Best Cook: Meat Pie
“Moose” (Raymond) Despres had his first meat pie when he was 4 years old. That would be as soon as he could remember anything. “1944, New Year’s Eve,” he recalls. “They’d bring out the meat pies at midnight; that’s how we always did it. And then we’d all go for a sleigh ride afterward.”
Moose grew up in Nashua, New Hampshire. His parents and grandparents were all French Canadian, his ancestors from the St. Lawrence Valley. He met Penny when he was 17; she was 15. She grew up in Nashua, too, and her parents and grandparents were all French Canadian, from Quebec. All their grandmothers made tourtieres–meat pies–the same way.
Not that that was the reason they got married. No, there were other reasons. But the meat pies? They’ve always been a big part of their lives. The only difference was that Penny’s family made meat pies for Christmas Eve, not New Year’s Eve. No matter–that just meant more reasons for meat pies.
Moose liked to take them along on hunting trips to Maine. “We used to take the pie out of the oven in the early morning, wrap it in newspaper, and put it in the trunk,” he says. “We wouldn’t get there until afternoon, but the pie would still be warm. Meat pies, you can eat them hot, warm, cold. You get up in the middle of the night and you’re hungry? Cold from the fridge is just fine.” And, of course, you eat the pie with mustard.
Moose is sitting in his rocker beside the woodstove in their country kitchen while Penny–her hands and apron dusted with flour–is rolling out the dough for the crust. It’s silky, soft. (Her secret is vinegar.) Her fingers fly, deft, assured. While she works, they think back on the meat pies of their lives. Penny’s grandmother, Memere Rousseau, gave her the recipe when they got married, 48 years ago. “This recipe has to be 100 years old, maybe more,” she says.
Moose and Penny dreamed of life in the country. “When I was 16, he promised me he’d build me a log house,” Penny says. That would be the beautiful log home they now live in: smooth, peeled pine logs lining the walls and holding up the big roof, logs from trees that grew on this land in Marlow, New Hampshire. Out back is Moose’s sugar shack, where he boils maple syrup in the spring; he uses some of it to make the Saturday-night baked beans.
Moose, he makes the syrup and the doughnuts, right there in a big kettle on the cookstove. Penny, she does the pies, with crusts so light and flaky they melt in your mouth. Until recently they raised pigs so that they could make the pies with their own pork and also make salt pork for the beans. They’ve cut back on that, but Penny still makes the pies. And lives in the house that Moose built.