When I visited my dad in Queensland, Australia a few months ago, it had been more than three decades since I’d been back to my parent’s homeland. High on my list of things to do when I returned was have an honest-to-goodness meat pie.
I find when most Americans hear “meat pie,” they think of one of two things. Either they do a quick (but incorrect) translation in their heads and think what I’ve said is “chicken pot pie.” Still ignorant, they nod knowingly. Or they recall Stephen Sondheim’s musical masterpiece, Sweeney Todd. Set in Victorian London, the story features a villainous pie maker who fills her greasy meat pies with household pets and her husband’s murder victims. Until the actual ingredients are discovered, the savory treats are the toast of the town.
Minus the kitties and the corpses, this second kind of pie is closer to what I remember so fondly.
When my grandmother used to come to visit, several days of each trip were devoted to intense pasty creation. Pasties are a close cousin to the meat pie. Their only real difference is that they aren’t made in pie dishes, but by folding the dough over the meat center. She would make dozens of lamb pasties and freeze them. Then we’d warm them up and enjoy them for months after.
Chicken (or turkey) pot pies are fine, but they’re not the same as a meat pie. Generally, the kind stuffed with fowl depend on a goopy, sweet gravy to provide the flavor. Further, the pot pie maker is usually so intent on showing off the wholesome ingredients they’re working with that the day-glow vegetables are cut into large cubes—almost as evidence.
It should be possible to eat a real meat pie in your hands with only a napkin. This just can’t be done elegantly with a pot pie.
The flavor of a meat pie derives less from the choice of meat than from the spices and other ingredients minced up very finely with it. There are many different flavor varieties available, but they are never sweet. Many people enjoy meat pies with plenty of ketchup, but I’ve always preferred having a bottle of Worcestershire sauce at hand. A true meat pie might entice your eyes with its buttery, flaky pastry, but a true connoisseur doesn’t peek beyond the folds of dough. He explores the inside of such a pie only with his mouth.
Almost as soon as I arrived in Australia, I spotted a place called “Dad’s Pie Shop.” Pies and pie shops were everywhere. Places that sold sandwiches and salads also sold meat pies. While I was there, I had three meat pies from three different shops. All of them were just okay. Not surprisingly, none of them had my grandmother’s love or generosity. They all seemed prefabricated and joyless.
Imagine my surprise when, returning home to the land of chicken pot pie, I was told the new bakery on Main Street in Northampton, Tart Baking Co., was serving up the real thing. I was naturally skeptical at first, but two visits have confirmed the authenticity of their pies. For five bucks and some change and served with their own ketchup, their classic beef meat pie is a brilliant blend of buttery pastry and savory meatiness. The tango between the juices and crust is sublime.
I was equally impressed with their sausage, sauerkraut and mashed potato blend. I’ve seen a ham and egg variety I have not yet tried. There was also something vegetarian which I was told was good. Clearly this will require more study.•