It took four hours to get from Dartmouth to Rusticoville, the official the kick-off to the holiday season. As soon as the last school bell rang freeing us for the holiday break, my brother, sister and I would crowd into the back of the car and head to Prince Edward Island for Christmas at my father’s parents’ house. It was on the north shore of the Island, overlooking windswept water and showy fields made icy cold by the wind off the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
We would bunk in the fusty basement, my sister and I jammed into a creaky, lumpy bed that sat in the shadow of a large, velvet wildlife painting. We would spend our days playing in snowbanks or twirling around in a cavernous downstairs closet, trying on fur coats and old shoes, dreaming up what treasures were kept inside an old locked safe. We’d squeal at our Grampy’s bristled cheeks as he gave us hugs and kisses, and sit at the old kitchen table with our beloved Grammy, who would fill our bellies with boiled dinners and meat pie.
My mother would chat with Grammy as she cooked her prized meat pie---pâté à la viande---and other Acadian dishes from my father’s youth. My mother is from Manitoba, and had never tasted summer savoury before she arrived on the east coast in the 1960s. Now it’s a staple in her pantry, used regularly in the chicken fricot my grandmother used to make, a meal she continues to make, along with the hearty beans and boiled dinners my father grew up with.
The meat pie baked each Christmas was made using what my grandmother would call her mother’s recipe, though her seven sisters with seven different crust recipes would disagree. She would use whatever the cheapest meats were---older chicken, poorer cuts of beef and pork and rabbit. To this day, my mother eschews the rabbit.
It still takes me four hours to get to PEI. The days with my grandparents are sadly over, but my parents live there now and it’s still my definition of Christmas.
Though my grandmother is no longer the resident pie-maker, the recipe for her meat pie is stored forever in a little green cookbook of my mother’s. Tattered along the edges, tape holds together the cracked spine of the book; stains and splotches mark each page. “Favourite Recipes” it says on the cover, vast truth in the title. In its pages are recipes my mother has been making for more than 30 years, with notes on dates the dish was made, slight and successful alterations and comments on the result.
“Favourite Recipes” never leaves the countertop in December. Every year, without fail, we use it to make our meat pie---notes telling us to use shortening instead of rich, heart-stopping lard---butterscotch and pineapple cookies called Tiny Timmies, chocolate rum balls, my other grandmother’s sage stuffing and a children’s fruit cake. These are our steadfast traditions, another being that I will never eat a morsel of that fruitcake. Making the meat pie is an all-day process. By mid-morning the savoury smell of stewing meats fills the house. My sister and I join in when it’s time to put the pies together, scooping the meat into the pie plate, exasperating our flour-flecked mother by adding a little too much liquid to each pie in a sisterly pact to make the liquid bubble through any holes and caramelize on the rich crust of as many pies as possible.
We celebrate the end of our day of baking by rewarding ourselves with slices of pie. It is, perhaps, the best present we give ourselves and each other every year. It’s definitely the kick-off to the holiday season.
Marion Buote’s Meat Pie Recipe
Boil until tender:
3 small beef roasts (approx. 14lbs)
2 small pork roasts (approx. 7lbs)
Cool. Remove skin from chicken, and bones from all meat. Chop meat into small pieces.
Dice 12 onions.
Add chopped up meat and diced onions into a large pot, filling the pot with the liquid the beef and chicken were cooked in. Fill until liquid completely covers the meat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook until onions are soft.
For the crust, combine:
15 cups all purpose flour
1 lb shortening
3 tsp salt
6 tsp baking powder
In a separate bowl, mix:
6 tb vinegar
3 cups cold water
3 cups of liquid from the pot of meat
Gradually add the liquid mix to the dry mix, until the dough is moist and just holds together.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. There’s no need to do this until the dough is ready, since this is an all-day process. Once you’re ready to roll out the crust, get the oven pre-heated.
Roll out the crust about ¼ inch thick. Cut dough depending on pie plate, leaving around a ½ inch overhang. Fill with meat and a small amount of the liquid. (Don’t put too much or your pie will get soggy.) Lay crust over top. Cut vents or prick with a fork. Feel free to make patterns or cut out shapes with cookie cutters. Roll the overhang in on itself to seal the pie. Finish with an egg wash for a crisp, golden top.
This recipe yields at least 9 pies, though you can make turnover-style pies, individual serving pies or cook pies in a cake pan as well. Once cooked, leave them in the pie pan, but put on a rack immediately. They can be eaten hot or cold.