In Praise Of A Catholic Christmas Holiday Favorite: Mincemeat Pie UPDATED

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Readers of this blog know that I’m a convert to Catholicism (RCIA Class of ’08). Something else they know is that I enjoy rediscovering all things with Catholic origins that folks like me (former non-denominational Christian) never even knew were Catholic in the first place.

Like my favorite pie for this time of year: mincemeat pie.

I also enjoy sharing stories like this because of the round about way in which they come about. In this instance, it was because my mom brought my favorite pie for dessert for Christmas dinner at Casa del Weathers. My kids were like, what is it? Keep in mind that these kids are transplants from California, where finding mincemeat pie wasn’t altogether impossible, but it was definitely more challenging than it is in Tennessee.

They were very interested to know what was inside the filling, see. I answered them with what I knew for sure (raisins, dates, apples, spices, orange peels), and the conversation soon turned to wether or not this was a bonafide Southern treat, or an Irish treat (from my mom’s side of the family). I said I really didn’t know, except that it’s my favorite pie, and that was why I loved it. End of story; dig in.

My mother went home, and followed up on it, for she sent me an e-mail the next morning.

Frank,

It is interesting to read what Wikipedia has to say about Mincemeat pie … it was frowned on by the Puritans because of its connection with “Catholic idolatry” … and, originally it had 13 ingredients representing Christ and the 12 Apostles … etc.

Love, Mom

At which point I thought, “Freaking Puritans!”

Of course I took the opportunity to remind her that the Puritans had outlawed celebrating Christmas for a time. I read the Wikipedia article with interest, and when I read that later on “its size reduced markedly from the large oblong shape once observed,” I learned that this may have been because the pies used to be shaped like a manger (though there is a concern that this may be an urban legend), and that they were called Christmas Pies.

Here’s what I dug up further about the origin and history of my favorite pie.

History of Mincemeat Pie

Mincemeat developed as a way of preserving meat without salting or smoking some 500 years ago in England, where mince pies are still considered an essential accompaniment to holiday dinners just like the traditional plum pudding. This pie is a remnant of a medieval tradition of spiced meat dishes, usually minced mutton, that have survived because of its association with Christmas. This pies have also been known as Christmas Pies. Mince pie as part of the Christmas table had long been an English custom.

Today, we are accustomed to eating mince pie as a dessert, but actually “minced” pie and its follow-up “mincemeat pie” began as a main course dish with with more meat than fruit (a mixture of meat, dried fruits, and spices). As fruits and spices became more plentiful in the 17th century, the spiciness of the pies increased accordingly.

11th Century – The Christmas pie came about at the time when the Crusaders were returning from the Holy Land. They brought home a variety of oriental spices. It was important to add three spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) for the three gifts given to the Christ child by the Magi. In honor of the birth of the Savior, the mince pie was originally made in an oblong casings (coffin or cradle shaped), with a place for the Christ Child to be placed on top. The baby was removed by the children and the manger (pie) was eaten in celebration. These pies were not very large, and it was thought lucky to eat one mince pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas (ending with Epiphany, the 6th of January).

Over the years, the pies grew smaller, the shape of the pie was gradually changed from oblong to round, and the meat content was gradually reduced until the pies were simply filled with a mixture of suet, spices and dried fruit, previously steeped in brandy. This filling was put into little pastry cases that were covered with pastry lids and then baked in an oven. Essentially, this is today’s English mince pie.

1413 – King Henry V of England served a mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. King Henry VIII (Dude, what did you do? —Ed.) liked his Christmas pie to be a main-dish pie filled with mincemeat.

1545 – A cookbook from the mid 16th century that also includes some account of domestic life, cookery and feasts in Tudor days, called A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye, declarynge what maner of meates be beste in season, for al times in the yere, and how they ought to be dressed, and serued at the table, bothe for fleshe dayes, and fyshe dayes, has a recipe for a pie that sounds alot like a modern day mincemeat pie:

To make Pyes – Pyes of mutton or beif must be fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth pepper and salte, and a lyttle saffron to coloure it, suet or marrow a good quantite, a lyttle vyneger, prumes, greate raysins and dates, take thefattest of the broathe of powdred beyfe, and yf you wyll have paest royall, take butter and yolkes of egges and so tempre the flowre to make the paeste.

1588 – In the 1588 Good Hous-Wiues Treasurie by Edward Allde, meats were still cut up to be eaten with a spoon and combined with fruits and heavy spices. Typical was his recipe for Minst Pye which used practically the same ingredients that go into a modern mince pie.

Remember the joys of Prohibition? Here we go.

A satirical “sermon” I’d love to read

1657 – Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), the self-proclaimed Lord Protector of England from 1649 until 1658, detested Christmas as a pagan holiday (one not sanctioned by the Bible, that promoted gluttony and drunkenness). Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Council abolished Christmas on December 22, 1657. In London, soldiers were ordered to go round the streets and take, by force if necessary, food being cooked for a Christmas celebration. The smell of a goose being cooked could bring trouble. Cromwell considered pies as a guilty, forbidden pleasure. The traditional mincemeat pie was banned. King Charles II (1630-1685) restored Christmas when he ascended the throne in 1660.

1646 – In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, mince pies, sometimes known as shred or secrets pies, were made in eccentric shapes. Maybe this was done to originally hide the fact that these were actually mince pies which were banned during the Christmas celebration in England, and possibly the tradition just continued for many years. In the 1646 ballad, The World Turned Upside Down by Thomason Tracts, one verse of the song refers to “shred pie.” The song was written bewailing Parliament’s ban on Christmas:

To conclude, I’le tell you news that’s right,
Christmas was kil’d at Naseby fight:
Charity was slain at that same time,
Jack Tell troth too, a friend of mine,
Likewise then did die,
Rost beef and shred pie,
Pig, Goose and Capon no quarter found.

Final Chorus:

Yet let’s be content and the times lament,
You see the world is quite turned round.

And this silliness infected America too, see?

1659 – In 1659, Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan influence spread across the Atlantic ocean to American British Colonies, and many towns of New England went so far as to actually ban mincemeat pies at Christmas time. Christmas was actually banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Those celebrating it were fined.

Like I said earlier, “Freaking Puritans!” Happily, the pies came out from under the Puritan ban again in the 1800′s.

So short story, long? Another reason why I am Catholic is because my favorite pie, of all time, is Catholic (and I didn’t even know it).

Thanks for bringing it to Christmas dinner, mom! God is good.

UPDATE

Fr. Seraphim Beshoner, a professor at Franciscan University, podcasts on the mincemeat pie: Idolatrie in Crust.

  • Maggie Goff

    Bless you, Frank. I’ll have to try it again. I haven’t tasted one since I was 18,which was 50 years ago. My mother made them every single year & even though I gagged all the way through, I was required to eat the whole darn slice. You make it sound so good, though, that I will attempt it again. ;)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/yimcatholic/ Frank Weathers

      Put some Cool Whip on it. =D

  • davisbabs

    Although I haven’t made one in years, I used to make a mincemeat pie baked with a layer of sour cream on top. Was my favorite, but others didn’t share the same joyfulness at its presentation…

  • AnneG

    I was one of those weird kids who loved mincemeat pie and fruitcake. My grandma’s was best.
    I’m going to try a pie during the 12 days, or maybe for La Virgen de la Candelaria, Feb 2. Thanks, Frank.

  • Rick Connor

    My Mom always made mincemeat pie for Christmas. Everyone loved it. My brother tried to convince me it was made with snake meat so that there would be more for him. The plot never worked.