Reprint, First Rights to Mature Years-1998, Lutheran Digest-2009 and locally in Kutztown Historical Society newsletter 2000.
“The true mince pie should be an inch thick with a flaky crust tinted by its imprisoned juices, which threaten to break through. Around its edges must be a slight crinkle made by the tines of a fork, and in its top a hole here and there from the stroke of a knife to let the steam out. This steam, once known, can never be forgotten,” according to Mr. Arr, an old authority on holiday customs, from the book Customs of Mankind.
Mr. Arr may have been a true connoisseur of mince pies; however, the mince pie has a longer tradition in the medieval English Christmas pie.
Although the English always had been known for making pies (British pies were a main dish of meat or fish with vegetables under a potato or pastry cover. In effect, they were the stews in pie form.) The origin of this popular pie derives from the Crusades to the Holy Land. Military men returned with Oriental spices. Thus, the idea arose to use the spices from Christ’s native land to make a special Christmas pie to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.
The contents of this pie consisted of spices and sweetmeats---minced venison, pheasant, partridge, peacock, rabbit, apples, sugar, suet, molasses, raisins, currants, and spices in differing combinations. The pies were made in the oblong form of a manger with the image of the Christ Child on top.
According to the “Food Encyclopedia,” mincemeat “came about as a matter of preserving various meats, including such game as venison and rabbit. Alcohol and various spices were added to retard spoilage.”
Some of the early recipes called for “chopped or minced partridges, pheasants, and hares,” another calls for “chopped meat, suet, sugar, apples, molasses, cider, raisins, currants, citron, cloves, and nutmeg,” “neats” (cows) tongues, chidken, eggs, raisins, orange and lemon peel.” Some early recipes called for as much as six pounds of meat.
According to Christmas Facts and Fancies, by Alfred Carl Hattes, the largest known pie was made in England in 1770 for Sir Henry Grey---a mere 165 pounds!
Perhaps the Christmas pie of the nursery rhyme, Little Jack Horner, was a mere six-pound pie. If you recall:
LITTLE JACK HORNER
SAT IN A CORNER
EATING A CHRISTMAS PIE;
HE PUT IN HIS THUMB
AND PULLED OUT A PLUM
AND SAID WHAT A GOOD BOY AM I.
English legend tells us that Jack Horner, during the reign of Henry VII, was steward to Richard Whiting, the abbot of Glastonbury monastery. The story goes that, in order to placate the monarch who wished to seize as many lands as possible, Whiting gave Horner the task of delivering a Christmas pie to Henry. Hidden inside the pie were a number of deeds to some manors to be given to the king. Horner is said to have stolen (pulled out) a deed (plum) and lived happily thereafter on a profitable manor.
This Christmas pie of Homer’s has also had a variety of names during England’s early days: shred, god-cakes, mutton, and the wayfarers pies given to holiday visitors of carolers.
As with most foods, the mince pie was associated with superstitions, especially throughout the feasting during the twelve days of Christmas.
Whoever ate a mince pie on each of the twelve days would look forward to twelve happy months. Special good luck was gained by eating pie every day of the twelve at a different person’s house. Never was a mince pie to be eaten before Christmas or after Twelfth Night; nor should one refuse a pie during the season, or else one would have bad luck for twelve months.
Most of these old rites and customs of the mince pies have been forgotten, especially with the Puritans who came in power in the seventeenth-century England and in the early American settlements.
This seemingly innocent Christmas mince pie so outraged the Puritans that, it, too, along with the joy and frivolity of Christmas, was forbidden. It was the Catholic and Anglican mince pie custom to place the image of Jesus on top of the pie. The Christ Child image was considered to be idolatry to the Puritans. Thus, the ban on the original form of the pie. It was during this controversy that the shape was changed to circular (the one we use today) and decorated with green sprigs. In this manner they were included on the Thanksgiving table.
Today the mince pie superstitions, the religious legend of the Crusades, the background of the Little Jack Horner tale, and even the “meat” of the pies have been forgotten or lost.
Yet, not all is lost. Take a seat at the table at your next Thanksgiving or Christmas Day feast and wait for the cook to bring forth a steaming mince pie, “This steam, once known, can never be forgotten”---mince pie.
Carole Christman Koch grew up in Berks County and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to raising children to humorous stories about her and her husband to everyday stories to season stories and more.