In a folder, under my bed, is a 1969 Christmas card from the St. Bernard’s school in New York City. The reason I happen to have this particular card is because a six-year-old version of me is on the cover, holding a leash attached to a dog twice my size (care to guess the breed?). The dog would clearly have no problem dragging me the length of Central Park (where the photo was taken) as a warm up exercise to eating me. In the photo, I’m wearing a very smart cap and Angus Young-style AC/DC shorts.
I attended St. Bernard’s during first, second and sixth grade. The last year I was there I didn’t quite fit in: I had spent those intervening three years at, for the lack of a better term, a hippie school. Constructed in the middle of a potato field in Bridgehampton (we moved out of the city for 3 years) it was predictably laid back, accepting, artsy and not the best set up for a return to an all-boys preparatory school. But during my first two years there I was very happy; apparently happy enough to be asked to represent the school on the front of its annual holiday card.
In retrospect my happiness is unsurprising, particularly when I recall my second grade teacher, Mrs. Goldsmith. Mrs. Goldsmith was the bee’s knees and my first crush, despite her being a Mrs. (the heart wants what the heart wants). It’s true that by now she must be in her late 60s or early 70s, but to me she’s still the young, Ray Ban-wearing object of my affection, her hair pulled back in a pony tail while she organizes us for field day or stands by the blackboard holding chalk and looking quite fine.
But more than Mrs. Goldsmith made lasting impressions on me during those early years. For example, there were the two unrelated events that took place during lunch. The lunch room at St. Bernard’s was in the basement. Big room, long tables and boys in uniform, much like every movie I’ve ever seen that took place in an English boarding school. And in that room two things were stamped so firmly on my 6 or 7-year-old psyche that they, like my crush on Mrs. Goldsmith, remain quite vivid, even over four decades later.
The first was mistaking a serving bowl of pickled beets for a huge, glorious mountain of jellied cranberry. The 6-year-old me, much like the present-day me, was quite a fan of canned cranberry jelly and I promptly levered a large forkful of what I assumed was Ocean Spray into my mouth. I’ve no idea what twisted version of its pre-beet countenance my face then screwed itself into, but I do know that not yet having learned much restraint I promptly launched the vile stuff back onto my plate. To this day, not a single beet more has passed between my lips.
The second memory, though, was far better: my discovery of the joys of shepherd’s pie. The St. Bernard’s shepherd’s pie (at least as it exists in my memory) was lamb/potato perfection in a pan, served up by teachers using too-small slotted spoons. A delicious casserole of spiced, minced lamb with veggies and gravy, topped with a thick layer of creamy, browned mashed potatoes, shepherd’s pie may have originally been just a convenient way to dispose of leftovers, but it became my oasis of meaty joy in the basement of a boys’ school in Manhattan.
It says a lot about the intrinsic quality of shepherd’s pie that a boys’ school in New York City could make one this good, because Gordon Ramsay is too young to have put these lunches together. Far more likely: a lunch mistress who’d rather have been at home watching her stories on the television.
Unlike other oddball British dishes like spotted dick (which is neither as hilarious nor unpleasant as I wish it were) and blood pudding (which can tend to be a bit more unpleasant than I wish it were), shepherd’s pie is right up there with a pint of bitter for top honors on the list of English things I want in my belly. And by the way, that list is actually longer than you’d think. The Brits have copped an undeservedly poor reputation for food. Their obsessions with bangers and minced meat pies alone make England a better culinary stronghold than most people assume.
But when it comes to shepherd’s pie, it’s not necessary to take my word for it. Ask yourself a simple question: how many casseroles sound better than one made with lamb, gravy, potatoes and (a few) vegetables? See what I mean? Frankly, I’d be comfortable ending this thing right here if I didn’t feel it necessary to address a few of shepherd’s pie’s pretenders.
I’ve seen some variants here in the States that use ground beef in place of ground lamb, which is a big enough insult to the original British dish that I wouldn’t be surprised if it reopened hostilities that were resolved over 200 years ago. And I’m betting France won’t be lining up on our side this time. Even more disturbing, I’ve located a recipe for “tater tot casserole” which claims to be the “southern cousin” of shepherd’s pie. If so, it’s the cousin no one likes to talk about: the middle-aged one that lives in his mom’s basement and wears his Meister Bräu t-shirt in the shower.
So in the name of international relations and to prevent any further shepherd’s pie perversions, this week I’m going to tell you how to make a traditional shepherd’s pie. It’s a fairly basic recipe and I suggest you play with it to make it your own. The holy trinity of meat, onions and mashed potatoes has tremendous power and resilience, so as long as you stick to using lamb don’t be scared to get creative (like maybe dressing up as an English schoolboy when it’s time to eat).