I’m flying to London at the crack of dawn on Tuesday, and then getting a train the next morning to Edinburgh for my sold out (!!!) talk on lost women writers at the National Library of Scotland on Thursday. Before then we have our health insurance for next year to sort out (don’t get me started) and a house to clean and a party to prep, and of course I have to pack, which generally means embarking on some long-overdue clothes-mending project, like yesterday’s quest to find leather glue for shoes somewhere along Ditmars Boulevard. (Incidentally, why is every shoe mender in the land stubbornly cash only? It costs like fifty bucks to resole shoes!) I also have edits on one piece still due and a heap of prep to do for all the antisocial fellowship applications that are due the first week of January. Why, people? Note to academia: breaks and holidays do not exist merely as convenient places to slot in more work.
Anyway, I am not here to talk about the pleasures of railing against illogical systems, but to celebrate the focusing energy of the pre-flight countdown. I am not habitually good with deadlines, enjoying the whooshing sound as they fly by, etc, but flight deadlines are appealingly concrete. They do the work of prioritizing for you, or in this case, confirming what I already knew was the priority: Mince pies.
For about five years now, I’ve been on a one-woman mission to share British Christmas excellence, namely mince pies, with Americans, and if the TED talk people are listening, I’ve got the talking points worked out already: no, meat is not involved, and no, currants aren’t the same as raisins, and no, it is not insane to slide a teeny little slice of Stilton on the top of your pie. Like most kids I grew up thinking mince pies and their cousins, Christmas pudding and Christmas cake, were gross abominations. How dare dried fruit raise its wrinkly old head when chocolate exists? Then at some point in my teens, around the same time as I woke up to coffee, I connected the delicious, spicy, fruity, boozy scent of Christmas with its flavors. (I’m still not sold on the cake, though. Too solid, too much commitment. Instead I am seriously considering giving this ginger stout cake a go, unless I can track down McVitie’s Jamaica Ginger Cake at the Irish food store, in which case I’m just buying three of those):
Getting traditional British foods in New York is hit-or-miss, so I’m excited to check out The Butchers Block in Sunnyside, which an Irish bar owner friend of T’s told us about a few months ago, when his company did a British-themed trivia event for the Smithsonian channel (long story). I’m hoping it can replace my annual pilgrimage to Myer’s of Keswick in the West Village, which is delightful and festive but ruinously priced for the same stock you’d find in a dusty corner shop in any English town.
My mince-pie making has evolved in ambition over the years. Early on I would buy the filling from M of K, approaching ten dollars for a small jar of Tiptree, which especially stung knowing that Sainsbury’s probably did five different, superior versions for half the price that would never be imported here. I gussied it up with extra orange zest and juice and brandy, but then realized that M of K also sold the sine qua non of mincemeat: suet. It is only to my knowledge made by one company, Atora, in a primary-colored packet that looks exactly the same now as it did in my childhood, a solid fat that melts and binds all the other ingredients. For the last couple of years I bought my suet (thankfully now in a vegetarian version) and raided the Whole Foods dispenser bins for the nine different kinds of raisins and currants the filling requires. I couldn’t find candied peel so I *candied my own*. I’m not messing around here. I loosely follow Nigel Slater’s recipe, and Delia’s for the filling, and agree with Nigel’s dictum that most commercial mince pies are too big, too sweet, and too heavy on the pastry. So I make mine in a mini-muffin tin, open-faced, topped only with a dusting of icing/confectioner’s sugar. I am happy to report that their appeal is constant: American friends now check to make sure I am making them, and children spit them out.
Culture This Week
We did an out-of-character thing this week and went to a private concert in the lounge of an apartment building in downtown Brooklyn, a recital that we were invited to by our friend Rob, organized by his buddies in the Brooklyn Accordion Club. Two Czech musicians, plus two young students from the Prague conservatory, played cello, violin and accordion—and one of the students kicked off with a piece from Bach’s cello suites, and I, whose classical music knowledge could fit into one small mince pie, got to be all I know this one!! There was also lots of tango, and it was a delight.
Also: my dear friend Sarah—who is very entertaining and very much not an unbelievable jerk—sent me this piece this morning, on Life Among the Karens. It’s magical. Enjoy.
Me This Week
I’m not big on the pleasure of the pan, as a rule, but occasionally books are really, really bad. Back in October I reviewed Hardcore History podcaster Dan Carlin’s book on disasters for Air Mail, ex-Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter’s new newsletter (everyone’s doing it!) and, well, it was bad. Here’s why.