December 15th, 2011

What Is Mincemeat, Anyway?

nancy-80x80Mince pie is one of those pastries I grew up eating but probably never would have eaten if given my choice of any pastry on the planet. At some point in my childhood, my mother must have come to the conclusion that her family all shared that opinion, because from then on, pumpkin and pecan were the only pies she made for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

I always wondered what was in mince pie, though. Was there actually meat in mincemeat? I’m not a vegetarian, but mixing meat and fruit just isn’t my kind of tasty. I’m pretty sure my mother used canned mincemeat—most likely None Such brand. So I checked out the None Such label in the grocery store recently and found that it does indeed contain beef, far down on the ingredients list.

Turns out the None Such brand has been around for at least 100 years. I have a trade card advertising the brand from about 1895, when it was still owned by Merrell & Soule (it was bought by Borden in the 1920s):

None Such Condensed Mince Meat trade card (front)

None Such Condensed Mince Meat trade card (front)

None Such Condensed Mince Meat trade card (back)

None Such Condensed Mince Meat trade card (back)

As you can see, Victorian-era cooks were as fond of convenience as we are. “You make the crust, we do the rest” would still make a very good marketing slogan. Mince pie is among the most labor-intensive of pies. Traditionally, it includes several kinds of citrus peel and juice (grating, squeezing), minced meat, fat, and apples (chopping), spices (more grating), and reduced cider (boiling).

Most old recipes would give a cardiologist nightmares—they frequently contain great gobs of suet besides the meat. In addition, there were copious amounts of sugars in the form of fruit, apple cider, and brown sugar. The idea was to achieve just the right balance of fattiness, sweetness, and tartness. But making and preserving mincemeat did serve a useful purpose in the days before refrigeration: The sugars in the fruit and the antibacterial properties of the spices acted as preservatives, giving people alternatives to smoked and salted meats.

Cliff Doerkson of the Chicago Reader unearthed two vintage newspaper recipes for mince pie and gives his hilarious history of mincemeat and his attempts to recreate the recipes here. His article almost makes we want to make a mince pie this Christmas. Almost.

I think I prefer just looking at the beautiful mincemeat trade cards from my collection:

Armour's Condensed Mince Meat trade card (front)

Armour's Condensed Mince Meat trade card (front). The impish characters shown on this card provide an interesting social commentary: From their dress and activity ("mining" for "gold"), they are associated with the different immigrant groups who were working in actual gold mines at the time (from left, Irish, Dutch, German, and Chinese, overseen by the boss in his top hat). They may be the creation of illustrator Palmer Cox, whose Brownie characters were very popular at the turn of the century.

Armour's Condensed Mince Meat trade card (back). Who wouldn't want "palate tickling" mince meat?

Armour’s Condensed Mince Meat trade card (back). Who wouldn’t want “palate tickling” mince meat?

Swett & Card Peerless Home Made Mince Pie Meat trade card. Swett & Card Manufacturing Company was established in 1889 and was abandoned by 1894 "owing to sharp competition and other causes," according to a history of Orleans County, New York. That puts an unusually precise date range on this advertisement.

Swett & Card’s Peerless Home Made Mince Pie Meat trade card. Swett & Card Manufacturing Company was established in 1889 and was abandoned by 1894 "owing to sharp competition and other causes," according to a history of Orleans County, New York, where the company was based. That puts an unusually precise date range on this advertisement, and also tells us that mincemeat was once a competitive enterprise.

