Unfortunately, most people have never tasted a true old-fashioned mincemeat pie (also called mince pie). The flavor of real mincemeat pie (not the bottled version purchased at your local store) is sort of like a Middle Eastern mixture of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. There’s a definite meaty taste, which I really liked, with an ever-so-slight sweet flavor.
Mincemeat developed as a way of preserving meat without salting or smoking some 500 years ago in England, where mince pies are still considered an essential accompaniment to holiday dinners just like the traditional plum pudding. This pie is a remnant of a medieval tradition of spiced meat dishes, usually minced mutton, that have survived because of its association with Christmas. This pies have also been known as Christmas Pies. Mince pie as part of the Christmas table had long been an English custom.
Today, we are accustomed to eating mince pie as a dessert, but actually “minced” pie and its follow-up “mincemeat pie” began as a main course dish with with more meat than fruit (a mixture of meat, dried fruits, and spices). As fruits and spices became more plentiful in the 17th century, the spiciness of the pies increased accordingly.
Check out my family’s recipe for Old-Fashioned Mincemeat Pie.
History of Mincemeat Pie:
11th Century – The Christmas pie came about at the time when the Crusaders were returning from the Holy Land. They brought home a variety of oriental spices. It was important to add three spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) for the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. In honor of the birth of the Savior, the mince pie was originally made in an oblong casings (coffin or cradle shaped), with a place for the Christ Child to be placed on top. The baby was removed by the children and the manger (pie) was eaten in celebration. These pies were not very large, and it was thought lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (ending with Epiphany, the 6th of January).
Over the years, the pies grew smaller, the shape of the pie was gradually changed from oblong to round, and the meat content was gradually reduced until the pies were simply filled with a mixture of suet, spices and dried fruit, previously steeped in brandy. This filling was put into little pastry cases that were covered with pastry lids and then baked in an oven. Essentially, this is today’s English mince pie.
1413 – King Henry V of England served a mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. King Henry VIII liked his Christmas pie to be a main-dish pie filled with mincemeat.
1545 – A cookbook from the mid 16th century that also includes some account of domestic life, cookery and feasts in Tudor days, called A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye, declarynge what maner of meates be beste in season, for al times in the yere, and how they ought to be dressed, and serued at the table, bothe for fleshe dayes, and fyshe dayes, has a recipe for a pie that sounds alot like a modern day mincemeat pie:
To make Pyes – Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth pepper and salte, and a lyttle saffron to coloure it, suet or marrow a good quantite, a lyttle vyneger, prumes, greate raysins and dates, take thefattest of the broathe of powdred beyfe, and yf you wyll have paest royall, take butter and yolkes of egges and so tempre the flowre to make the paeste.
1588 – In the1588 Good Hous-Wiues Treasurie by Edward Allde, meats were still cut up to be eaten with a spoon and combined with fruits and heavy spices. Typical was his recipe for Minst Pye which used practically the same ingredientsthat go into a modern mince pie.
1657 – Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the self-proclaimed Lord Protector of England from 1649 until 1658, detested Christmas as a pagan holiday (one not sanctioned by the Bible, that promoted gluttony and drunkenness). Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Council abolished Christmas on December 22, 1657. In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. The smell of a goose being cooked could bring trouble. Cromwell considered pies as a guilty, forbidden pleasure. The traditional mincemeat pie was banned. King Charles II (1630-1685) restored Christmas when he ascended the throne in 1660.
1646 – In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mince pies, sometimes known as shred or secrets pies, were made in eccentric shapes. Maybe this was done to originally hide the fact that these were actually mince pies which were banned during the Christmas celebration in England, and possibly the tradition just continued for many years. In the 1646 ballad, The World Turned Upside Down by Thomason Tracts, one verse of the song refers to “shred pie.” The song was written bewailing Parliament’s ban onChristmas:
To conclude, I’le tell you news that’s right,
Christmas was kil’d at Naseby fight:
Charity was slain at that same time,
Jack Tell troth too, a friend of mine,
Likewise then did die,
Rost beef and shred pie,
Pig, Goose and Capon no quarter found.
Yet let’s be content and the times lament,
You see the world is quite turned round.
1659 – In 1659, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan influence spread across the Atlantic ocean to American British Colonies, and many towns of New England went so far as to actually ban mincemeat pies at Christmas time. Christmas was actually banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Those celebrating it were fined.
1853 – Quaker Elizabeth Ellicott Lea explained in her book called Domestic Cookery that was published in 1853: “Where persons have a large family, and workmen on a farm, these pies are very useful.” By useful, she meant that the pies could be baked in large numbers, and more importantly, during cold weather, they could be kept for as long as two months. The mincemeat could be made ahead and kept even longer.
