Hungry History

Mincemeat: It’s What’s for (Christmas) Dinner

By Mariel Synan
iStockphotos.com

iStockphotos.com

Like fruit cakes, mincemeat pie is a holiday culinary tradition that inspires more skepticism than excitement among most Americans today. This dish, traditionally made with meat (usually beef or venison), suet (beef fat shredded from the animal’s loins), cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fruit, sugar and—of course—brandy or rum, all baked together in a pastry shell, has a history almost as flavorful as its long list of ingredients.

While there is no definitive explanation as to how mince pie came to be a holiday tradition, it appears most likely that its association with Christmas is linked to its trinity of spices: cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Mincemeat originated in the 13th century when Crusaders returning to Europe brought these three exotic ingredients, among other spices, back with them from the Holy Land. Due to insufficient refrigeration at the time, the spices were a welcome preservative for households to combine with fruit and meat to make their supply of protein last longer. The spices’ geographical origins in the Holy Land lent them a religious connotation, but when the Church began teaching that the three spices in the popular dish also signified the gifts of the three wise men to the infant Jesus, mincemeat pies seemed to become a mandatory Christmas tradition.

English settlers brought the mince pie recipe to America, but due to Puritan resentment of the decadent dessert, it took some time for the trend to catch on. In the mid-17th century, Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in England due to its supposed wasteful and gluttonous festivities. Puritan settlers in the New World carried this opposition with them, but as Puritan ideologies waned, the popularity of mincemeat as a year-round dish boomed in American households. As the Market Revolution took hold, the pies transitioned from a homemade treat to a hot commodity in 19th-century commercial bakeries. One writer for The New York Times described an encounter with a pie wagon driver on Christmas Eve 1871 in which the wagon, filled with hundreds of mince pies, required two horses to drive it as it delivered the savory treat to customers.

Although they may have seemed like a beloved, harmless dessert, mince pies actually sparked a surprising amount of controversy. At the time, many people expressed concerns over indigestion and its effect on people’s mental states; mince pies, with their rich combination of meat, sugars and spices, were a common culprit. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were a number of crimes blamed on, of all things, mince pies. In 1907, a Chicago resident supposedly shot his wife in the head after sleeping with a mince-filled belly and awaking from a violent dream. Another case in Indiana in 1918 involved a prison guard who shot up the jail after eating a dinner of mincemeat pie.

Provoked indigestion was not the only concern people had about mince pies and their effects on human behavior. Supporters of the Temperance Movement also expressed displeasure with the amount of alcohol in mince pies, and preached against their consumption. Mincemeat would have its day in court, though. With the 18th Amendment’s ban on alcohol, many people believed there ought to be exceptions for the sake of the culinary arts. In October 1922, the Old Victory Distillery in Chicago brought this appeal to court, pleading the case to make alcohol for cooking purposes, taking advantage of the upcoming holiday season by highlighting a certain festive treat in its argument: mince pies. They won.

So what happened over the course of a century that has made mincemeat an infrequent presence at our Christmas dinner tables? Did Prohibition cause its popularity to wane? Did people fear its dangerous digestive implications? A likely argument is that as the production of mince pies moved from the home to the local bakery to the factory, the disappearance of meat from the mincemeat made it a questionable “mystery” food, causing people to have the same qualms about eating it. Charles Dickens even joked in The Pickwick Papers about a baker making mincemeat pies with kittens.

President William Howard Taft, on the other hand, was a fan of mince pies. For Thanksgiving in 1909, the bakers of New York presented President Taft with a mincemeat pie weighing a staggering 50 pounds. Taft supposedly decreed that his military advisor, Captain Archibald Butt, lend his assistance in the pie’s consumption; Captain Butt consequently brought in reinforcements, ordering his staff to help scarf down the hearty meal.

Categories: British History, Christmas, Colonial America