A Seasonal Pie Filling That's Much More Than a Christmas Tradition
A holiday table without mincemeat pie is like an American flag without stars or stripes, or a baseball game without a seventh-inning stretch. It’s incomplete. Some people would take up arms at the thought of such a culinary injustice.
Though this holiday staple has been satisfying for centuries, some have been reluctant to give the dish a try thanks to its unique ingredients. Others simply haven’t heard of it yet. Whether you’re already a lifelong fan or still haven’t had an opportunity to taste it, mincemeat should be a must-have at your table this season. And here’s why.
What is Mincemeat?
Mincemeat is a sweet and savory dish traditionally made from a mixture of fruit, spices, and meat products. As the name suggests, common meat ingredients include beef or lamb as well suet, which is hard fat from beef or mutton found around the loins and kidneys. Suet is also a popular ingredient used in pastries. The chopped meat and suet, or simply suet in place of the meat, is then mixed with a wide variety of fruit ranging from apples, raisins, and currants to lemons, cherries, and plums. Spices like clove, nutmeg, cinnamon, and mace—a sister spice to nutmeg—are added before sugar, butter, and a distilled alcohol top off the list of ingredients.
This merry mixture is then usually placed into a crust as pie filling and baked until the alcohol evaporates and the meat is thoroughly cooked. Most mincemeat recipes today, however, usually omit the meat and suet altogether, making it vegetarian friendly.
But don’t let this seemingly unorthodox dish fool you. Mincemeat pie has been a hit at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners for centuries thanks to the warm symphony of sweet and savory tastes, complimented by a flaky crust and a bouquet of tantalizing spices. Mincemeat remains the ultimate comfort food and a time-honored ingredient in holiday baking.
The History of Mincemeat
Though mincemeat recipes can be found all over northern Europe, North America, Australia, and parts of Africa today, its origins are believed to date back as far as 15th century England.
Historians believe mincemeat developed as a technique for preserving food without salting, curing, drying, or smoking. As Crusaders returned home from the Holy Land, they brought with them the “exotic” spices of the Middle East, like nutmeg and cinnamon, along with new methods of cooking meat and fruit together.
In England, these meat, spice, and fruit mixtures came to symbolize the gifts of the Magi and found themselves central to Christmas dishes as a result. Names for these new mincemeat dishes included “mutton pies”, “shrid pies”, “wayfarer’s pies”, or “Christmas pies.” Early on, they were usually oblong in shape to resemble a manger and often featured a topping depicting the Christ child. Eating one of these pies on each of the 12 days of Christmas was considered lucky.
In time, however, mincemeat pies were regarded as the déclassé remnants of a rural, unsophisticated populace until Victorian England revived the tradition with fervor. Mincemeat pies became smaller and sweeter during this period, thanks to cane sugar from the British Isles. Often, they were prepared only with suet or no meat at all. Soon, mincemeat pies came to symbolize a refined, fashionable Victorian Christmas.
These recipes were quick to spread all over the globe, especially to those areas with strong English ties, like Australia and the United States. Around the 1800s, mincemeat was declared “a sacred and cherished American institution.” In 1909, President Taft was given a mincemeat pie weighing 92 pounds. Superstition arose that the sweet and savory dish caused strange nightmares and homicidal yearnings.
Canned versions of mincemeat exploded in popularity during prohibition in the United States, thanks to its alcohol content, and remained popular well into the 1940s during times of war rationing. Brands available in the store included Brick’s, Lambrecht, and Beechwood, whose labels are still sought after mincemeat collectibles today.
Mincemeat Today: The Tradition Continues
Though mincemeat is not as popular today in America as it once was, many people still indulge in the sweet and spice-filled dish around the holidays. While purists still exist, today’s variations of pies and tarts, however, are almost all devoid of meat and suet—meaning vegetarians can enjoy them, too.
These holiday dishes are usually made from scratch or bought at bakeries, as store-bought mincemeat is not as readily available as it once used to be, though memorabilia from canned mincemeat is popular amongst collectors. A wide variety is available here at Vintage and Antique Gifts.
So whether you’re continuing with tradition or starting a new one, adding a mincemeat dish to your holiday menu is a guaranteed way to tempt and delight. Try out a vintage recipe or one with a modern twist. No matter which you choose, mincemeat will prove the ultimate comfort food perfect for the chilly winter holidays.
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