Published: March 17, 2010

Mincemeat Pie (Christmas Pie)

The name “mincemeat” may puzzle many of those who have come across a meatless recipe for this dish in their cookbooks. Mincemeat pie is an old English Christmas favorite. The dish got its name from what used to be its main ingredient, minced meat. Over the centuries, however, meat gradually dropped out of many recipes. Today the dish gets most of its flavor from fresh and dried fruits, spices, and sugar.

In pre-industrial times people slaughtered the animals that were to provide them with their winter meats in late autumn. At this time of the year domesticated animals could no longer find enough to eat by grazing. Since most of the family’s grain was needed for feeding human beings throughout the lean winter months, the animals that were not kept for breeding purposes were killed (see also MARTINMAS). In medieval times this meant that cooks could expect a large quantity of meat to prepare for the feasting that took place during the TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS.
Food preservation, however, challenged medieval cooks since they did not have access to preservatives or reliable refrigeration. Instead, people employed sugars and spices to preserve meats and fish. Fresh and dried fruits were less expensive and easier to obtain than sugar or honey, so they were often used to flavor dishes. In ENGLAND medieval cooks prepared large fruit, meat, and butter pies for wealthy families entertaining many guests at Christmas. Some researchers believe that the sugary fruit helped to preserve the meat, others contend that its function was to cover the flavor of the aging meat. Enclosing the ingredients in a tough, airtight crust also helped to preserve them. Medieval diners apparently possessed a rather blunt sense of humor about their foods. They sometimes called these sturdy enclosures “coffins.” Not only could these hard-crusted meat pies be prepared well ahead of time, but also their rich ingredients served as a special Christmas treat.
The dish we know today as mincemeat pie was so popular during the CHRISTMAS SEASON that, in earlier times, it was also called Christmas pie. During the Middle Ages the presentation of the Christmas pie was just as important as its ingredients, since medieval feasts aimed at offering diners a spectacle as well as a meal. A late fourteenth-century recipe for Christmas pie describes a manner of both preparation and presentation:
Take a Pheasant, a Hare, a Capon, two Partridges, two pi-geons, and two Conies; chop them up, take out as many bones as you can, and add the livers and hearts, two kidneys of sheep, forcemeat made into balls with eggs, pickled mushrooms, salt, pepper, spice, and vinegar. Boil the bones in a pot to make a good broth; put the meat into a crust of good paste “made craftily into the likeness of a bird’s body”; pour in the liquor, close it up, and bake well; “and so serve it forth with the head of one of the birds at one end and a great tail at the other, and divers of his long feathers set cunningly all about him” [Crippen, 1990,122-23].
Another popular way of presenting the Christmas pie required the cook to mold the pie into the shape of a manger and place a dough image of the baby JESUS on top.

Mincemeat pies have played a prominent role in several episodes of English political and religious history. In 1532 King Henry VIII (1491-1547) began a campaign to reduce the political and economic power of the Roman Catholic Church in England. He started to dissolve England’s monasteries and to claim their wealth for the crown. Some say that Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury tried to protect his abbey from this fate by freely offering the monarch the deeds to twelve of the abbey’s richest estates (see also GLASTONBURY THORN). He attempted to tickle the king’s fancy as well as satisfy his greed by inserting the deeds into the crust of a Christmas pie which was to be presented to the king as a Christmas GIFT. The abbot asked one of his trusted agents, Thomas Horner, to deliver the pie to the king. Along the way, however, Horner reportedly pulled out the deeds for himself. Some writers claim that an old English nursery rhyme commemorates this Christmas theft in what are now veiled images:

Little Jack Horner
Sat in a corner
Eating a Christmas pie
He put in his thumb
And pulled out a plum
And said, “What a good boy am I!”

In this instance, crime did pay. Henry VIII dissolved Glastonbury Abbey and seized its possessions, Horner took possession of Mells Manor, and Abbot Richard Whiting was brutally executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. It is only fair to add that Horner’s descendants, still living at Mells Manor, deny much of this story. They claim that Thomas Horner bought Mells from the king and that the rhyme has nothing to do with their ancestor. The full truth of the matter may never be known.

In the following century Christmas pie once again landed in the middle of England’s political and religious controversies. In the seventeenth century mincemeat pie, along with PLUM PUDDING, raised the ire of an increasingly powerful Protestant sect known as the PURITANS. Some writers claim that the manger-shaped pies and dough images of Jesus scandalized the Puritans’ sense of religious decorum. Others suggest that the Puritans viewed the consumption of mincemeat pie as an act of gluttony that did not befit the season of the Nativity. An anonymous writer of the time parodied the Puritans’ objection to traditional English Christmas fare in the following lines of verse:

The high-shoe lords of Cromwell’s making
Were not for dainties—roasting, baking
The chiefest food they found most good in,
Was rusty bacon and bag pudding;
Plum-broth was popish, and mince-pie —
O that was flat idolatry! [Chambers, 1990,2: 755]

The Puritans condemned mincemeat pie and those who feasted on it at Christmas time. Another writer mimicked their thundering de-nunciations of the dish in the following lines:

Idolatrie in crust! Babylon’s whore
Rak’d from the grave, and bak’d by hanches, then
Sew’d up in Coffins to unholy men;
Defil’d, with superstition, like the Gentiles
Of old, that worship’d onions, roots, and lentiles!
[Pimlott, 1978,46]

Catholics and Anglicans defended the traditional Christmas pie against Puritan attackers. As Protestants and Catholics strove with one another to dominate England’s political life, the consumption or avoidance of mincemeat pie at Christmas time became a sign of religious and political loyalties. One writer mocked the views of his more extreme Puritan contemporaries in the following lines of verse:

All plums the prophet’s sons deny,
And spice-broths are too hot;
Treason’s in a December pie,
And death within the pot [Chambers, 1990,2: 755].

In spite of this controversy both plum pudding and mincemeat pie survived the brief period of Puritan rule in the seventeenth century. They emerged once again in the following centuries as English Christmas favorites. In 1728 one foreigner who had experienced an English Christmas noted that at this time of year, “Everyone from the King to the artisan eats [plum] soup and Christmas pies.”

Over the years mincemeat pie recipes began to call for less meat and more fruit and sugar. A sixteenth-century pie described by English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) contained beef tongues, chicken, eggs, orange and lemon peel, sugar, and various spices. As sugar became more affordable and, therefore, more widely available, a division between sweet and savory dishes arose in English cooking. Mincemeat pie gravitated towards the galaxy of sweet foods. In fact, many later recipes for mincemeat pie omit meat entirely. Nevertheless, most of these meatless pies still call for suet, or beef fat.
Today’s Christmas baker can choose between meat and meatless recipes. For example, one recipe calls for sliced apples, chopped lean beef or ox hearts, suet, sugar, cider, sour cherries, raisins, citron, candied orange and lemon peel, mace, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, salt, pepper, and nuts. More common, however, are recipes that omit the meat and add additional fruits to the mixture, such as figs, prunes, cherries, pears, dried apricots, raisins, or currants. Sherry, brandy, or molasses may be added as well. Mincemeat ages well and may be made several weeks in advance in order to allow the flavors to blend and mature.

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