A Prodigal Pie

The annual return of mincemeat desserts is an occasion worth celebrating.

pies
Holiday pies.André Baranowski

Thanksgiving is a pie lover's holiday. At my house, all the usual suspects are in attendance: pecan, pumpkin, and apple a la mode. But it's mincemeat pie that always intrigues me the most. My family's version of the dessert tastes like a sophisticated fruitcake: potent with brandy, warmed by spices, dense with dried currants, candied citrus, and raisins, and possessed of a deep, satisfying richness thanks to the inclusion of beef suet (which usually constitutes the only "meat" in modern-day variants of the dish). It's an extravagant pie. A princely pie. A pie that seems transported from another time and place.

Mince pie, as the dessert is known in Great Britain, dates to the 12th century, when sweet-savory flavor combinations from the Near East became popular in England. The pie originally contained both fruit and meat; mutton, beef, ox tongue, and venison were popular choices. The brandy and rum that we've come to expect in this dessert weren't common until much later, when cooks began preserving the filling with alcohol. The pies came in all shapes: there were tall, molded pastries known as raised pies, as well as dainty, single-serving ones. For Christmas, cooks often made an oblong version meant to evoke the shape of Christ's manger; the spices inside—typically black pepper, ground cloves, and mace—were said to represent the gifts brought by the three kings from the East. The lavish use of these once exotic ingredients earned mince pie pride of place at Elizabethan-era and Jacobean-era feasts, where it was served as part of the main course, especially around Christmastime. Each Christmas, wealthy landowners would invite tenants and serfs into the manor house for a saturnalian celebration of eating, drinking, gambling, dancing, and general merriment—a payment in pies for a year's worth of service.

Such bacchanals hardly escaped the notice of the Puritan upstarts who aimed to reform England during the 17th century. The Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell is often credited with banning mince pies after he became lord protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1653, but in fact he merely enforced existing Parliamentary prohibitions against all things connected with the Christmas feast.

The English Puritans who began arriving in the colonies in 1620 likewise eschewed mince pie on December 25, but, as the culinary historian Sandra Oliver told me, "The Puritans did love mincemeat and other festival foods, and they found ways to enjoy them at other times of the year." Soon enough, once popular Christmas fare like turkey and mincemeat pie resurfaced at the colonists' harvesttime feasts of thanksgiving.

Considering how popular mincemeat pie used to be, why did it become the rarity that it is today? The recipe's richness may be to blame. In the mid-19th century, Sarah Josepha Hale, the American writer famous for petitioning President Abraham Lincoln to decree Thanksgiving a national holiday, suggested that the pie be reserved exclusively for holidays because it had a reputation (wholly undeserved) for being difficult to digest. Other 19th-century writers took a harder line. The physician and educator William Andrus Alcott, for example, denounced mincemeat as a "very unwholesome compound" and an "abomination" in his 1839 tract The Young House-Keeper, in which he posited a direct correlation between physical health and moral rectitude. For the remainder of the 19th century, the battle continued between pie lovers and moral crusaders, who singled out mincemeat as irredeemably decadent. A New York Times editorial from 1873 relates the lurid tale of the "mince-pie debauchee" with his "wasted features and sunken eyes".

To the likely dismay of mincemeat's detractors, the addition of alcohol, which preserves the filling, enabled the dish to become an even more frequent indulgence. Paula Marcoux, a curator at Plimoth Plantation, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, told me that 19th-century housewives used their crock of mincemeat as a sort of convenience food. Meat remained a key ingredient through the 19th century, even as the proportions of fruit and liquor increased. As late as 1931, The Joy of Cooking (Simon & Schuster) contained a mincemeat recipe that called for "4 pounds lean beef, chopped"; by contrast, in the 1997 edition of that cookbook, the recipe forgoes both meat and suet (a dense fat taken from around a cow's kidneys), reflecting the prevailing trend toward sweeter versions of the pie.

Still, most traditional mincemeats continue to contain beef suet. Eric A. Decker, a professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, offers a plausible explanation for that: "Suet not only creates a richer texture and imparts its own, subtle umami flavor," he says. "It also acts as a reservoir for other flavors. Citrus, ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg are all fat soluble. The presence of suet affects the way those elements are released, making for a longer flavor profile." Pork lard would function in much the same way, but pork would have been considered by our English forebears too common a meat to include in a holiday pie.

Thus, when I set out to test a few mincemeat pie recipes, I stuck to ones that featured suet. The oldest recipe I tried was published in 1591, in an English volume unabashedly titled A Book of Cookrye Very necessary for all such as delight therin. The butter, sugar, and rose water glaze for the pastry sounded promising, but the one and a half pounds of minced beef, lightly spiced and untouched by even a hint of liquor, made for a dessert that tasted like hamburger baked inside a pie crust. That recipe also taught me that suet must be minced very fine; otherwise the filling can be lumpy and unpalatable. Infinitely more successful was a recipe from Jane Grigson's English Food (Macmillan, 1974). Made with juicy rump steak and heavy on the raisins and currants, Grigson's version, based on a Victorian one, harked back to savory pies while still delivering the spice and brandy I'd missed in the 1591 example.

Finally, for a more contemporary take, I can highly recommend SAVEUR contributor Tamasin Day-Lewis's recipe for mincemeat, which appears in her book Good Tempered Food (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2002). Made with dried fruit and candied citrus, as well as fresh apples, almonds, cognac, dark rum, and suet (but no meat), the remarkably bright-tasting filling works beautifully both in the individual-size pastry shells favored for mince pies in Britain and in larger, American-style pie crusts. When I asked Day-Lewis how she hit upon that recipe, she laughed. "I couldn't begin to tell you at this point, because I change it every year." For me, it's that element of inscrutability that's always made mincemeat the most seductive of the holiday pies. You never quite know what you'll get.