Tuesday, March 7, 2017

As American as Mince Pie? The Early American Love Affair with this British Classic

Slice of Mincemeat Pie

Recipe Provenance

The following recipe comes from a collection of recipes found in a manuscript journal located in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. The manuscript is attributed to Ann Maria Morris and the date of 1824 is written on the inside cover. The recipe below is one of many from the manuscript that will be included in a book I am writing. The book will contain biographical information about Mrs. Morris, an annotated transcript of the entire manuscript as it was written, and a section of modern recipe adaptations (including this one!).

The Recipe: Mince Meat
1 ½ lb. of Beef’s Tongue chopped very fine 2 lb. of stoned raisins, 3 lb. currants & half dozen Pippin apples cut fine, rind of 3 lemons grated and juice to your taste 1 ½ lb. of sugar, half oz. Mace half oz. cloves, 3 nutmegs grated in ½ pint of Wine. A pint of Brandy 3 lb. of Suet, citron to your taste Mix all these ingredients well together—bake them in a paste. & do not add he apples until you are ready to use the Mince meat, as it, will keep some weeks—without them.

About Mincemeat
In 1907, the Secretary of the Treasury and Chairman of the Republican National Committee, George B. Cortelyou, was often hounded for his appreciation and frequent indulgence in mince pie at luncheon. There is what I can only assume was meant to be a tongue in cheek editorial in the 11 March 1907 Washington Post about Cortelyou's propensity for mince pie. According to the editorial," Cortelyou felt mince was the "pie of pies and that "mince pie is the food of mature men. It is the cosmopolis of pie, yielding treasures to the true lover of research but completely bewildering the untutored." The article goes on to state that "[m]ince pie has helped to make him what he is . . . . If the discovery of his long association with mince pie brings home political honor, it will be merely another piece of good fortune in a singularly fortunate career." 

Another editorial on Cortelyou and mince pie appeared two weeks later in the Washington Post and continued to laud the benefits of this inimitable pie in American life: "Mince pie is mince pie. There is no other pie to take its place. Custard pie is good and so is apple pie, but neither has the uplifting power and the soothing, gratifying flavor possessed by mince pie when served hot, with a crisp brown crust.” 

It sounds like mince pie was a favorite American pie well into the early twentieth century, even besting apple pie as a symbol of greatness. Was it really so popular back then? Miss Corson's Practical American Cookery and Household Management by Juliet Corson (New York, 1886), describes a typical American meal appropriate for either Thanksgiving or Christmas as thus:

"A favorite American combination is nuts, raisins, apples, and cider: this belongs with the old-fashioned American Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner of roast turkey, chicken-pie, sweet-potatoes, steamed squash, oyster or chicken salad, celery, cranberry-jelly, squash, pumpkin, and mince pies, and plum-pudding."

Notice that the mince pie is paired with pumpkin pie; no mention of apple pie is made at all. A search of mince pie recipes in 19th century American cookery books does reveal that it certainly was important enough to be given lots of space in those books. Here are some examples of recipes from that time period:

1830, Lydia Child, The Frugal Housewife (Boston)
1839, Sarah J. Hale, The Good Housekeeper (Boston)

1845, Ann Allen, The Housekeeper's Assistant (Boston)

Whether mince pie was more important than apple pie up to the  time of the turn of the twentieth century on American dinner tables is very hard to know for sure. However, the preference for this particular pie  by Americans certainly did not last well into the twentieth century. Apple pies, pumpkin pies, pecan pies, chocolate pies, fruit pies, pudding/custard pies all seem to take precedence over the once lauded mince pie. When I spent a Christmas in England in 2014 I was very surprised to see how popular mince pie still is in that country. They were on store shelves in every grocery store and offered for sale in pubs, tea shops, open-air markets, bakeries, and coffee shops, including Starbucks! It was very nice to see that the very long British tradition of mince pie was still alive and well in the 21st century.

Mince Pie in England
The history of the mince pie in England stretches back to at least the middle ages when little, individual-sized pies called chewetts were popular. Chewetts were filled with chopped hard-cooked eggs and ginger with either chopped meat and liver or fish (on fasting days). Eventually, these fillings were enhanced with the addition of dried fruits and other sweet ingredients.

By the 16th century, mince pies were called shred pies and continued to include meat and suet or just suet, along with the dried fruit, sugar, and other tasty morsels. 
In England, the tradition of serving mince pies in small, individual-sized pies lingers to present-days; however, North Americans prefer to prepare mince pies in larger pans that can serve about eight.  

Modern Recipe Adaptation: Mince Pie
Yield: Two Pies

  • Enough Pastry Crusts for Two Double Crust Pies
  • 1/2 Pound Beef (Tongue or Sirloin), Chopped Fine
  • 12 Ounces Atora Brand Shredded Suet 
  • 1 1/2 Pounds Any Combination of Dried Fruit (Raisins, Zante Currants, Candied Lemon or Orange Peel or Citron, etc)
  • 2 Medium Apples, Peel, Cored and Chopped
  • Fresh Zest from 1 Lemon
  • 1 1/2 Tablespoons Fresh Lemon Juice
  • 1 Cup Granulated Sugar
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Mace
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cloves
  • 1 Teaspoon Grated Nutmeg
  • 1/3 Cup White Wine
  • 2/3 Cup Brandy
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tablespoons Milk

  1. Heat the oven to 375º F. 
  2. Lay a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet. 
  3. Line a pie plate with one of the pastry crusts. Place on the prepared baking sheet and set aside. 
  4. Mix together all of the ingredients except the egg and milk to make the mincemeat filling. Divide the mincemeat filling evenly between the two prepared pie plates. Cover the tops of the pies with the remaining pie crusts. 
  5. Make several slits in the top pie crusts. 
  6. Make an egg wash with egg and milk. Brush the top crusts with the egg wash. 
  7. Bake 45-50 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown. 
  8. Allow to cool for 15 minutes before slicing into the pies. 
  9. Serve warm either plain or with whipped cream or ice cream. 

  • Davidson, Alan, The Oxford Companion to Food, Oxford University Press: 2014
  • Washington Post

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