We are all about traditions here at MacDonald Manor. Among those traditions, the ones pertaining to Christmas hold the most significance. The boys always go with their mom to Bellingrath Gardens. We only go tree shopping in Batman T-shirts. Texas Trash is the most important holiday food ever, and we always make it a point to have a screening of “Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas.”

Yes, this holiday classic is my favorite kiddie movie ever. I’m actually partial to “It’s a Wonderful Life” when it comes to Christmas movies, but for children I am all in with the Jug Band. It’s a Jim Henson muppet film with Kermit the Frog as narrator and the only muppet you’ll recognize. The music is fantastic, the tale is predictable but heartwarming, and the message is that nice guys don’t always come in first.

I’ve been watching this movie every Christmas since it found its spot as an HBO holiday special, but our friend Priscilla Belle Jenkins and I created a party for the kids centered around it last year.

So what does one serve at an Emmet Otter party? For that answer we turned to Graham. We knew we were having cheeses, Little Smoky sausages with Bailey’s Root Beer Barbecue and Dipping Sauce in the slow cooker with a little grape jelly to boot. Dessert was undoubtedly going to be s’mores over the fire. Our main course was to be determined by my 7-year-old. He came up with shepherd’s pie.

Fitting that he chose it. We talked of the three wise men and the shepherd and the Bible story of the manger scene and how we never thought about shepherd’s pie being a holiday tradition. It totally works for me! I don’t make it enough, and Lucas was on board.

This wasn’t going to just be thrown together. We are taking school cafeteria comfort food and elevating it a bit from the potato flakes and hamburger Graham is used to getting from the lunch lady. Oh, but that stuff is good, too.

Of course, shepherd’s pie would normally be a recipe with lamb or mutton. We are using ground beef in place of because Mr. G wants it that way. Shamefully, great lamb isn’t always available in this town though all 50 states are capable of raising the fluffy fellows. Should you get your hands on something good, brown chunks in a little vegetable oil or even dust the lamb pieces with flour beforehand.

4 large baking potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
¼ cup butter (half a stick)
½ cup milk
2 lbs. ground beef
1 large onion, diced
3 cups of frozen mixed vegetables
2 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp each of sage, rosemary and thyme, freshly chopped
5 dashes of Worcestershire sauce
½ cup rice flour
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, undrained
½ cup red wine
2 cups beef broth
8 oz. block of sharp cheddar

In a large pot of salted water, boil the potatoes until tender. While the potatoes are cooking, prepare the filling. In a sizable skillet, brown the ground beef. As soon as the red disappears, add the onion and cook until translucent. I usually use a turkey baster to suck out all of the grease.

Add the garlic and mixed vegetables, stirring often. Season with a generous amount of salt and pepper, then add the herbs. Cook for five minutes over medium heat. Dash in the Worcestershire sauce. Sprinkle with rice flour and stir constantly for two minutes. Stir in tomatoes.

Splash in the wine and stir. Slowly add the beef broth to create the moderately thin gravy.

Now let’s get back to the spuds. Drain the potatoes and return them to the pot. Add ½ stick of butter and ½ cup milk. Using a hand mixer, beat the potatoes until smooth.

Okay, so if you don’t know what shepherd’s pie is, then I feel for you. We basically cover our meat mixture with potatoes, cover that with shredded cheese and bake it until the top melts. In an 11×13 inch pan, I like to keep the meat mixture at a depth of about an inch and the potatoes mounding over the top.

When it comes to cheese, always avoid the pre-shredded bags. It tastes so much better when you do it yourself. Make America grate again. Pre-shredded cheese has additives to prevent it from sticking together.

Cook it at 300 F. just to melt the cheese and warm the center. Add salt if needed, but always serve with a side of Tabasco sauce.

Ours turned out pretty special. Graham and Lucas both got mad when they saw their bowls in the sink. Each wanted seconds, a thing that doesn’t always happen when that many vegetables are involved. They even loved the onions. Our little friend Vivi was not impressed with my skills, but pre-K ladies aren’t normally fans of onions.

Our little party won a few fans for Emmet and even more for the Riverbottom Nightmare Band, but I’d like to think the comfort food really tied it together. Perhaps a new tradition was born. I will never trivialize my love for, shall I say, low-rent shepherd’s pie but if you go the extra mile it makes a big difference. I know it’s not rocket science by any means, but at least it shows you care.

Try this recipe and you may realize how much alike we are. Perhaps we’re long-lost brothers.

(Photo | Depositphotos.com) In lieu of lamb, anchor your shepherd’s pie with a lean ground beef.