s birthday was in July and he often requested apple pie rather than cake. To a child, this was a great disappointment. To me as an adult… I’d probably make the same choice.
So, how do you serve a fruit pie, anyhow?
ALAN: Fruit pies are generally served hot and are often slathered with custard although your very civilized habit of serving them with ice cream (or cream) is now common. The contrast between the hot fruit and the cold ice cream is quite a taste sensation. The thought of serving a fruit pie with cheese makes me shudder!
JANE: Going back to your question as to whether we have meat pies in America, the answer is “yes,” but for some reason they’re often called “pot pies.” Chicken pot pie is fairly common, as, I believe, is beef. As I mentioned last time, I have a friend who makes Shepherd’s Pie.
ALAN: Ah! But Shepherd’s Pie isn’t a pie because it has potato on top rather than pastry. We just CALL it a pie. Fish Pie isn’t a pie either, for similar reasons.
JANE: I have never had steak and kidney pie, however. I must admit, even the most loving descriptions of it sound sort of… well, odd. I mean, in one novel a character rhapsodizes about the proper “urine” tang of the kidney. That just sounds nasty.
What is the appeal of steak and… uh, pee?
ALAN: I’ve never really found kidneys to taste of pee, any more than tripe tastes of other unsavoury intestinal excretions. I absolutely love offal in all its forms. When I was at primary school (age about seven) we had a “thank you” book in which we were supposed to write thanks to God for all the good things in life. Most of the children in the class wrote predictable wimpy stuff. I wrote: Thank you God for liver and bacon and mashed potato and all the lovely gravy that goes with it.
I was never allowed to live that down.
But I have to confess I’m not fond of tripe. It’s a texture thing – tripe squirms in the mouth like dead snakes smeared with soap.
One of the problems this discussion has highlighted is that very confusing area where we each use the same word, but we mean utterly different things by it. Remember biscuits, for example?
We even seem to have different meanings for the various courses that make up a meal. What you call an entree, we call a main course. We use the word entree to refer to the appetizer or starter, the first course that precedes the main course. Again it derives from the French; entree (sorry, I can’t do the accent over the ‘e’) meaning entrance – the entree is the entrance to the meal, i.e. the first course, the beginning. Since you call the main course the entree, what (in my terms) do you call the entree?
JANE: Appetizer. I’m guessing the logic behind this is that the “entree” is the actual start of the meal. The appetizer just gets your appetite going. In America, appetizers are often eaten before the meal, not as part of it: chips and dip, a veggie platter, or fancy little canapes.
If the dinner is very formal, this first course served at the table would be the soup. This would be followed by the salad, then the entree. The entree will usually be served with some form of starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) and, in some households, bread or rolls as well. There might even be a hot vegetable as well. Dessert may follow immediately, or after a break.
ALAN: Weird! We serve salad with the main course — it’s considered to be a semi-vegetable (or sometimes a substitute for vegetables) and is often presented on the same plate as the meat.
JANE: I have an old cookbook, given to my mother when she and my dad got married. (Although published a few years earlier, in 1956). This cookbook was meant for a bride who was inexperienced in planning meals and so includes menus.
Reading over them, I’m fascinated both by how few vegetables are included and how heavily starches are emphasized. That certainly was not the case in my childhood! My parents could go into rhapsodies over fresh summer produce – probably one of the reasons I’m such a devoted gardener.
Heavy on starch and meat, with what vegetables that are included cooked to an unrecognizable mush is the reputation of English cooking here in America. Would you say that’s a fair assessment?
ALAN: Certainly once upon a time it was. My mother would set the vegetables boiling round about the time she put the roast in the oven. When they were served there was almost no taste or texture to them, but that didn’t matter because there was lots of meat, gravy and potato to add flavour.
It wasn’t until I left home and started cooking for myself that I discovered that vegetables actually tasted of something and that cabbage was green and best served crispy rather than white, limp and soggy.
These days English cooking is much more cosmopolitan than once it was and food is much more varied and much better prepared. People of my parents’ generation still have a tendancy to consider it to be nasty foreign muck and they stick firmly to their meat and two (boiled to death) veg. But that attitude is dying out.
JANE: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner… Also known as the “Three Square Meals.” My impression is that the British are like hobbits and have a lot more formal mealtimes. Maybe that’s something to look into for next time.