Christmas

The Mythical History of Mincemeat Pies

Where the "meat" went, once and for all.

December 20, 2018
Photo by Ty Mecham

If you happen to be British, then mince pies are a non-negotiable part of the holidays. As a nation we buy around 370 million of them every December, and goodness only knows how many we bake ourselves. If my family’s anything to go by, it’s a lot. Last year, my mum and I managed 250 mince pies for a church coffee morning, and I’d guestimate that my Aunty Christine and my mother-in-law Sheana were baking at a similar rate.

Little wonder, then, that to me mince pies feel integral to the holidays. I imagine Mary and Joseph sitting round the manger, offering a freshly baked plate of them to the visiting shepherds. In fact, this fanciful notion is not as far from the truth as you might guess. Mince pies have culinary roots that go back, deep into the mists of time. “Shrid pie” has evolved over thousands of years, from a pie made with spiced minced meat, to the dried fruit “mincemeat” that we know and love.

Yes, meat. Literal meat. And lots of it too. In comparison to the treats we’re used to today, this seems perversely strange. But let’s step away from the afternoon tea tray, and instead, imagine something more like Moroccan pastilla, the pigeon or rabbit filo pie studded with almonds, scented with cinnamon, and dusted with powdered sugar. Variations on pies like this were popular all over the Middle East, down into Ancient Egypt, across to Greece (get in there, spinach and golden raisins) and all the way to pre-Christian Rome, where spiced, sweet meat pies were an integral part of Saturnalia celebrations. Early mince pies fit clearly into this culinary lineage.

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Over the years, recipes have called for mutton, goose, and beef tongue. Even in the beginning of the 20th century, cooks relying on the popular Mrs. Beeton cookbook (published in 1861) included plenty of meat in their pies. Only in the last 50 years or so has suet stood in for meat, and only in the last decade has vegetarian suet become the default for commercially produced products.

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Top Comment:
“My French Canadian grandmother made mincemeat pies every year and as her children grew up and spread across the country she would begin preparing the mincemeat filling in September so it could be mailed out to everyone who was far from home. To the day she died her mincemeat always included boiled ground beef (a more disgusting way to prepare ground beef I do not know) and suet, as well as all the candied fruits and raisins. This was a very interesting read, thank you!”
— porsha
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One of the oldest English cookbooks, The Forme of Cury (circa 1390) contains a recipe for a gloriously meaty mince pie. The “Tartes of Flesh” contains stewed birds and rabbits, as well as ground boiled pork (“hewe hem to smale gobbetes,” the recipe commands). The mixture is flavored with cheese as well as “gode powdours and hool spices, sugur, and saffron.” A recipe from Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book (1609), suggests equal parts minced lamb, beef suet, currants and raisins, and flavorings include ginger, mace nutmeg, cinnamon, orange peel, and sugar. Not a lot of sugar, however, as this was still the most expensive of luxuries. But as sugar became cheaper (with plentiful imports from the West Indies), mince pies became sweeter and recipes adapted to meet this new possibility.

In the brilliantly (but misogynistically) titled The English Huswife, Containing the Inward and Outward Virtues Which Ought to Be in a Complete Woman (1615), written by Gervase Markham (a man, of course), there's a recipe that describes mincing “the best flesh from the bone” of mutton before flavoring the mixture with a range of spices that feels familiar to the canon today: clove, mace, pepper, and orange peel.

In fact, these classic Spice Road flavors are what imbued mince pies with an almost mythical significance. Especially after the Crusades, when soldiers returned from Jerusalem having experienced tastes far beyond what they would have been used to in their English villages. You could even draw a connection to the journey of the Magi who followed a star from the East to bring gifts to the baby Jesus. Echoes of that connection still exist today: Ever wonder why so many mince pies today are decorated with stars?