1861 – How about whale mincemeat? In the book, Swan among the Indians: life of James G. Swan, 1818-1900; based upon Swan’s hitherto unpublished diaries and journals, by Lucile Saunders McDonald, Swan describes a Christmas dinner with a mincemeat pie using whale meat:
On December 25, 1861, three “Boston men” sat down to Christmas dinner in the trading post established four years earlier at the edge of the Makah Indian reservation, Washington Territory, USA.
The traditional holiday was a welcome break from the unloading and distribution of a shipment of goods promised to the Makah by the treaty they had signed in 1855. James Swan, a periodic resident in Neah Bay, had, in the absence of the trader, prepared a feast of roast goose and duck stew, presenting for dessert a mince pie made from whale meat. The Indians, he wrote later, had brought him a fresh piece of whale meat months earlier that looked every bit as good as red beef. He had boiled it and cut it finely, adding chopped apples and wild cranberries, raisins, currants, salt, nutmeg, cloves, allspice, cinnamon, and brown sugar. After packing it into a ten-gallon stone jar, he had added a quart of New England rum and sealed it for future use.
Would the traditional mince pie, he worried, be welcomed if the diners learned it was made from whale? Yankee mincemeat was made from domestic animals or venison. His fears were soon dispelled. The small portions he had cautiously served were quickly downed and second helpings demanded by all.
Old World Christmas Pie
Article by Lauren G. Fink, December 26, 2012. Lauren Fink is a former editor of Ricochet.com, and she has written for Imprimis, The Detroit News, and The Washington Examiner. She is a Hillsdale College graduate, homemaker, and mother of two.
Roasted leg of lamb tastes like Easter, turkey and dressing tastes like Thanksgiving, and as I discovered for the first time this month, mince meat pie tastes like Christmas. This is a pie not just rich in flavor, but in Christian tradition, Americana and history. When six friends joined us for brunch – featuring mince meat pie – it began with a lot of curiosity and ended with seconds and thirds. So why has mince meat pie all but vanished in America? Well, the pie strayed from its roots, and it has a rather strange ingredient called suet.
Modern day mince meat pie contains no meat, sometimes no alcohol, and is a wimpy salute to the manly, beefy pie of mince meat history. The real thing comprises several classic Christmas elements – goose, venison, or beef, seasonal apples, dried fruit, cider, molasses, and candied peel – diced, spiced, and doused in brandy, then baked in a golden crust.
But let’s not forget the suet. Suet is beef or mutton fat taken from around the kidneys and loins, a highly prized fat used by pastry chefs. Shredded suet is stirred into the mince meat, which is then baked or simmered for several hours so the flavors strengthen and the suet melts, sealing the fruit and its juices and coating the mixture. This could be the deal breaker for modern Americans who can barely handle real butter. You can substitute frozen butter chunks, but the Brits, who know their mince meat, won’t recommend it. After cooling, the mince meat is put in jars and stored – sometimes for months.
Mince meat pie was born out of practicality and religiosity. Medieval cooks discovered that sugar was a powerful preserver for meat – already an Eastern technique – and meat and fruit “coffyns” or pies were made. When the Crusaders brought home Eastern spices, cooks found three spices for their mince meat—nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon – to represent the Three Magi. Then the crust of the pie was made oblong to symbolize a manger, with room for a pastry Christ child. Thirteen ingredients were used for Jesus and his apostles.
Mince meat pie was given many names including “shred pie,” “mutton pie,” and “Christmas pye,” and was particularly loved in England. But the Puritans brought a stop to the fun – upon gaining power in the mid-17th century, they abolished Christmas and censured mince meat pie along with other “idolatries” of Catholicism. And what’s worse, colonial America did the same – for 22 years in Massachusetts it was always winter and never Christmas. The pie’s sullied reputation stuck, and even in 1733 a writer still lamented that Puritans “inveigh[ed] against Christmas Pye, as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon…the Devil and all his Works.”
Once the Puritans let their hair down in the 1800s, mince meat pie came back in force and became “a sacred and cherished American institution” at the turn of the century. A 92-pound pie was given to President Taft in 1909, delivered in an oak case. It took on a few superstitions during its height, particularly for causing strange nightmares and homicidal yearnings. Factories churned out meatless mince meat in America, strengthening its popularity through wars and rations. In 1908, when a Yankee physician claimed mince meat pie was bad for America’s health, the New Orleans Daily States shot back:
“The republican dynasty at Washington may overthrow the federal constitution, the rights of the states and pluck the stars from the blue field of the national ensign, but the mince pie will continue to be the nation’s comfort and pride.”
This old world pie needs a revival in America, to the delight of our taste buds and historic sensibilities. (If you’re of Puritan blood, I’m sure you disagree). There are still several days of Christmas left this season to invite neighbors and friends, drink Tom & Jerry’s, and eat mince meat pie, sharing its fascinating heritage of patriotism, religion, and controversy.