A history of mince pies

Mince pies are an inescapable feature of the Christmas period in England. This is great for people like me who are fond of them, though it’s bad news for those who can’t stand the sickly-sweet things. Yet if the modern incarnation of the mincemeat pie divides opinion, how much more would the original version! As the name suggests, mince pies did once contain (a lot of) meat. This might seem strange to us, but particularly in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, sophisticated cuisine was all about a mixture of sweet and savoury flavours. Not surprisingly then, the pie which came to be identified with Christmas contained meat alongside dried fruit, sugar and exotic spices. Mutton or beef was the most common meat athough goose was apparently used in Yorkshire. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were frequently used spices. The English antiquary John Timbs (1801-75) thought that these spices were included in the mincemeat pie eaten at Christmastide “in token of the offerings of the Eastern Magi”. I wouldn’t discount his theory entirely, although I am always somewhat sceptical about attempts to explain away old traditions in purely Christian symbolic terms. I would rather say that wealthy people flavoured their Christmas pies with ‘eastern’ spices because they liked the taste, and because the lavish use of exotic ingredients signified that you were rich enough to afford culinary delicacies which had travelled many thousands of miles.

Meanwhile, from the late 16th century onwards mince pies were increasingly frowned upon in Puritan circles, along with other traditional Christmas celebrations. Many Puritans thought that mince pies were self-indulgent and reminiscent of Catholic superstitions (perhaps John Timbs was indeed onto something), and come the Interregnum when the ‘godly’ were in power from 1649-1660, there were many attempts to stamp out such decadent Christmas traditions. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 curbed Puritan influence but didn’t lessen their dissaproval. An essay in the December 1733 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine  describes how Quakers supposedly inveighed against “Christmas Pye, as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his works”.

However, in the main, people could get on with celebrating Christmas in time-honoured fashion now that they no longer had one of Cromwell’s Major-Generals breathing down their necks to check they weren’t doing anything ungodly. For Samuel Pepys, mince pies were a firm Christmas fixture. Although his Christmas dinner in 1662 was generous, consisting of “a mess of brave plum-porridge and a roasted pullet”, he felt that it wasn’t complete without mince pies. Unfortunately his wife was “not well [enough] to make any herself” so, like most of us nowadays, he “sent for a mince pie abroad”. At Christmas 1663 his wife was feeling better and he was pleased to see, on coming home very cold from a long day at work, that she was busy making mince pies. In December 1666 the long-suffering Mrs Pepys was once again slogging away in the kitchen; Pepys’s entry for the 25th December reads “Lay pretty long in bed, and then rose, leaving my wife desirous of sleep, having sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince pies”.

At this point there was still a lot of meat in the mince pie. Pepys doesn’t give us a recipe but we can get a fairly good idea of its contents  from a recipe book written in 1609 by an Oxfordshire aristocrat, Elinor Fettiplace. Her filling was made of equal parts of minced cooked mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins with ginger, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange rind, salt and a small quantity of sugar. By the 18th century, mince pies were getting sweeter, due in large part to the increasing availability of cheap sugar from West Indian slave plantations. Although meat was still usual, it was no longer essential. In her 1747 book The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse writes “if you chuse meat in your pies, parboil a neat’s tongue [ox tongue], peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible, and mix it with the rest; or two pounds of the inside of a sirloin of beef boiled”.

If you feel like making mince pies this Christmas after a Victorian recipe, here is a recipe for ‘Mince Pies Royal’ from Eliza Acton’s hugely influential 1845 publication, Modern Cookery for Private Families. You could leave out the meat if you want to, but it would be interesting to see what a mince pie tastes like when it really is a mincemeat pie.

Further Reading

Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery, for Private Families (1860)
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy (2nd edition, 1747)
Hilary Spurling, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking (2011)

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