Cakes may rise and fall on matters as minor as baking powder but for some pies it is a matter of politics.
Christmas Day is over but in earlier times, it was simply a highpoint of the long winter days and nights of celebration marked by the “twelve days of Christmas,” and the American colonial popular culture shored this concept up by serving up heaping helpings of Mincemeat Pie. At least some of the colonials did.
In Dutch New Amsterdam, it was further punctuated with New Year’s Day when wealthy citizens held open house receptions for members of their class to come call and offer good wishes.
On the buffet tables could often be found an unusually long thick-crusted pie made of a variety of tangy spices, raisins, dried apples, dried pears, dried peaches and meat chunks such as ox, tongue, beef, goose and pork, and always suet, or fat drippings from the meat.
In colonial Virginia the elite class of landowners often made extended stays at the plantation homes of relatives for upwards of two weeks, spending each night in the revelry of dancing by candlelight, fueled by wine and run punches, baked greasy gooses and the rich, sweet yet savory treat known as “Christmas Pye.”
Almost entirely Anglican by faith, the Virginians, like the predominantly Dutch Reformed Church members of New Amsterdam, were enjoying the holiday season just like Catholics did.
Of course, it was different in Massachusetts. It’s always different in Massachusetts.
Mincemeat Pie is no Pumpkin Pie. It isn’t even in the league of Apple Pie. But if you’ve got a taste for something sharply spicy but sweet, a slice of it is something you never forget.
Had it been up to the good folks who gave us Thanksgiving, however, those stalwarts of thrift and self-denial, the Puritans of the Old Bay State, Massachusetts, no American would have ever even had that sinful taste pollute the tongue.
Thirty-seven years after the Pilgrims landed in 1620 to establish the first settlement of what would soon become the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Lord Protector of England Oliver Cromwell directed his Puritan Council to literally abolish Christmas – three days before the annual holiday, which he considered a Catholic and not Protestant affectation.
Declaring it a pagan celebration which the people used as an excuse for drunkenness and gluttony, Cromwell focused specifically on the foods traditionally made during the Christmas season through December 25 and past it to Epiphany in early January.
It was not only roasting nuts and fowl which made this 17th century Grinch berserk with seasonal celebration disorder but also the baking of pie, specifically mincemeat pie, long served as a speciality of Christmas in England. In fact, it was known simply by the name of “Christmas Pye,” in several printed journals of the time.
Cromwell’s pie-piety only lasted a year, rescinded in 1660 when Charles II became the King of England.
New England Puritans striving for more stringent pie-ousness than the Old England Puritans, however, turned especially sour on the sweet treat.
For a long twenty-two years, from 1659 to 1681, Mincemeat Pie, specifically, and Christmas, generally, were banned as illegal in Massachusetts. Baking the goody was punishable by imprisonment and a fine of five shillings.
Some food historians date a rudimentary Mincemeat Pie as far back as Biblical times, the spices indicating a derivation in the Middle East.
Established as a British wintertime staple by Medieval times, some believe it was brought to the British Isles in the 13th century by Christian Crusaders returning from the Holy Land.
Back in the day when food was scarce in all forms, what is today seen as a holiday dessert was likely a way to cook up all available meats before it became inedible, the spices covering up the fact that it chunks of animal flesh might have already become a bit rotten.
In Tudor England, the meat was shirred, giving birth to its early name of “Shrid Pie,” but once the meat was being minced, the name we know it by today took hold.
Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic Church was not enough to do in the pie, however, for it was still served by those of his new Church of England Anglicans at Christmas.
The trouble came with those seeking to purify England’s entire culture of Catholic influence and the sweet little pie was especially sliced down to pieces.
English Catholic traditions used Mincemeat Pie as a way to instruct children on the story of the birth of Jesus, using the spices of cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg as representational of the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, the three gifts said to be brought by the Three Kings to the manger of Baby Jesus.
Somewhere along the line, when the dough was running low, a tradition also began of topping it was a smaller piece of crust in the shape of star, symbolizing the North Star which led the Three Kings to the manger.
Still others claim that the oblong shape of the crust was intended to represent the crib of the Christ child.
The Pilgrims may have given us Thanksgiving, but they did their best to destroy Christmas.
Even before there was a ban in Massachusetts, on the very first Christmas Day when the Pilgrims were at Plymouth Colony, December 25, 1621, Governor William Bradford was leading a crew out to hard work in the forest, coming upon some recently-arrived colonists who claimed “it went against their consciences to work on that day.”
Bradford gave them a pass – with the sarcastic remark that they didn’t yet know better yet how evil it was to celebrate Christmas. A few hours later when he found them working up a sweat by playing some sporting games for fun he took away their toys, gave them a good yelling and ordered them to go stay in their huts.
Even after the ban on Christmas was lifted in 1781, Massachusetts was mortified by mincemeat, considering that swirl of delectable spices to be merely “residual Papist idolatry.”
The kids in Richmond had the day off and got presents. The housewives of New York could serve any pie they wanted at their New Year’s Day open house parties, but in Boston stores and schools were still kept open.
As the new nation joined in the fight for independence from England, however, the first bit of pie guilt did start to bubble, but it was qualified with ye olde blame game.
As late as 1773, an article in December issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine seemed to long for the days when Mincemeat Pie was banned from the Bay Colony, but shifted the blame for it away from the Puritans to the poor Quakers of Pennsylvania, claiming they were the first to view the sweet “as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his Works.”
By the time George Washington was elected to his second term, a recipe for “Minced Pie of Beef” was able to be printed in American Cookery, the first cookbook published in the United States, without its author Amelia Simmons being locked in a stockade or dunked in a pond.
