This is my favorite time of year because I get to take out all of my yearlong pent up frustrations on pig shoulders. Yes! It is that time of year for the annual preparation of Christmas tortiere meat pies at the Burn household.
This is a tradition handed down through generations of my wife’s family. The recipe can be traced all the way back to the 1300’s in Southern France where my wife’s ancestors used to put entire pigs into their meat pies. Today, we are much more civilized and limit ourselves to the shoulders only.
This annual tradition begins around October when the first Christmas meat flyers start appearing on our doorstep by the ream. The routine starts with my wife complaining bitterly about the price per pound of pork shoulder in Ontario. It is followed by my wife’s call to her mother who lives in la belle province of Quebec, which is still technically a part of Canada. For some mysterious reason, the pig farmers in Quebec are able to grow and sell their pigs at a fraction of the price of the Ontario pigs. The next step involves my wife, her sister and her brother, who also live in Ontario, putting in their orders with my mother-in-law for pig shoulders. Then, my mother-in-law rents a U-Haul trailer and relieves the Quebec grocery stores of upwards of 800 pounds of pig shoulders, which incidentally, is the equivalent of 18 million guinea pigs. This may sound like a lot, but trust me, after you remove the skin, the veins, the arteries, the rotator cuff, and the little strings of pig fat, you’re only left with enough actual meat for about a dozen pies.
So armed with pig shoulders, freezers are filled until the big day. This momentous day begins when I take three or four carving knives out of the cupboard and begin to hack away the non-meat parts of the shoulder. Hacking away at pig shoulders is a marvelous outlet for a years worth of anxiety and angst. Unchecked, I would normally reduce several pigs worth of shoulders into a large mound of pig shoulder shavings, but I have been instructed that the pig shoulder meat should be diced into one-inch cubes. This usually takes five-to-seven hours and approximately 30 band-aids. The cat becomes my closest and dearest friend as I toss the scraps into the garbage can on the kitchen floor.
The big day continues into the next big day when it is my wife’s turn to transform the one-inch cubes of pig shoulder meat into tortiere meat pies. She begins this day at six a.m. with an hour of meditation and prayer. After waking up the kids, seeing that they have breakfast, brushing their teeth, getting them dressed, making their beds, finishing their homework, and packing their lunches (I magnanimously help out by reminding the kids to look both ways before they cross the street), she is ready to make pastry.
Pastry making is an ancient art form first introduced by ancient peoples. You would think that with the passage of time we would have perfected this art, but tragically, this is not the case. So making pastry is still a mystery that confounds millions of women to this very day and causes countless husbands to leave the house to go to the local pub and watch international snooker tournaments on satellite TV. It is a sacrifice we are willing to make. When we think that it is safe to return and open the fridge for a fresh beer, we find that the contents of the fridge have been replaced with little balls of pasty white pastry wrapped in ten thousand linear feet of Saran Wrap.
Now the fun begins. I invite several of my friends and neighbors over to watch my wife roll out the pastry into squares, rectangles, diamonds and stars. Now, the pastry is supposed to be in circle, but for reasons unbeknownst to leading egghead scientists, a circle is an impossible feat. Meditating heavily, my wife carefully lifts out the pastry shape, disappointed; and hurls it into the nearest garbage receptacle. She has lost all sense of reason. This drama goes on for several hours until, at last, a single tortiere pig shoulder meat pie has been assembled.
The big day repeats itself again and again until Christmas Eve when we have our required dozen meat pies.
Then we can begin the rest of our annual Christmas traditions like buying presents and putting up a tree.
Nick Burn is a freelance writer, husband, father of three, engineer, teacher, and webmaster for the Canadian Catholic Information Network. In his spare time (hah!), he enjoys camping, skiing and reading.