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Mince pie: manna, or just more than you bargained for?

November 24, 2009

If I were a proper Victorian housewife, I would have started making my Thanksgiving mince pies two weeks ago, although that means little to the average contemporary American planner of holiday feasts.

Many of us vaguely think of mince pies as sweet latticed tarts in which too many intense flavors collide: fruits dried and candied and cooked, nearly suffocated in spices, and jumbled with nuts and—we think we recall—something a bit obscure and decidedly odd, at least to our modern sensibilities. It’s true; in its traditional form this dish called for suet (a hard fat from beef or mutton) and was very much unsuited to the squeamish or faint of heart.

Perhaps most daunting is the tremendous work involved in making mince pies. In Food in the United States, 1820s-1890 (Greenwood, 2006), Sarah Williams describes the chopping and sawing and seeding and seasoning that had to occur before a cook could set aside her pounds of meat, suet, fruit and cider to “ripen” in a crock for fifteen days. The advent of mechanical choppers, like the American Chopper patented by Leroy Starrett (1865), would have made the process easier, Williams assures us. An 1886 Milwaukee hardware company catalog cheerfully declares that whereas a capable pie maker used to put in 1-3 hours of chopping, “[w]ith the American Chopper a child 6 years of age can do the same work in from 5 to 15 minutes with the greatest ease” (p.74). Still, a mince pie is no small undertaking.

And perhaps precisely because they were so labor-intensive, mince pies had a remarkable ability to evoke impassioned responses from 19th-century writers like New Englander Ellen Chapman Rollins, publishing under the name E. H. Arr. In Old-Time Child-Life (Lippincott, 1881), Rollins trumpets the dish’s delectability with an unabashed zeal that leaves us slightly breathless and bewildered:

“A true Thanksgiving mince-pie should be an inch thick, with a thin, flaky crust, tinted by its imprisoned juices, which threaten to break through like blood from overfull veins. Around its edge must be a slight crinkle made by the tines of a fork or castor-bottle cover; and in its top a hole here and there from the stroke of a knife to let the steam out. This steam, once known, can never be forgotten,—the intermingled exhalation of beef and pork or suet, and apples and raisins and citron and sugar and spices and boiled cider, and, in profane families, of a dash of good brandy. When you press upon its upper crust, there should gush up from the slashes a brown gravy, sparkling with tiny globules of fat, and deliciously scenting the room. Fortunate they who have been permitted to relish, with a slice of cream cheese, and a mug of sweet cider, this healthful, bliss-giving pie!”

From the first image of the bursting vein, we may be feeling a little queasy, a little too close to the pie’s meatiness. But the description continues, gathering momentum; we rally and rise like the escaping steam, almost able to ignore the disconcerting presence of “globules” and “deliciously” in the same sentence. By the end we are so carried by Rollins’s exclamatory enthusiasm that we find ourselves ready to cheer; ready, by goodness, to toast the merits of this bliss-giving pie!—however unconvinced we may be of its healthful properties.

It’s almost enough to make us crave a taste that disappeared over 100 years ago, when the meat in mince pies disappeared, leaving us with vague notions of sweet latticed tarts with something a bit obscure and intriguing about them—but nothing we would spend fifteen days preparing.

One Comment leave one →
  1. jilly permalink
    November 25, 2009 2:43 pm

    Is the meat impossible to find nowadays, or is it too hard to work for 15 days on a dish? You include no recipe for the old time mince pie, but yes, I was up and cheering by the end of the article and now want to cut into the real thing. Thanks.

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