The expense of these spices meant that mince pies were a special-occasion food. They were made as part of the Twelve Days of Christmas feasting, richly decorated with cut-out pastry, elaborately shaped, and dressed to impress. Over time, they gained in symbolism: 13 key spices and flavorings were said to represent Jesus and the 12 disciples; 12 dried plums were added to the mixture, one for each apostle; the citrus rind was said to symbolize the bitterness of the crucifixion, the sweetness of the dried fruits, the joy of the nativity.

All of this mythology was precisely not what Puritan revolutionary leader Oliver Cromwell had in mind when he became head of the UK’s short-lived republic in 1653. Too idolatrous. Too Catholic. Though he stopped short of technically banning mince pies, he did strongly discourage them, and as a consequence the mince pie became (secretly, sneakily, rebelliously) even more popular. One of the first things that King Charles II did after the government fell and the monarchy was restored, was to officially rescind the unofficial ban. Mince pies, much to popular acclaim, were emphatically back.

In 1662, just two years after Charles II’s decree, Samuel Pepys wrote about mince pies in his famous diary, “I sent for a mince pie abroad, my wife not being well to make any herself.” Incidentally, this may well be the first recorded mention of a shop-bought mince pie, and the first shade of snobbery about them. It’s clear that Peyps is relieved that Elizabeth is well, and his mince pie baking has returned in-house when he writes the following year, “I thank God, and at home found my wife making mince pies.”

These are still very much pies on the savory side of the sweet-savory dichotomy. By 1845, Eliza Acton wrote two recipes for mince pies: one, the typical meat mince pie we’ve been seeing thus far, with one pound of tongue (!); and another, with a lot more sugar and dried fruits, but where the only nod to carnivores is suet. She calls it “superlative.” Today we’d probably just call it “mincemeat.” Thus, the style of mince pie that we know and love today began its meteoric rise.

Different though mince pies have tasted over the centuries, these ancient flavors—pastry, cinnamon, cloves, citrus, nutmeg, mace, dried fruits—weave back through history, echoing familiar scents from the past into our wintry kitchens today. They connect us, on a deep, sensory level, to our ancestors, who like me look out at the cold, expansive darkness that is the outside world and think, "Nope. Absolutely not. Pass the baked goods—I’m staying inside."

Ever wonder why mincemeat pies were called mincemeat pies? Well, now you know! Let us know in the comments what you think.

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18 Comments

Alma S. December 27, 2018
My father has always loved mincemeat pies (with actual meat!) and I am always on the lookout for a great recipe and have yet to find one. If that was all he ever got for Christmas he's a happy guy!
 
Author Comment
Katherine K. December 28, 2018
I love that!
If you want a recipe for meat mincemeat, the one that I tried while researching this article was the Mrs Beeton, https://britishfoodhistory.com/2011/12/03/traditional-mincemeat/.
It tasted pretty good, I thought!
 
Alma S. December 30, 2018
Ahh, thank you! I will definitely try this one!
 
Cindy W. December 20, 2018
I had not heard of these origins. In America, few Westerners have heard of mincemeat. I thought it was Southern in origin dating to the Civil War. Glad to know I can share that it is British.
 
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Katherine K. December 21, 2018
Happy to help! Though mince pies have quite a strong tradition in America too. I read a lovely article from the Pilgrim Hall Museum that mentions mince pies being baked for Thanksgiving! http://www.pilgrimhallmuseum.org/pdf/Thanksgiving_and_New_England_Pie.pdf
 
McChef December 27, 2018
After reading the comments I am confused... what are the real ingredients in "mincemeat" pies ?? Other readers are referring to boiled hamburger etc... my mom made mincemeat pies every year for the past 40 yrs during the holidays and a vanilla sauce to pour over it...BUTTT, it was the Mincemeat filling in the jar not boiled hamburger ! I am curious now to learn the true ingredients in mincemeat pie, please share !!
 