Surely one of the largest commercial producers of mincemeat in the Victorian era was Atmore & Son, which billed itself as the “oldest house in the trade,” having been established in 1842. Its average daily sales “during the season” numbered 12 tons! Yes, that’s daily. Here’s a selection of their ads:

Atmore's Mince Meat and Genuine English Plum Pudding trade cards, circa 1870s

Atmore’s Mince Meat and Genuine English Plum Pudding trade cards, circa 1870s

My favorite mincemeat ephemera is this little booklet in the shape of a pie, advertising New England Condensed Mince Meat, made by T. E. Dougherty of Chicago, Illinois, and Port Byron, New York. “Mince pie properly made is delicious, wholesome and nutritious,” it states. “Mince pie poorly made is unpalatable, unwholesome and indigestible. Just the difference between high grade and low grade mince meat. New England Condensed Mince Meat is strictly high grade, prepared from the choicest fruits, beef, spices, sugar and pure boiled cider. All fruits washed, carefully picked over by hand and all raisin seeds removed [gritty mincemeat was a recognized problem]. Absolutely no adulterations [also a recognized problem]. It was first made in 1882…improved from year to year, and in 1895 made under an entirely new formula, in which is used a new combination of dainty and delicious fruits, found in no other condensed mince meat. It is now perfect, requiring no additions whatever except water, and makes larger and richer pies than ever; also delicious fruit cakes and puddings.”

Cover of "Fairy's Pie," booklet advertising New England Condensed Mince Meat circa 1895

Cover of “Fairy's Pie,” booklet advertising Dougherty’s New England Condensed Mince Meat circa 1895

Inside the booklet is a children’s story in which Mother Goose, taking pity on the poor children who have been lured from their homes by the Pied Piper and have nothing to eat, swoops down on her broom and scoops them up, promising to feed them whatever they want most of all. She asks them what that would be. The children all shout together, “Something that has every goody in the whole, wide world in a single bite.” At first, Mother Goose is stumped. Does such a food exist? Then the answer comes to her, and she aims her broomstick for New England. They sail through the open pantry window of a New England home, where she deposits the children and disappears in a flash.

“And what do you think they saw?” asks the writer. “And what did they smell? and what did they taste? Surely every goody in the world in a single bite.

“For they scrambled around a real New England mince pie and a beautiful pair of fairy hands and a bright silver knife cut the pie just to fit each waiting mouth. It was fairly bursting with spices and sweets and fruits and meats, and they ate, and they ate, and they ate and then they began to grow. And what do you think they grew into? Why, just what all good children grow into who eat mince pie made from Dougherty’s New England Condensed Mince meat: splendid American citizens.”

“All the goodys of the whole, wide world in a single bite.”

“Every goody in the whole, wide world in a single bite.”

The next few pages of the booklet go on to describe the thrill of eating fresh mince pies and the quality of the ingredients used in Dougherty’s brand of mincemeat:

A bit of New England history

A bit of New England history

“Monarch of pastry”

“Monarch of pastry”

Fruits and meats

Fruits and meats

Exotic spices

Exotic spices

Dougherty’s—accept no “cheap imitations”!

Dougherty’s—accept no “cheap imitations”!

Maybe I will try making a mince pie after all!

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Comments

    I find it interesting that these are all “condensed.” Just add water, and *POOF* instant mincemeat?! How very “mo-dern”! It’s certainly a time-saver, I guess. I’ve made many minced meat pies, and yes, they’re VERY labor intensive and time consuming. I always use a 17th century recipe that calls for meat, suet, raisins, currants, candied peels, etc. etc. (it’s from Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery). Amazingly, they’re truly both savory AND sweet. HUZZAH!

    Well, Carolina, now you have me thinking even more about making my own mince pie. And I see that Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats is still in print (http://cup.columbia.edu/book/978-0-231-04931-3/martha-washingtons-booke-of-cookery-and-booke-of-sweetmeats)!

    My mother used to (30 years ago) make and can her own mincemeat, for pies – they were indeed rich, sweet and savory at the same time. It’s a northern-winter sort of food. Yum. I’m in central Texas currently; we don’t have the winters for mincemeat pie. As soon as we move back to Oregon, tho . . . .
    Actually mincemeat (and plum pudding) and fruit-and-meat, sweet-and-savory combinations in general, go back a lot further than the 17th century – they show up in the earliest medieval European cookbooks; they’re not nouvelle cuisine at all!!

    I can’t imagine eating mincemeat in Texas, either, Sandy. It’s a weighty food for sure!

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