Mincemeat, currently firmly associated with the winter holidays, is simultaneously exotic and ordinary. The technique of mincing, chopping food into tiny pieces, has existed since ancient times. Mincing meat was practical on several fronts: it repurposed leftover meat, stretched a potentially limited protein supply, and preserved meat for later consumption. In Britain, mince pie is most often enjoyed around Christmas time and consists of a miniature round pie filled with mincemeat: a mixture of dried fruits, chopped nuts and apples, suet, spices, brandy, and other flavorings. In North America, mincemeat pie is typically larger, 8-9 inches, and serves a gathering of people. In her 1853 cookbook, Domestic Cookery, Elizabeth Ellicott Lea noted in her recipe for Farmers’ Mince Pies, “Where persons have a large family, and workmen on a farm, these pies are very useful.” Lea’s recipe yield forty pies that could be kept two months in a cold place and placed on the table when the housewife something filling for her family and workers.
Lea’s recipe starts with a beef head and two hog’s heads chopped fine with suet and combined with raisins, chopped apples, molasses, cider, currant wine, brandy, cinnamon, orange peel, mace, and nutmeg. The spices in mincemeat harken to the Crusades when English soldiers encountered the Middle Eastern practice of using spices to produce sweet and savory meat dishes. When they returned home, they brought aspects of this new cuisine with them, including spices. The association between mince pie and Christmas emerged very early as the three spices (typically cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg) represented the Magi’s three gifts to the Christ Child. Early mince pies were oblong intended to cradle a representation of the baby Jesus. It was believed lucky to eat a mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas as this 1920 advertisement from Robertson’s, a popular British brand of prepared mincemeat, encourages.
The meat in mincemeat slowly disappeared over time. Gervase Markham’s The English Huswife (1615) called for an entire leg of mutton and three pounds of suet; however, by 1747, Hannah Glasse’s Art of Cookery Made Easy suggests the meat could be optional. She instructs the reader to blend the sweet components then notes, “If you chuse[sic] meat in your pies parboil a neat’s tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible and mix with the rest.” As the price of sugar fell during the nineteenth century, sweet mincemeat pies slowly supplanted the savory version. In 1861, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management provided a meat-filled and a meat-less version. Within a few decades, meat was a rarity in mincemeat.
Today, in the United States, mincemeat pie frequently receives the same derision as fruit cake. However, not too long ago, Americans numbered it among the most popular pies. An editorialist in the Washington Post opined in 1907:
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.
While for most Americans, apple pie has deposed mincemeat as an American culinary institution, in Britain, the enjoyment of mince pies remains firmly associated with Christmas celebrations.
Mary Randolph’s recipe is my first serious foray into mincemeat. Growing up, every Thanksgiving, we traveled from Maine to Massachusetts to celebrate at my grandparents’ home. There was always a huge amount and variety of pies. Apple, pumpkin, squash, cherry, and my great aunt would always bring a mincemeat pie. As a child, mincemeat held no allure. I never sought confirmation but, based on the name and appearance, assumed it was comprised of meat and nondescript lumps. Until attempting this recipe, I had been in the vicinity of mincemeat pie but had never actually sampled it. I was pleasantly surprised.
Randolph’s mincemeat pies are spicy, sweet, and, surprisingly, since I lack food memory connecting the two, Christmasy. Randolph’s recipe is a meat-based pie; however, in order to include the pies in our bags of Christmas goodies for friends and neighbors, I opted to leave out the hog’s feet and substitute vegetable suet. The result is a mincemeat pie ready for sharing.
Mincemeat for Pies
Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-wife (1838), p. 115-6.
Adapted by RA Snell
- 2 cups apples, peeled and chopped
- 2 cups dried currants
- 2 cups raisins, roughly chopped
- 2 cups brown sugar
- 2 cups suet, finely chopped
- 2 cups cider
- 1 cup brandy
- ½ teaspoon of mace, cloves, and nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon salt and pepper, divided
1. Combine the apples, raisins, currants, brown sugar, and cider in a saucepan. Simmer gently until the apple is tender.
2. Remove from the heat and add suet, brandy, mace, clove and nutmeg. Mix well (or as Randolph puts, “intimately”).
3. Divide into two quart jars. To each quart jar add ½ teaspoon salt and pepper. Mix well.
4. Store in the refrigerator until ready to make pies. It’s a good idea to let your mincemeat rest for the flavors to combine. At least 24 hours, but the longer the better.
Yield: two quarts of mincemeat filling
The easiest method for chopping suet is to freeze and grate using a box grater.
- Prepared and rested mincemeat
- Pastry for 36 mini pies ( I used Nancy Birtwhistle’s recipe, doubled)
- Candied citron or lemon peel
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Roll out your pastry and cut 9cm rounds to fill the holes of a muffin tin. Tip: Place strips of parchment paper under the pastry to easily remove the baked pies. If using a metal pan, grease well!
3. Fill pastry with mincemeat. Top each pie with a sprinkle of citron or lemon peel.
4. With the remaining pastry, roll out 7cm lids or top your pies with a star or snowflake shape. If lidded, cut a vent hole before baking.
5. Bake until the mincemeat is bubbling and the pastry is golden, about 40-45 minutes.
Yield: 36 miniature pies
 Elizabeth Ellicott Lea, Domestic Cookery: Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1859, reprint 2008), 86-7.
Isabella Beeton, Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)
Hannah Glasse, Art of Cookery Made Easy (1747)
Gervase Markham, The English Huswife (1615)
Cliff Doerksen, “The Real American Pie,” Chicago Reader, 17 Dec. 2009 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/mince-pie-the-real-american-pie/Content?oid=1267308.
Food History Timeline: Mincemeat
Veronique Greenwood, “The strange and twisted history of mince pies,” Taste of Tomorrow: BBC, 8 Dec. 2017 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20171208-the-strange-and-twisted-history-of-mince-pies.
Ben Panko, “The History of Mincemeat Pies, from the Crusades to Christmas,” Smithsonian Magazine 22 Oct. 2017 (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/crusades-christmas-history-mincemeat-pies-180966981/.
Linda Stradley,“Mincemeat Pie History,” What’s Cooking America (accessed 11 Dec 2020), https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/PieHistory/MincemeatPie.htm.