Needing a little inspiration for my weekly menu, I was flipping through my trusty Ponsford Prairie Partners cookbook when I stumbled upon Ms. Terri Walen’s “Beef-N-Tater Bake.” The recipe has seven ingredients and six sentences of instructions. The first two sentences are as follows.
“Mix together and put in lg. meatloaf pan. Bake 350 degrees for 45 minutes.”
Such brevity is a refreshing change from our current culinary culture in which recipes on cooking blogs are hidden among a photo gallery featuring each ingredient, a heart-warming background story of the recipe, and aggravatingly unnecessary instructions such as “use a medium size spoon to mix.” I can imagine Ms. Walen jotting down her straightforward instructions on a 3 x 5 note card before handing it to a visitor who enjoyed the “beef-n-tater bake” and asked her for the recipe. Neither the visitor nor hostess had time for a photo-filled, sentiment-soaked blog post; they had time for a 3 x 5 card. After all, there were cows to milk, children to spank, and hills to walk up in the snow!
Ms. Walen’s recipe caught my eye because it sounded a lot like shepherd’s pie, one of my favorite comfort foods, and who can’t use a little comfort right now? After all, the “taters” in Ms. Walen’s recipe aren’t in the baked, au gratin, or tot variety; they are in mashed form. No direction is given for how to make the mashed potatoes; again, this was written in the time when people knew how to cook to survive, and making mashed potatoes was as instinctual as breathing, walking, talking about the weather, and playing whist. After all, smothering meat mixed and vegetables with smashed spuds is carried in the DNA inherited from the Ponsford Prairie Partners’ northern European ancestors. Shepherd’s pie – originally made, and still properly made, with ground lamb – came from sheep-farming country in northern England and Scotland as a way to use up leftover meat from a previous meal (Siciliano-Rosen, 2014). Shepherd’s pie was actually the descendant of cottage pie developed in the 18th century with origins in Ireland and the United Kingdom (Stegeman, 2020). Cottage pie also allowed frugal “cottagers” to make a meal with leftover meat and the ubiquitous, affordable potato (Stegeman, 2020). Today, both varieties of the dish have similar appearances and ingredients, but “shepherd’s pie” denotes a dish made with lamb/mutton, and “cottage pie” denotes a dish made with beef (Stegeman, 2020).
Using Ms. Walen’s recipe – and a few other recipes I’ve come across on the internet – I decided to make a dish I call “cabin pie” – half beef, half venison, 100% delicious. I like how this combines so many well-known aspects of northern Minnesota: the mixed veggies and beef pay homage to gardeners and small-scale beef farmers, venison symbolizes the deeply ingrained hunting culture, cheddar cheese represents the dairy industry, and mashed taters are a nod to the sandy potato fields. I decided to use both venison and beef not just because I wanted plenty of leftovers on hand, but because the ground beef lends some fat and mild flavor to make the very lean, strongly flavored venison more palatable.
While firsthand experience can teach us that flavors differ among meat animal species, the exact formula that leads to a distinct flavor is still unknown, as various aspects of meat – fats, proteins, minerals, and compounds – can contribute to flavor (Aberle, Forress, Gerrard, & Mills, 2001). Case in point: a recent study from Latvia comparing chemical compositions of meat from wild deer, farmed deer, and farmed beef showed that beef contained significantly more cholesterol, less essential amino acid content, lower polyunsaturated omega-3 and omega-6 fat levels, and lower zinc concentration than both types of deer (Gramatina, Rakcejeva, Silina, & Jemljanovs, 2011). Also, two compounds created from the use of energy stores – inosine monophosphate and hypoxanthine – can enhance flavor in meat, and game animals performing more physical activity than confined livestock before harvest would logically create more of these compounds (Aberle et al., 2001).
Cabin pie is a wonderful nod to both the past and the present. Knowing that a warm, steaming bowl of familiar flavors comforted my ancestors through their own struggles is encouragement to face these troubling times and enjoy what I can in the meanwhile. After all, what greater cure is there for cabin fever but a hot dish of comfort food while dreaming of being away at the cabin?
Aberle, E.D., Forrest, J.C., Gerrard, D.E., Mill, E.W. (Eds.). (2001). Principles of Meat Science. (4th ed.). Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.
Gramatina, I., Rakcejeva, T., Silina, L., Jemeljanovs, A. “Comparison of Venison and Beef Chemical Composition.” 57th International Congress of Meat Science and Technology, Ghent-Belgium, August 7-12. 2011. [PDF]. Retrieved from http://icomst-proceedings.helsinki.fi/papers/2011_15_02.pdf
Siciliano-Rosen, L. (2 Oct. 2014). Shepherd’s pie. Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/shepherds-pie.
Stegeman, G. (16 March 2020). A history of shepherd’s pie. Chowhound.com. Retrieved from https://www.chowhound.com/food-news/222061/shepherds-pie-history/.