The smell struck Mac as soon as he stepped into the woodshed. Pushing the outside door shut, he stood in the dark space sniffing. Wood, of course, chunks of maple, beech, oak, curing in neat ranks along the walls. Drifts of the familiar farm smells: the horse barn, the tang of wood smoke, cold winter air and, very faintly, the suggestion of the privy attached to the far end of the shed.
He clumped up the shallow steps to the kitchen door and stood inhaling the scent of something cooking--he recognized apples, spices, something heavy and sweet and rich.
Mac lifted the latch and stepped inside. The lamps had not been lit and he could see the glow of flames dancing beneath the lids of the black cookstove. The last light of a short winter afternoon pooled on the scrubbed pine table, melted away into shadows at the edges of the room.
"For pity sakes, Mac, close the door! You're letting heat out into the shed!"
Mother turned from the stove, a large wooden spoon poised above a heavy cast-iron kettle.
Mac hastily latched the door and moved to his Mother's side.
"What are you making?" he asked.
Mother, carefully maneuvering the black kettle to the end of the stove-top, gave a small sigh of accomplishment before she replied, "Mincemeat. For Christmas pies. Andrew, light the lamp and Julia, fetch a sauce dish and three spoons."
While the younger children hopped to do their mother's bidding, Mac eased off his heavy overshoes and mittens, spread his chilled hands above the warmth of the stove.
He watched while Mother spooned a generous dollop of the mincemeat into the dish that Julia held.
"Let it cool a minute or you'll burn your tongues," she warned. "Then you each have a taste."
The children blew on their laden spoons, savoured the unfamiliar melding of flavors: the richness of beef roasted and ground fine; the tartness of apples; the deep sweetness of brown sugar, plump raisins, and the subtle mysteries of cinnamon and allspice.
"When will you make the pies?" inquired Mac.
"A day or two before Christmas," replied Mother. "When the mincemeat cools I'll pack it in covered pans and you can put it on the high shelf in the shed where it will stay cold til then."
Later that evening the mincemeat was spooned into two large enameled baking pans, pressed down and smoothed with the wooden spoon. Mother wrapped the pans in several layers of cheesecloth and stood gazing with satisfaction at the result of her hours of chopping, stirring and tasting.
Andrew held the lamp while Mac carefully lifted the pans to the clean wooden shelf just beyond the kitchen door in the cold shed.
Waking in the grey-white gloom of a snowy December morning, Mac thought he could still decipher the scent of cinnamon, as though the essence of meat and fruit and spices had trailed up the stairwell and now hung in the unheated bedroom he shared with Andrew.
Rubbing sleep from his eyes he calculated that there were about 10 days before Mother would be making the Christmas pies.
Mac's chores before and after school took him through the woodshed, in and out the kitchen door many times a day. Sometimes he glanced up at the shelf where reposed the pans of mincemeat and remembered how good it tasted. He fancied that even in the frigid air of the shed he could smell its rich aroma overlaying the pervasive aura of snow, woodsmoke and faint farmyard odors.
On the second day, depositing an armful of split dry maple in the kitchen woodbox, he found himself surprisingly alone in the big warm room.
With no premeditation, he removed a teaspoon from the flared glass vase which sat in the middle of the table and slipped it into his pocket.
In the shed he reached down a pan of mincemeat, tweaked aside a corner of the cheesecloth wrapping and goudged out a spoonful of the spicey treat, tucked in the covering and replaced the pan on the wide wooden shelf.
Each day thereafter he permitted himself a spoonful from one pan or the other, never thinking beyond the enjoyment of this stolen tidbit.
There came the Saturday morning two days before Christmas when Mother rose from the breakfast table with rather more than her usual purposeful bustle.
Julia was sent to bring all the pie pans from the pantry cupboard. Andrew made sure the woodbox was filled to the brim and Mac was directed to fetch the pans of mincemeat from their chilly isolation in the shed.
