Shepherd's pie, and the unreasonable fondness we feel for certain foods.
Adapted from: cottage pie, the common dish of English origin.
There are a handful of foods I remember experiencing for the first time in a school lunchroom in Mississippi. I’m pretty sure they were actually mediocre, as you’d expect public school lunches to be, but the sheer novelty of them at the time has cemented these dishes in my brain as some of my life to date’s most pleasurable food experiences. There was “spaghetti with meat sauce,” which I later learned to call bolognese; sloppy joes, which I still seek out at barbecue joints, and shepherd’s pie, a dish I make once a year just to get a hit of that high-potency nostalgia, a sense of comfort unrivaled by even the best of blanketed nooks.
I am constantly marveling at how these fondness connections are formed, how so much of taste is forged by the tiny quotidian hammers of our experience. It explains why my mouth waters at the thought of fermented tofu, even though it smells like rotten beans, or why certain people recoil at the scent of clove while others love it (because eugenol, an aromatic compound extracted from cloves, is used as an antiseptic in certain dental clinics).
Food traditions and cultural associations certainly play a huge hand in this taste-making, but some of it feels arbitrary, less linear, more delightful. My mother, whose diet consists mostly of vegetables, rice and chili peppers, adores an over-salted chicharron. My partner, who shares my unbridled enthusiasm for most foods, cannot stand a particular brand of olives. These aberrances are endlessly charming to me, part of the unanswered and unexplained parts of life that should be kept the way they are.
So, I adore shepherd’s pie, and I don’t really know why. Not that I think this is singular to me—there are endless variations and similar dishes found throughout the world, a few of which I’ll list in the recipes section. It’s evidently beloved enough to have stuck around, although most people I know feel pleasantly ambivalent towards it.
Fun fact: in French Canada, shepherd’s pie is known as “pâté chinois” (Chinese pie). Disappointingly, it is not named that because of one Chinese woman’s adoration for the dish. The name’s exact origins remain a mystery, although it’s likely somewhat racist. The most popular hypothesis connects the dish back to Chinese labourers working on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. You can learn more about the other hypotheses here.
As for the origins of the dish itself: it emerged in the UK in the late 1700s, as a clever way to use up leftovers by the name of “cottage pie.” “Shepherd’s pie” emerged later, and would distinguish itself from cottage pie based on the type of ground meat used (mutton/lamb instead of beef). This distinction is still present in the UK and Australia/New Zealand, but in North America, we seem to use “shepherd’s” for both.
As for the vegetarian version? Allow me to introduce you to the Shepherdless Pie.
Curried Shepherd’s Pie, by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey
This recipe is my go-to, because the curry powder gives the dish just that little bit of complexity that my tongue seeks.
I like a slightly sweet ground meat layer and a more pronounced tomato flavour, so I added 2 tbsps of ketchup and 1 tbsp of tomato paste to step 3. The acidity and sweetness help cut through what is otherwise a very linear flavour range.
Also can’t resist a cheesy crust, so grated some mimolette (any hard, aged cheese would work here, something nutty is ideal) overtop at the end and broiled for five minutes. It was truly perfect.
Variations from other places:
🇦🇷 In Argentina, it’s called pastel de papas, and features spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and other ingredients like olives and hard-boiled eggs. (Recipe via From Argentina With Love.)
🇳🇱 In the Netherlands, a similar dish is the filosoof, or “philosopher’s stew”—featuring the addition of apples. (Recipe via Go Dutch.)
🇵🇹 The Portugese version, empadão de carne, uses red wine in the meat simmering process, and more tomatoes. (Recipe via Purple Door Supper Club.)
What recipes do you have an inexplicable love for? Send them my way please.
Until next time,
P.S. My sincerest apologies to F-u-c-h-s-i-a Dunlop, whose name was butchered throughout my last newsletter. I cannot seem to spell it despite years of referencing her cookbooks. All of you were too polite to point this out, for which you have my gratitude.