Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Of Madcow and Mincemeat

Mincemeat was the order of the day here.

And in the stuff's honour, I've decided to share an incident from our past which involves mincemeat, a heroic quest, and an evergreen tree.


Living two miles from an international border has its perks. A twenty-minute drive finds you in an American town, a sort of twin companion to your own belonging place.

That town ‘over across’ the border has been part of my life since I was a baby. I remember the evening ice cream runs to Drakes Dairy Bar, with wet hair and a nightgown on. I remember border guards barely asking your citizenship before they waved you on. I remember the tightening of security after 9/11, the longer lines, the strange questions about your work or sharp objects in your car. And of course, the mad cow scare.

The last is the most memorable of any border phase. Citrus or wood products faded out of importance, but the mad cow fuss touched our mincemeat and us personally. And you don’t play around with mincemeat in our family and than just forget about it.
Mincemeat is an intensely traditional food in our family, and one that seems to be dying everywhere else in the world. Each fall, just as the winds start to get that snap of winter to come, Mom pulls out the huge cooking pots and fires up the wood stove. Dad is sent to dig out the ancient metal food grinder and we start to concoct. Ground beef, minced apples, raisins, brown sugar, molasses, orange juice, a pound of butter, and all the spices that smell of Christmas. I’m not sure if the original recipe still exists. We cook by smell, with Mom’s direction. As we are fond of saying, "Are we gonna measure, or are we gonna cook?"

We all have our eating preferences too. Mom and I eat it straight out of the bubbling pot. Aimee prefers it with ice cream on top. Owen is only happy when it is baked into a three-inch thick pie. Dad agrees. "Mincemeat pie," he says, "is the perfect food. One of those quintessential all-food-groups-in-one-dish." I believe this thinking also justifies mincemeat pie for breakfast, scooped from the cold pie plate with one hand. This is the type of thing mincemeat is. Wholesome. Comfortable. Cherished.

And it was a pie of this hallowed stuff that we bore aloft one evening, as we traveled to supper at our American friends’ house. A pie is close to the best thing you can do for someone, and Mom set it lovingly on her lap for the trip, still steaming hot.

Maybe it was that steam, or the rich smell that made the border guard perk up when we came to a stop beside him.

"How many on board?" He asked. "Citizenship? Where are you headed? What’s the purpose of your trip?"

Then he leaned forward for the clincher. "Anything to leave?"

"Just a pie" Dad said glibly.

I’m not sure that the guard didn’t lick his lips.

"What kind of pie?"

And for the first time Dad faltered, "Just mincemeat…"

"Meat?" The guard was definitely interested now. "As in beef?"

"Oh…" Heavy realization hit Dad. "Yes. As in…exactly."

"Well, I’ll have to take it then." Border guards love their job.

Dazed, we all watched it transfer from hand to hand. The border man moved and straightened his garbage can with one toe. He bent forward, in my mind it seemed like he moved in slow motion, hands tipping the pie plate forward.

But before he could, before the bottom crust had started to slip, Mom’s half shriek rang out.

"No! Wait – can we turn back?" Her arms were actually outstretched like she was pleading for a baby’s life.

I’m not sure Mr. Border Guard had ever seen such panic or devotion to food in his line of work. He must still have had a few drops of milky human kindness pumping underneath his blue uniform however, and obviously felt a weeping woman was far out of his comfort zone.

"Sure…You can turn back. If you want."

"OK!" Mom said and received the pie to her lap again. She waved for Dad to drive forward, astounding us kids with her confidence.

But our troubles were hardly over. The Canadian border wouldn’t hold our pie in safe keeping while we went to our friend’s house and we were already late.

We poked along the road, everyone suggesting and hypothesizing at once.

I don’t remember who thought of it first. We all take collective glory for it now, that idea born of sheer genius…the inspiration to hide our mincemeat pie under a safe looking evergreen tree.

If there is one thing in abundance along New Brunswick roads, it is trees; lonely stretches of patchy highways, with only shades of green along each side. Our pie would be safe.

"Unless a coyote finds it." Owen said.

"Better a coyote than that man’s garbage can!"

We headed to the border again, feeling Mom was entirely right in her opinion.

The border guard looked more than a little surprised to see us.

"You’re back…" It was a half question, so Dad responded.

"We hid the pie…" (The man’s eyes lit up,) "…under a tree back there."

The guard looked almost stunned – his eyes followed Dad’s quick point and then stayed there, looking blank.

"You’re kidding right?" He said in a faraway voice.

"No, indeed," Mom said.

The man lifted one hand and waggled it vaguely.

"Alright," he said it in a voice that meant I give up. "Have a nice evening."

"Thank you," Mom and Dad said together. And we drove onto American soil with heads held high. We didn’t have dessert for our friends, but there are things more important.

On the return trip home, we found our pie tucked safely where we had left it. We had kept part of our tradition safe. Mad cow scare might come, and the easy rules of a country’s border might tighten over time. We would have to use passports on every trip, eventually, and officials wouldn’t know you by sight. But mincemeat and its treasured part of our family heritage would not fall victim to the marches of time.

At the very least we had given that border guard something to tell the guys during break.



  1. I've heard this story before, but you tell it so well!

  2. Love it, Olivia you are a fabulous writer and I love reading these posts. I must have a mincemeat pie when I come to visit you all there in the arctic!