In 1895, at a time when diet reformers had made “pie” a dirty word, “The Century Cookbook” felt obliged to note that mince pie (“the most indigestible of all”) was still “the one universally accepted as a treat, and seldom refused by the scoffer.”
Half a century earlier, the influential writer Sarah Josepha Hale made the same point, rather testily: “The custom of eating mince pies at Christmas was too firmly rooted for the ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ to abolish; so it would be vain for me to attempt it. At Thanksgiving too, they are considered indispensable; but I may be allowed to hope that during the remainder of the year, this rich, expensive and exceedingly unhealthy diet will be used very sparingly....[F]or children they should be forbidden food; so tempting is the taste, that the only security consists in not tasting.”
Mince pie, the irresistible temptation? The addictive menace? Could this really be mince pie they were talking about? These days you never see it outside of holiday dinners, and it’s fading even there. The Food section has managed to go eight years now without publishing a single mincemeat recipe.
The fact is, it’s amazing that mince pie has lasted as long as it has. It’s the most archaic dish still being made. It’s literally medieval.
In the middle ages, a pie was something between a feast dish and a way of canning. Originally the main pie ingredients were meat and spices, though dried fruits were often thrown in. A 1450 recipe for “grete pye” calls for beef, chickens, two kinds of duck, a couple of rabbits and various large birds, such as storks, along with dates, raisins and prunes. A yard or so across and baked in a thick crust which nobody expected you to eat, one of these big jobs would keep for months.
“Mince” means “made small,” and in the 16th century people started making mince pies, meaning smaller ones than great pies. Being smaller, they had no room for whole chickens, to say nothing of whole storks. In fact, the ingredients fit the pie pan better if you chopped them up, making “minced meat.” Eventually, people started thinking that mince pie took its name from the mincemeat filling and sometimes even called it “shred pie.”
You have to remember that sugar was prohibitively expensive until the 18th century. Apart from honey, which is not a pastry-friendly ingredient, the only source of sweetness in Europe was fruit, and dried fruits were generally sweeter than fresh. This explains a lot of traditional raisin buns and plum puddings. They may not seem exciting today, but once upon a time they were rare treats.
Raisins also had prestige value in northern Europe because they were an expensive imported ingredient. But you had to cut raisins open one by one and remove the seeds, so currants, being seedless, were better (and, of course, more expensive). Apples were more reasonably priced but not sweet enough for pie unless mixed with dried fruit, so the vast majority of mince pies over the centuries have used some combination of raisins, currants and apples.
Continuing the medieval tradition, mincemeat did contain meat. In fact, all sorts of meat have shown up in mince pies. A recipe from Shakespeare’s time called for mutton. Over the centuries recipes have called for beef brisket, beef shank, cow head, oxheart, even tripe. Boiled tongue was particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Sometimes mincemeat was a way of using ham trimmings or bits of pork left over from sausage-making. In “The Frugal Housewife” (1830), Lydia Maria Francis Child wrote, “No economical household will despise (mince pie), for broken bits of meat and vegetables cannot so well be disposed of by any other method.”
But as Europe’s sweet tooth grew, people put more and more fruit into mincemeat, and eventually sugar or molasses too, and the meat became a secondary ingredient. Or even less than secondary. In the late 17th century cooks started substituting suet, the fat around the beef kidneys, for meat. Meat entirely dropped out of the recipe in 19th century England, though it remained a common ingredient in this country. The suet made the pie richer, but since suet is as hard as tallow at room temperature, it became essential to serve mince pie hot -- reheated, if necessary.
But that was part of the plan anyway. Mince pie was a calorie-rich food for cold weather. You’d make a bunch of mincemeat at the end of fall and keep it in a crock for mixing with chopped apples whenever you wanted to make pie during the winter. To preserve the mincemeat, you added brandy or whiskey to it, just as with fruitcake. The liquor part rubbed the anti-alcohol crowd wrong, so they invented liquor-free mincemeat. (Inevitably, liquorless mince pies were nicknamed “humbug” pies.)
After the Civil War, a wave of diet reform swept the country, and the reformers’ main target was pie -- above all, mince pie. If you ask people today what dangers a suet-rich pie poses, the answers will probably be obesity and cholesterol, but neither was on the reformers’ minds; their objection was that mince pie was indigestible. And the main danger of indigestion was that it caused nightmares ... an idea that faded away during the last psychiatry-oriented century.
And so did mince pie. Why? Maybe people decided they didn’t like the suet, and certainly some people feel there’s something wrong about putting meat into a dessert. But I think it’s mostly that we have a lot more food choices during the winter these days. If you want pie in December, you no longer have to rummage through the apple cellar and scoop some mincemeat out of a stone crock, you can have peach or strawberry or boysenberry pie any day of the year, just by shopping the frozen foods aisle.
So the question is, where does mince pie go these days, now that the seasons no longer rule our tables and raisins are no longer a huge thrill?
We decided to explore a new direction for it. In farmers markets you can find people who are making some positively exciting dried fruits. We reconceived mince pie as a dessert showcasing them.
Naturally, we eliminated the meat and suet. We called a chef or two for suggestions. And then we started cooking.
The result amazed even die-hard mince haters. In place of all those musky raisins and the heavy cinnamon-clove-nutmeg range of spices, there was a mix of sweet and sour dried fruits (plus an aromatic quince) with a kick of ginger and cardamom. This was no heavy, chewy pie for cold weather but a platter of individual mini-tarts full of bright fruit flavors in a delicate buttery crust.
Actually, people started thinking along these lines a century ago. It was then that mincemeat recipes started showing up that included dried peaches or cherries, not to mention plum or strawberry preserves. So we can claim to be working in the mince pie tradition.
It’s a worthy tradition. In “The Buckeye Cookbook” (1877), Estelle Woods Wilcox wrote: “Its preparation should be confined to no careless or unworthy hands, but every ingredient should be thoughtfully provided and delicately prepared, and blended with the skill of an artist, and the precision of a mechanic. Tact, wisdom, judgment, knowledge and experience all go into the proper construction of a genuine mince-pie, to say nothing of kindness of heart and liberality of disposition.”