Besides her footnote as the first U.S. Martha Stewart, Miss Simmons coined the phrase still used to suggest the effect of smoking cannabis, since she meant not for the little raisins to be pulverized with rocks, but rather softened in brandy or rum. (Is she too perhaps the Mother of Rum Raisin?) Her recipe called for:
“Found pounds boil’d beef, chopped fine, and salted; six pound of raw apple chopped also, one pound beef suet, one quart of Wine or rich sweet cyder, one ounce mace, and cinnamon, a nutmeg, two pounds raisins, bake in past, three fourths of an hour. Observations: All meat pies require a hotter and brisker over than fruit pies, in good cookeries, all raisins should be stoned.”
Yankee hate on Mincemeat Pie continued into the new century. In the early 1800s, English antiquarian author John Timbs did it no favors.
Timbs revived the controversy when he wrote conspiratorially that Christmas Pie was the blending of the two most horrifying cultures, the heathen and Catholic, an old Roman custom of die-hard pagans presenting sweetmeats to the first Popes as a gift during Saturnalia, their bacchanalian mid-winter feast days.
Not until German Prince Albert brought his culture’s pagan rituals of the winter holiday season to England, where his devoted wife Queen Victoria put them into practice at Buckingham Palace and they were adopted into the mainstream British culture did Christmas Pie begin emitting its appealing scent in homes across the United States.
It was given further validation in 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant made the religious holiday of Christmas a secular one, giving the day off to federal workers throughout the entire country.
After nearly two centuries of its scandalous ban on Mincemeat Pie, Massachusetts bakers were proudly claiming it as their own.
It was now seemingly differentiated from the way it is usually still served in the British Isles, in the form of small tartlets for each guest, by making it one big pie. Crust tops in lattice or ye olde star-shape are less common than the full-on crust.
Soon enough, another good old familiar American custom kicked it – the historical revision.
In 1887, the children’s periodical St. Nicholas Magazine published a popular story about Roger, a solemn little boy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony who shivered on his death bed in the bitter winter of 1635. It was not until his mother, desperate to keep aloft his hope for survival, came into his room with a special gift that the Puritan son returned to life. It was an evergreen tree branch for Christmas.
In an 1894 Harper’s children story, a Massachusetts Puritan mother makes her daughter a doll for Christmas. And suddenly, no state could lay claim to making authentic Mincemeat Pie more than Massachusetts.
By then, many an old Yankee granny would not only “put up” her summer-grown squash, pickled cucumbers, beets, cherries and other fruits and vegetables in jars of vinegar or sugar to preserve for use throughout the long, dark winters, but also a few hefty ones made with a concoction of apples, raisin, currants, bacon or other meat drippings and numerous spices to be used for Mincemeat Pie. Since it was more difficult to assure that cooked meats would last untainted, this ingredient was often left out of the jars, to be added in at the time the pies were made.
Or not added at all.
So went the meat of Mincemeat. More frequently, ye old sweet was referred to simply as Mince Pie.
The Industrial Age that bore mass-produced Currier & Ives lithograph scenes of “traditional” Christmas in old New England as it never was (they were actually “winter” scenes” but assumed to be of the holiday) also began turning out labor-saving devices for the American housewife.
Now one could use a new hand-cranked can-opener or electric bottle-popper on a canned and bottled mincemeat. By the mid-Century refrigeration trucks could criss-crosssing the Bay State, carrying hundreds of frozen Mincemeat Pies from Pittsfield to Quincy, Springfield to Gloucester.
You can still make Massachusetts Mincemeat Pie the way it never was.
Almost every recipe one finds is, to say the least, formidable.
While the apples and raisins are still standard, arguments enflame easily over exactly which is the “traditional” way a Mincemeat Pie was made in old Massachusetts, with as many iterations as there are old Massachusetts families.
A preponderance include plums or prunes, some dates. Cider seems favored while others eschew any alcohol in fine Puritan mindset. Rarer but not uncommon are versions that include salt and pepper among the spices. A few Bay Staters even put in, naturally enough – a bay leaf.
Among an ilk of twenty-first century foodies is the rabid insistence that it isn’t an authentic Mincemeat Pie unless there are shredded or chunked bits of meat once again mixed in with the fruit and spices, with recipes calling for lamb mutton, elk, goose, or veal.
Most modern palates consider it a bit unappetizing to go uber-savory in baking what is now universally served as a dessert.
Easier still than making it or buying a jar of mincemeat filling is simply to buy it in a bakery or a frozen one. Even Mrs. Smith’s is in on this act.
In a defiant sign of dessert-as-constitutional-right! the old pie holds its own, with reports of worldwide Mincemeat Pie sales from one company reaching 7.5 million in 2011.
Massachusetts Mince Pie
3 ounces raisins
2 ounces white raisins
2 ounces dried currants
2 ounces suet or bacon drippings
2 ounces candied lemon peel
2 ounces candied orange peel
2 ounces candied angelica
3 ounces brown sugar
4 ounces green cooking apples
½ ounce slivered almonds
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon allspice
1 tablespoon ground nutmeg
2 teaspoon ground mace
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 tablespoon applejack brandy
1 tablespoon dark rum
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon orange juice
1 tablespoon plus ¾ teaspoon lemon juice
zest of ½ orange
zest of ½ lemon
Combine all ingredients, except brandy, cover and refrigerate overnight. Bake at 225 degrees for nearly three hours. Let it cool entirely to room temperature. Mix in brandy. Fill an unbaked pie crust and cover with another crust, slitting the top to prevent the top crust from buckling. Bake in a pre-heated oven for 45 minutes at 425 degrees.