This Thanksgiving pie has been in her fridge for 31 years
Sheila Kelly has had a mincemeat pie in her fridge for 31 years.
It sits in the top shelf with a note: “Do not remove pie. It is a sacred object.”
When this pie came into her house three decades ago, it wasn’t special at all. And it was not what Kelly had asked her mother, Helen, to bring to Thanksgiving.
“I asked her to bring her famous mincemeat tarts, that are just so wonderful, you know,” she said.
Proper mincemeat had meat in it — like, meat from a butcher — with raisins, apples, spices and rum.
But Helen didn’t bring her own that year. Instead of her famous tarts, Helen brought a factory-made Lloyd J. Harriss brand mince pie from the frozen foods aisle at the Spokane Safeway. It probably didn’t even have meat in it.
“I was disappointed," Kelly said. "But I thought, she’s 88, she doesn’t want to cook; she’s coming over here to be taken care of. ‘Well anyway,’ I thought, ‘Who am I to expect homemade mincemeat tarts?'”
Helen was a great cook. But she’d raised five boys, and cooking for them all was a chore. So when Sheila, her last child, came along, Helen didn’t want her to have to cook.
“I can remember standing at the stove, and I said, 'I want to learn how to cook,'" Kelly said. "And she said, 'You go be student body president.' So I never learned to cook, but I was student body president.”
On that Thanksgiving in 1988, no one wanted to eat the store-bought pie. Kelly's daughter had made a pumpkin pie, so they ate that instead.
The mince pie remained on the top shelf of the fridge. It was still there when Helen had a heart attack and died on Christmas Eve.
After the funeral, Kelly came home and saw the pie.
“I don’t think I ever thought of throwing it out," Kelly said. "I knew it deserved some sort of ceremony.”
It wasn’t just a pie anymore. It was a memory of the last time she saw her mother alive. So now, getting rid of the pie wasn’t so easy.
The obvious moments to say goodbye to the pie came and went: the anniversary of Helen’s death, the day Kelly herself became a grandmother.
“It happened to be on Thanksgiving," Kelly said. "Oh, that would have been perfect! But we were too busy. We didn’t have time to think about designing and carrying out some ritual.”
As the pie survived all these milestones, it took on greater and greater significance, like some kind of relic.
“One woman really did believe she could see an outline of the Virgin Mary in the pie,” Kelly said. Helen was a devout Catholic, so that seemed appropriate.
Kelly and her husband, Geoff Bellman, discuss the pie from time to time, and what to do with it. Bellman supported Kelly in holding on to this physical memory.
“There are times over the years when I've felt like — enough!" Bellman said.
But when visitors stayed with them, Bellman found himself worrying about the pie’s safety.
“People could crush it in the refrigerator, you know, put things on top of that,” he said. People could drop it on the floor.
"Or somebody, probably a teenage boy, would come in and see that pie and eat it! And that would be it. That would be a sacrilege.”
But that never happened.
In her home in Seattle, Kelly pulled the box out of the fridge very carefully. “This is about the fourth refrigerator that it's been in," she said.
The flimsy cardboard box has a photograph of a plump, juicy pie on the front. The pie itself looks nothing like it.
“Here it is in all its shabby glory,” Kelly said, pulling it out of the box.
The top crust is pale, sunken in and hard.
"Can you hear that?" she said, tapping on the crust.
We weighed it on the kitchen scale. According to its box, the pie has lost a third of its weight.
Still, if you squint, you could almost mistake it for fresh.
Three decades ago, this pie was a disappointment for Kelly. But over the years, she’s thought about what it symbolized, like the domestic skills that her mother mastered, but did not value.
“As I get older, I can see into and appreciate more deeply what she was,” Kelly said.
So she is teaching herself to cook. Maybe when she learns to make her own desserts, she’ll be ready to say goodbye to the pie in her fridge.
But probably not this year.