Growing up, it was a Christmas tradition in my family that Mom and Grandma would make a batch of mincemeat. I helped — which meant, I tasted it frequently and added spices here and there. “Is there really meat in it?” a friend of mine from Topeka asked when I told her of our pseudo-annual family tradition of making mincemeat. “Of course,” I replied. “That’s the ‘meat’ part of ‘mincemeat.’ Otherwise, it would just be ‘mince.’” She declined my offer to share a pint of it with her. I have since learned that increasingly few people actually make mincemeat, and even fewer still put meat in. But in this age of microwavable dinners, it would do our society a power of good to re-discover the joys of mincemeat.
Mincemeat pie finds its roots in the 11th century — the Crusades, to be more precise. Returning crusaders brought back valuable spices — cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg — from the Holy Land, and these three spices were used to season a special “Christmas pie,” to represent the three gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus Christ. Christmas pies were small, and could be eaten in a few bites. These pies were made in an oblong shape to resemble a cradle, and space was left for a Christ child figure to be placed on top. (The figure was removed before eating.) It was considered to be lucky to eat one Christmas pie for each of the twelve days of Christmas, between December 25 and Epiphany, January 6. The mincemeat filling of these pies was indeed almost entirely meat, but cooked with rum and spices, which acted as a preservative, as well as giving it its distinctive flavor.
Mincemeat pie became a firm favorite among royalty. King Henry V ordered mincemeat pie to be served at his coronation. In addition to inventing the Church of England and murdering several of his wives, King Henry VIII also liked mincemeat pie — so well, in fact, that he instructed it to be served to him as a main dish pie. (This could explain why King Henry VIII was so heavy that his servants had to use a winch to put him on his poor horse. Mincemeat, when made properly, is not a low-calorie food.)
The meat content of mincemeat diminished significantly between the 1100s and the 1500s. By the end of the 16th century, the recipe for mincemeat had developed practically into the one we still use today, some four hundred years on. The recipe for “Mynst Pye” is found in Edward Allde’s 1588 cookbook, the “Good House Wyves Treasurie”, which was published when the letter “y” was still widely used as a vowel, and the letter “i” was still largely underused. (It is interesting to note that the recipe for mincemeat has changed far less than has the English language in the past four hundred years.)
Mincemeat met a terrible turn of fate in the 1600s, however, under the heavy burden of Puritan idealism promoted by Oliver Cromwell, who felt that Christmas was a pagan holiday and an excuse for the sin of gluttony. As the self-proclaimed Lord and Protector of England from 1649 to 1658, Cromwell and his Puritan Council abolished Christmas on December 22, 1657. When Charles II ascended the throne in 1660, he restored Christmas, and, consequently, mincemeat, to England. Cromwell’s Puritan influence was felt in the American colonies, however, and mincemeat continued to be banned at Christmas in many regions. Christmas itself was banned in Boston from 1659 until 1681, and anyone caught celebrating Christmas was fined.
Interestingly, mincemeat pie was favored in many colonial cookbooks because of its extraordinarily long shelf life. Quakers in particular, as well as anyone who had large families, would bake many mincemeat pies at a time, and these pies could last for up to two months.
The meat in a mincemeat pie is usually beef, although any kind of meat can be used, as long as it’s finely minced. (Hence, minced meat. Get it?) In 1861, James Swan, a trader living in the Washington Territory of the United States of America, used a piece of whale meat given him by the Makah Indian tribe. He minced the whale meat, added spices and rum, and sealed it in a ten-gallon stone jar. Several months later, Swan served his whale mincemeat to a group of visiting Boston traders, unsure whether the New Englanders would approve of his whale meat substitution. Not only did they approve, but they all cleaned their plates and begged for second helpings.
Even if one doesn’t like the texture or taste of mincemeat, the smell alone is reason enough to make a batch of it anyway. Certainly, the spicy smell of mincemeat has long been a welcome sign of the approaching Christmas season in my family. Making mincemeat is also a good excuse to clean out the refrigerator and cupboards of half-empty sacks of raisins or jelly jars with two tablespoons of jelly in them. And as we spiced the mincemeat with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, I’m sure we all felt a little closer to Jesus, despite the best arguments put forth by Oliver Cromwell all those years ago.
May God bless us, everyone!
Yours in Christ, Shane