When Mac re-entered the kitchen, the pans balanced one atop the other, Mother had assembled her pastry board, the rolling pin, the canister of flour.
With no particular misgivings Mac watched as she pulled aside the cheesecloth that swathed the pans.
There was silence, then Mother spoke with a gasp of astonishment.
"Mercy sakes! Something has been into my mincemeat!"
Mac stood rooted to the floor. He was near enough to the table to see, in broad daylight, exactly what Mother was viewing. He was surprised to note that he must have eaten more of the mincemeat than he thought. All along the sides of the pans were uneven nibbles where the mincemeat had been scooped away.
Mother snatched up one of the pans, carried it to the window and turned it this way and that, peering anxiously at the contents in the stronger light.
Returning to the table she smacked the pan down and stood glaring at it, her cheeks pink and her blue eyes sparking.
"I do belive there has been a mouse in the mincemeat!" She held up one of the lengths of cheesecloth, shook it suspiciously. She picked up her wooden spoon and prodded cautiously along the edge of one pan.
"I don't see mouse droppings and the cheesecloth hasn't been nibbled, but what else could it be?"
She stood, lips in a firm line, thinking, then let her breath out in an irritated huff.
"What a waste," she fumed. " I'll have to scrape out the mincemeat along the edges of the pans and throw it out. I can't risk mouse dirt in my pies!"
Glaring, she reached for the big spoon again, clattered about in the pans on the table.
Although he hadn't moved from his stance beside the table, Mac's mind had been racing.
He recalled the day early in October when the pedlar had made his last round of the mountain hamlet before winter, rumbling into the yard with his horse drawn cart. He saw again the care with which Mother had counted out silver and copper coins from the small blue crock that held her egg and butter money.
The pedlar had handed over the bright tins of spices which had been tucked away in the big cupboard--"for Christmas baking", Mother had said with satisfaction.
Mac remembered the more recent trip to the company store that served the workers at the graphite mine. He had driven the team, hitched them and waited with Mother while flour and brown sugar and the precious and pricey raisins had been scooped into paper sacks and weighed.
The clerk had entered the amounts in his account book, to be deducted from the wages Father would be paid as one of the mine foreman.
Waste: of hard-earned money, of special ingredients, waste of the hours which had gone into chopping, stirring and tasting.
Mac found his voice at last and spoke with urgency.
"Ma!" He took a stride closer to the table. "Ma, don't throw out the mincemeat!
There haven't been any mice in it!"
Mother, standing with the big spoon ready to dip into the pan, suddenly fixed Mac with a speculative gaze.
"You sound very sure about the mice. Just how do you know?"
"Because," said Mac in a rush, "It's me that's been eating the mincemeat. A little bit every day."
He felt his ears going warm as Mother continued to focus her attention on him, but he didn't drop his eyes.
"I guess I didn't want to wait until Christmas to taste the mincemeat again."
"Well!" said Mother, and the word was a small explosion in the quiet kitchen.
Julia and Andrew stood behind her, watching this unforeseen drama unfold.
The kitchen was momentarily so still that the soft crackle of the fire in the wood range seemed loud.
Mother moved with sudden swiftness and the wooden spoon slapped across Mac's knuckles.
"Really, Mac," said Mother crossly, "What a greedy thing to do!"
"Yes, " said Mac, and he rubbed his smarting hand against his jacket. "Its awfully good mincemeat...and I ...err...I didn't think I'd gotten into it all that much."
Mother sniffed, rattled her pans, moved the pastry board into place.
"I'm glad you fessed up in the nick of time, " she conceded. "If something had to get into my mincemeat, I'd rather it was you than a mouse."
The tension of the last few moments was over. The kitchen again was a warm and homely room.
Mother gave her apron strings a twitch and began scooping flour into the big green bowl.
"Put some wood in the stove, Mac. If we're going to have pies for Christmas, we'd better commence."
This is one of my Grampa Mac's stories of growing up in the little mining community of Graphite in up-state New York.
From all accounts my great-grandmother was not a lady to antagonize.