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JANE: Alan, in one of your “wot I red on my hols” columns, you mentioned
shopping for “mince.” I admit, that one got me. I thought you might mean what I grew up calling “ground beef.” When I went to college in New York, my New Yorker classmates called the same item “chop-meat,” so there seemed to be a similarity.
However, I’m not sure. I mean, if “mince” is “ground beef,” then what do you call “ground pork” or “ground turkey”?
ALAN: Well actually we follow much the same logic that you do. We have “chicken mince” and “pork mince” etc. etc. Mince is really just all the butcher’s offcuts and general junk all ground (minced) together. It’s very cheap and is sometimes regarded as the kind of thing you eat when you can’t afford anything better.
I think that is actually a rather snobbish attitude. As with anything else, when you cook it properly and take care with it, it can be the basis of tasty and nutritious meals. I have some mince in the fridge even as we speak and tomorrow I will be making a cottage pie with it. In case you don’t know what a cottage pie is (no, only really desperate people make it with actual cottages!), it’s essentially a stew of mince and vegetables and whatever herbs and spices you care to throw in, with a topping of mashed potato, sprinkled with cheese and baked in the oven.
Of course the name varies depending on the main ingredient. It’s only a cottage pie when you make it with beef. If you make it with lamb mince it’s a Shepherd’s Pie. I once cooked the dish with venison mince and I called it Sherwood Forest Pie on the grounds that Robin Hood went poaching for deer in Sherwood Forest.
JANE: “Actual cottages…” Ouch!
Oddly enough, the only times I’ve been served “Shepherd’s Pie” here in the United States, the dish has been made with beef. That doesn’t make any sense, since shepherds are “sheep-herders” by definition. However, except for lamb chops and leg of lamb in the spring (often imported from New Zealand), lamb isn’t that popular in mainstream American cooking. I think it’s becoming more common because of the increased popularity of “ethnic” cuisines that use it.
When I was in New Zealand, I was fascinated by how many sheep there were – even in what looked like city parks to my untutored eye.
Another word we use for “ground beef” is “hamburger” – clearly because “burgers” are commonly made with ground beef. Do you folks have a different name for that particular food item?
ALAN: Well we certainly don’t call mince “hamburger”, though we certainly make and eat hamburgers (“burger” is an acceptable abbreviation). However since our mince is generally made of rubbish, I think you’d need much better quality mince (sometimes called prime beef mince) if you wanted to make hamburgers with it.
Why aren’t hamburgers made out of ham? That’s always puzzled me.
JANE: I believe the origin comes from “Hamburger steak,” which, like the similar “Salisbury steak” is a patty made with ground beef. However, hamburgers are usually grilled and served on a bun, whereas “Salisbury steak” is usually baked and served with gravy over potatoes.
Since on this side of the world we’re moving into summer, hamburgers are sizzling on many a grill, side by side with what we call “hotdogs” or “Frankfurters.”
What do you all cook and serve (as Terry Pratchett’s character Dibbler would put it) “inna bun”?
ALAN: Yes, sausages sizzle on our grills as well.
However if you are ever given the opportunity to eat a New Zealand sausage, I suggest you refuse. NZ sausages are uniformly disgusting. The only ones worth eating are imported from overseas. In England, sausages are sometimes called “bangers” (probably because that’s what happens to your tummy after you eat one, and now we’re back to toilet humour again. Sorry!). Australians sometimes refer to sausages as “snarlers,” I have no idea why.
The English seem to like picturesque names for food. Ask anyone who has ever eaten school food about “spotted dick” and they will wax nostalgic for hours. Spotted dick is a steamed suet pudding spotted with currents or raisins. It is also known as dead fly pudding. Rumour has it that unscrupulous cooks use real flies…
The English have a thing about steamed suet. If you read Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels you will often find Jack Aubrey rhapsodizing over boiled babies.
JANE: Actually, I think that’s “drowned babies,” but I’m too lazy to go check. I’ve had both “spotted dick” (the spots are currents, I think) and “drowned baby.” Neither excited me. Maybe the English give weird names to spice up an otherwise bland cuisine.
ALAN: Probably true – though these days the British national dish is curry and you can’t get less bland than that! But we don’t have a monopoly on weird names. You do it too. What on earth are “grits”? To me, grit is simply pulverized rock which I would imagine is somewhat abrasive on the teeth. And what about “biscuits”? Confusingly, we use the word biscuit to refer to what you would call a cookie…
I found a recipe for biscuits in Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove” which seemed to suggest that I would call it a “scone” (pronounced “skonn”). However, I would eat a scone with butter and jam. You seem to have it with gravy (yuck!). Sometimes with “white gravy.” What’s that?
And then there’s a rutabaga. I can’t even begin to imagine what that might be.
JANE: Grits are ground grain, usually wheat or corn, boiled into a sort of porridge. Sometimes the porridge is allowed to cool and firm up, then is sliced and fried. Think polenta, sort of…
Grits are more common in southern cooking and, like barbecue, there isn’t one way to prepare them.
I’ve had scones. My friend and fellow author, Pati Nagle, makes phenomenal cream scones. (Come to Bubonicon sometime. She usually makes mini-scones for the Author’s Tea).
Biscuits are more like scones than they are like cookies, but they’re usually not sweet. A buttermilk biscuit served with butter is a wonderful accompaniment to a meal. A good biscuit is lighter than a scone, but like a good scone is flaky, rather than “bready” like a roll or slice of bread. Yum!
White gravy… Well, I’m not a huge fan of that. I find it bland and salty, at best a little peppery.
Someone else will have to tell you how it’s made. I don’t make gravy if I can help it. When Jim and I got together, I informed him that if he wanted gravy, he was going to have to make it, because I didn’t like gravy enough to add the hassle. He did, of course, and now makes a very fine turkey gravy, good enough that I’ve been converted.
ALAN: You still haven’t told me what a rutabaga is. I truly don’t know!
JANE: A rutabaga is a root vegetable something like a turnip. Despite the fact that another word for this vegetable is “Swedish turnip” or “Swede,” I actually know very little about them. I may be one-eighth Swedish, but very little in the way of Swedish cooking has entered into my diet.
Again, as with gravy, maybe someone else can tell you more.
All of this has made me hungry! I’m going to go get something to eat.
ALAN: It just occurred to me, I haven’t told the other half of the mince story. I also wanted to ask you some questions about American pies.
JANE: Definitely, next time… Now I really need to eat!