Bulging plastic bag in hand, Lee Dennison stands on the doorstep of a Springfield townhouse. With her free hand she rings the doorbell. She shifts the weight of the bag in her other hand, waiting, anxious to get inside. The deadbolt clicks. The door opens.
Keith Stephens greets her with a smile. Or is he just happy to see her mystery package: 10 pounds of suet.
Now they're ready to make mincemeat.
Suet, the white fat around the kidneys and loins of cows and sheep, among other animals, is one of the 20 ingredients in Stephens' mincemeat recipe, which he and Dennison will spend the next six hours making. Unlike the jars of mincemeat in most stores -- the more contemporary style of the traditional spicy English preserve -- Stephens' version is loaded with meat. Eight pounds of lean stew beef will go through the grinder, along with Granny Smith apples and candied citron. Spoons of spices and pounds of currants and raisins are then added to make a gargantuan batch that Stephens and Dennison will turn into pies and then share with friends, family and coworkers.
"Generally," Stephens says, "It is greeted with polite interest."
That tepid reaction has not deterred Stephens and Dennison who, since 1992, have been making a tradition of making mincemeat.
Stephens and Dennison are friends and coworkers at the National Endowment for the Arts. One year they both purchased KitchenAid mixers at Costco (then called Price Club), and Stephens saw an opportunity: if he bought the meat grinder attachment, he knew he could make his family's mincemeat recipe.
And though it is Stephens's recipe, he readily admits that Dennison, the more experienced cook of the two, is the essential ingredient.
"I could do it by myself," Stephens says, "but I can't imagine not doing it with Lee."
For 10 years, they have devoted an entire day to a 100-plus-year-old recipe that Stephens has traced back to his grandfather and a ranch in Nevada.
"There was no electricity there," he explains. "This was one way of preserving beef."
Mincemeat, however, goes back much further than the Wild West of the 19th century. In medieval Europe, mince pies were shaped into cradles and topped with a small figurine of the baby Jesus to celebrate Christmas. With the Reformation in the 16th century came condemnation of the use of religious symbols and tokens in pastries -- a separation of church and cake, if you will. For better or worse, condemnation of the mince pies themselves was not forthcoming.
Though mincemeat is not exactly as mainstream as holiday sugar cookies, for Stephens, making it has been his way of preserving family tradition.
Although he has vivid memories of the dishes his Italian mother made, he does not remember the recipes for her risotto Milanese or veal scaloppine. But the recipe for mincemeat, from his father's side of the family, survived.
Under the fluorescent lights in Stephens's kitchen, two standing mixers, each armed with a meat grinder attachment, chew away at a mixture of cubed beef, the suet (they used only 2 pounds of it -- Dennison had bought lots extra so Stephens could pick out the "best" bits) and 10 pounds of apples -- most of the ingredients, except the spices.
"It doesn't matter the order you grind things," Stephens explains, "It all goes together."
That's debatable, of course. As Stephens acknowledges, you either love mincemeat or you hate it. But those camps are not equally divided -- anecdotal evidence strongly indicates that the latter group would overwhelm the former if the debate ever came to blows.
Stephens is blunt: "It's an acquired taste. You might not find it interesting unless you're willing to take risks."
Once everything is thoroughly ground, it all goes into a huge pot on the stove and is covered with apple cider, strong black coffee and "meat liquor" -- liquid reserved from boiling the stew beef the night before.
Stephens turns on the burner to begin the slow process of heating the mass of ingredients. The standing mixers are shut off and a smaller grinder is pulled out of the cabinet. It's time to work on the spices.
Dennison carefully measures the ginger, mace and allspice with a teaspoon, leveling each scoop with her finger. The loud work the spice grinder makes of the cinnamon sticks fills the kitchen. Dennison adds each spice to a small bowl as she goes, waiting until all the spices are ready before adding any to the pot. When all of the spices have been combined, she dumps them into the pot that is just beginning to bubble.
A quick stir and the room comes alive with a deep and complex aroma. It's powerful stuff.
The mincemeat needs to come to a low boil and simmer for an hour before it's spooned into the 20-odd Mason jars that are drying in the dishwasher. But before the jars are sealed and sent along to be used to make pies for eager (or even not so eager, friends), it's time for a taste test.
Stephens brings a small spoonful to his lips and looks serious.
Dennison tries to read his reaction.
"Your look made me real concerned," she says when he turns towards her, but he reassures her.
"It's fine. I just had to decide."
With mincemeat, that isn't easy. So many different flavors join forces to create one giant flavor, something that Stephens, even after all these years, can't quite put his finger on:
"I don't think I could tell you what it tastes like," he admits. "I don't know how you would describe it."
Beef, suet, apples, citron, currants, black coffee, cider, and spices -- how in the world would anyone describe that combination? And why would anyone put it in a dessert?
For Stephens, the answer is family tradition -- something for which he has acquired a very strong taste.
Matt McMillen last wrote for Food about cooking teacher Helen Worth.