Secret Ingredients

Secret Ingredients

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Book of Christmas Virtues

Secret Ingredients

I press “play” on the VCR and sit back to watch the ten-year-old video. On it was my kids’ attempt to record my father’s secret ingredients as he prepared our annual Christmas meat pies.

“Hi, Mom.” I see myself looking out of the screen, gesturing for Lisa to aim the camera at her grandfather instead.

“Hi, Grandpa,” she says next as the camera sweeps his direction.

My dad nods in acknowledgement while he pries open the lid of a spice can.

“Mom, what are you doing now?” The camera swings back to me.

“The hard part, as usual.” I make a production of stirring the meat in a large pot. “Dad, don’t strain yourself shaking that spice can,” I tease over my shoulder.

We’re making meat pies—my family’s holiday tradition.

As an adolescent, I was not particularly close to my father. After driving a delivery truck and unloading heavy packages all day to support our large family, he barely had energy left to talk to me, except to ask me to get him another beer from the fridge or go buy him a carton of cigarettes.

But one Christmas, he expressed a desire to make meat pies like his mother had. Although he could figure out the filling, he didn’t have a clue about the crust. Then my junior high home ec teacher gave me a recipe for no-fail pastry.

Mustering my courage, I approached Dad and suggested we team up and experiment with the pies. Much to my delight, he agreed to give it a shot.

I began the pastry crust in the morning. Following the instructions precisely, I blended the dough while Dad sautéed the meat in a large pot—equal amounts of ground chuck and ground pork. He added onions and then debated on the spices.

They were the tricky part. Allspice, savory, sage, thyme, cloves, salt and pepper. He added them all on instinct, guessing at the amounts. The meat simmered and teased our noses.

Meanwhile, I successfully rolled out the crust and placed it in a greased and floured pie plate. I held the empty pie shell close to the pot while my father ladled in bubbling meat. When we judged it full enough, I positioned the top crust, crimped the edges with the tines of a fork, brushed it all with milk, and popped it into the oven. We put together several for dinner.

The aroma of baking pies was encouraging. By the time they were done, the whole family was salivating. But, would the meat pies taste as good as they smelled?

Dad placed a slice on each of our plates. The pastry flaked when our forks cut through it. Then the first taste: eyes closed, nostrils flared, smiles appeared and a unanimous “mmm . . . mm” resounded around the kitchen table.

“This is really good,” Dad winked at me, “but I think the meat is the best part.”

“Oh, really? I don’t think so,” I teased back. “The crust is delicious; the meat is a close second.”

The bantering continued until we finally agreed that neither would be any good without the other. I glowed with pride. We had worked—side-by-side—to replicate the old family recipe, my dad and I.

That was the start of our Christmas tradition.

As he aged, it became more difficult for my dad to do his part. Some years we made as many as fifteen pies and stirring such a large pot of meat was not an easy task. Finally, I recruited my children, Brian and Lisa, as our kitchen assistants.

One year, Dad got pneumonia and never fully recovered. The Christmas after he died, I couldn’t bear the thought of making meat pies. Besides, they wouldn’t be the same without his secret seasonings. But Brian and Lisa insisted we continue the thirty-five-year-old holiday ritual.

Forcing my mind to the present, I focus again on the video, curious to see what he adds to the pot.

But Dad smiles now from the television screen while he scrapes the last of his savory meat into a pie shell. As I struggle to position the top crust on this final, skimpy pie, someone off-camera suggests it should be for Uncle Bruce, who’s always first in line to get his.

“Here, let me spit on it.” I wink. “I hope he’s not watching this video.” Everyone laughs and the screen goes white.


It occurs to me that I hadn’t noticed a single label on the spices Dad used in the video. Yet a huge grin sweeps across my face when I realize we’d captured the secret ingredients after all.

The secret wasn’t in the seasonings. It was in the people. The teasing and joking. The laughing and loving. And I know it was the working together—side-by-side— that made our Christmas meat pies so special.

Jane Zaffino

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