This month Charcutepalooza brought a choice: pate or meat pie. I have a little bit of history with both.
In the case of pate, it’s a history I would rather forget. I have a spectacular ability to completely screw it up. Chicken liver, duck liver, doesn’t matter. My pates tend to end up somewhere between a sous vide turd and a football that a couple of monkeys had their way with before moving on to greener pastures.
Then there’s meat pie, in this case Ruhlman’s family recipe English Pork Pie. It’s a family recipe and it’s a pie filled with pig. What’s not to like? Moreover the recipe contains pork, ham AND lard, it’s what you might call a triple squealer. The only way to top that is by washing it all down with a tall cool glass of pig milk. But perhaps the biggest reason I was excited to try my hand at pork pie this month is my brother Victor.
Standing larger and speaking louder than myself, sporting Willie Nelson braids, he’s a great ad man, an accomplished songwriter and he really loves food. But not exactly in the same way that I do. If our pallets had to be put to music his would be straight up Skynnard while mine might float somewhere closer to some overly thoughtful college radio station, sometimes a little too heady and sensitive for its own good. No, Victor likes his food hot, salted, meaty and in goat-choking quantities. The song “Truck Drivin’ Man” could have been written as a fitting ode to the contents of his stomach on any given day. In his mind the only improvement to be made on a deep fried, previously frozen corn dog is giving it a few hours of “seasoning” under a gas station heat lamp. And I admire that. Much as I admire the fact that he religiously eschews high-falutin’ business dinners when on the road, nearly always favoring greasy bowling alley grilled cheese sandwiches, cheap beer and hard-luck stories from whoever decides to saddle up next to him at the dive bar counter. And as much as I love a good lavish meal, in a certain part of my soul I know he’s right.
If you go out for a beer with Victor, it will almost always be for more than one and you will almost always be eating at the end of it. In all likelihood it will be around 2:30 in the morning, it will be a whole pizza, and he will be asking if he can finish your portion while you nod off and he continues with grunting over pepperonis with finger slurping gusto. You can set your watch to it.
But without a doubt, the pinnacle of his nitrate-laden predilections is a good meat pie. He lives for them. He routinely complains that there’s just no place around Austin to get a great one. When on assignment abroad, he demonstrates an uncanny ability to find shabby pie shops or trailers wherever he goes. Having memorized their locations, he then “taste tests” the pies against one another, ordering from one location after another before sitting down to eat them all at once. This practice leads to consumption of about 4 pies a night from various vendors before he settles on his favorite. At that point he just orders 4 pies from them and saves the extra walking. In London, he would divert his nightly commutes to the tube stop nearest his favorite quick pie shop. In South Africa he braved the dodgiest of neighborhoods into the wee hours in order to satiate his fix. Such is his love of meat pies, especially on the heels of a fine malted beverage.
When I told him of my plan for this entry and that it included a pork pie, his only response was, “Well, I do like meat pie… what time?” And so it was set. I made the pie following Ruhlman’s recipe pretty much to the letter (for once). I had some mangalitsa lard that I had rendered myself and it seemed perfect for the crust. I also had some pork meat from the flap of some spare ribs I had sourced awhile earlier. Since it had similar marbling to shoulder, I decided to use it in the grind. I also picked up some DaBecca ham from my local specialty store—which might be the most delicious non-prosciutto style ham cold cut I’ve had in my life.
Making the pie, I decided to decorate it a bit. This being Charcutepalooza and this pie being a triple squealer, I opted for a pig head and crossed sausages theme. This gave me a new respect for people who actually apply nice looking garnishes on pastry. Or people who do anything with pastry for that matter. My fairly rudimentary pig required several re-dos and an appropriate amount of cursing.
My brother was set to swing by around ten that night—perfect feeding hours for meat pie. It being an English style pork pie, he and I both stocked up on several English beers. A variety that we both view with some degree of skepticism, as they generally tend to lack the ballsiness of American craft beers. But, a theme is a theme and we did a fair bit of damage on a few Boddington’s, Young’s and a really nicely surprising Samuel Smith’s Best Organic Ale.
We sat in my back yard, had a few, and ate some pie. Since we were eating it at room temperature, I didn’t add aspic. Even without it, the pie was great: porky, garlicky, hammy and with a flakey, delicious, lard infused crust. I enjoyed it with some Coleman’s mustard, Victor preferred his pork pie straight from the teat with no condiment in the way of its flavor. He grunted audibly when he tasted it. It really was that tasty.
We talked about fatherhood, a particularly enjoyable quote about a bereaved porcupine from Lolita (which he had just finished reading), the various pains in the ass in life and a shared wistfulness for old timey hobo ramblin’. And of course, we talked about the pork pie and how it was going to be on our yearly Thanksgiving menu as of that night. All set to a soundtrack of Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt, Waylon Jennings, Doug Sahm and a neighborhood cat that was begging for bits of food. It wasn’t until about the forth round that I noticed with each trip back from the fridge for a beer, Victor was also enjoying another round of the pork pie, which I welcomed but still am amazed by. Especially after he had yet another piece (his fifth or sixth), mumbling something about “[garble] [garble] [smack] Pork … [belch].”
In Bill Buford’s book, “Among the Thugs” he talks about being amazed by one of the “lads” who casually and regularly consumes an indecent amount of greasy food in various sittings, namely scores of the meat pies my brother loves so much. It was only then, sitting with Victor in my back yard, looking at the scrappy remnants of the once large pork pie, knowing that I’d had but 2 slices of it and watching him share its last crumbs (mustard and all) with the stray cat that had joined us, I realized this was a spectacle reserved for the lucky few. And sitting with my brother that night, enjoying our last beer of the evening with Shane Macgowan croaking in the background, I felt lucky indeed.