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Katherine K. December 28, 2018
Modern mince pies are made with mincemeat, all one word! which is a combination of dried fruits, spices and either suet (fat from around the kidneys) or vegetarian suet. But up to the 1920s, if someone offered you a mince pie, it would include actual minced up meat, as well as the fruits and spices. I don't know how that would have tasted with vanilla sauce, though?!!
 
McChef December 28, 2018
SMH...I was hoping for an educated reply that actually explained the [difference] between the "old school" (circa 1920) "mince pie" filling and the post 1920 era "Mincemeat" pie filling. This reply did not help at all ! PS... The vanilla sauce was for the [post] 1920 "mincemeat] pies which have a more of a fruity flavored filling that comes in a jar or a box, made by the companies, None Such & Cromwell... I still would like to know the [difference] between the old school ingredients & the current jarred or boxed ingredients ! Do you have links to thr recipes for each ??
 
McChef December 28, 2018
I noticed that my reply (5 min ago) to your reply above was deleted, I did some further research though and found this snipit of info which is what I was seeking, it is my understanding that "food editors" were here to HELP bloggers not to delete their comments & replys... I found the info I needed elsewhere...Mince pies have a misleading name. (There, I said it.) For those unfamiliar with the classic British Christmas dessert, they're little fabled tartlets the size of peanut butter cups, commonly filled with raisins, sultanas, cranberries, and other dried fruits, all macerated and cooked in heavily-spiced brandy or port. As their name suggests, mince pies traditionally did at one point have minced beef or lamb mixed in with the dried fruits. Some versions even used suet (beef fat) or lard to bind the filling together. Thankfully, most modern iterations of mincemeat—the filling of mince pies—have done away with the “meat” part, opting instead for the agreeable boozy dried fruit filling that’s ubiquitous in England, especially around the holidays.

While mince pies aren’t all that common in the U.S., they're a non-negotiable festive tradition in the U.K., like watching the Queen’s Christmas message on the telly. For me at least, they come to mind when British food writers like Nigel Slater and Nigella Lawson wax lyrical about them, or in random movie cameos, like that scene in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when Ginny awkwardly feeds Harry a mince pie.
 
Eric K. December 20, 2018
I can't wait to try my hand at mince pies. Never made them before!
 
Mark December 20, 2018
I know that the netflix (here in Australia) show Lords and ladles had an episode where they made a mince pie, and a very interesting potato pie.
My great grand mother always made hers with suet with her own made candied peels, she was never one to write her recipes, was always a pinch and dash by memory cook. Something I have missed for many years.
Thank you for this amazing stroll through food history!
 
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Katherine K. December 20, 2018
I'm really glad you enjoyed it!
My Grandma was a pinch and dash cook too, so I totally get it. I wish I'd written down more of my Grandma's recipes, though I did take a bit of video near the end of her life of her talking about food - what she ate at her wedding, the first meal she cooked when she was married - that sort of thing. I'm still a bit too sad to watch it, but I'm happy I have it.
I've never hear of the show Lords and Ladles, but it's a genius title, and I'll have to check it out!
 
Sarah K. December 20, 2018
Great article, putting mince pies in the oven now! X
 
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Katherine K. December 20, 2018
Good for you! Happy Holidays!
 
porsha December 20, 2018
My French Canadian grandmother made mincemeat pies every year and as her children grew up and spread across the country she would begin preparing the mincemeat filling in September so it could be mailed out to everyone who was far from home.

To the day she died her mincemeat always included boiled ground beef (a more disgusting way to prepare ground beef I do not know) and suet, as well as all the candied fruits and raisins.

This was a very interesting read, thank you!
 
Author Comment
Katherine K. December 20, 2018
I love that she sent it to people! My Gandma once sent me a Fly Pie, which is basically mincemeat rolled into pastry as a disk and baked, and when it got to be it was a box of crumbs. Just sending the mince meat sounds better - regardless of whether there's actual meat in it or not!
 
Eric K. December 20, 2018
All I ever get for Christmas are socks.
 
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Katherine K. December 20, 2018
Socks are the best. Lucky!