Many years ago, as I poked through the unwanted books (also known as "dollar" books) at Half Price Books, I came upon a coverless, broken book that looked unusually old. Upon closer inspection, it was revealed to be volume four of The Encyclopediae of Cookery, published in 1904 in Akron, Ohio. The other volumes had gone missing; only volume four remained. It was the first antique cookbook I had ever encountered, and, in addition to being totally old, it actually had photographs of the Victorian monstrosities popular at the time. At the turn of the century, it was extremely stylish to form jiggly towers of food or mold foods in curious, large molds so that they resembled castles, bombs, or other foods (the photograph of "Fish Ice Cream" comes to mind: a layer of lettuce topped by vanilla ice cream, fashionably molded into the shape of a fish).
Of course I bought it! And absolutely pored over it, absorbing everything I could about the food ways of 1900. I came away with a strong impression that, despite the enthusiasm for bombast and sleight of hand in presentation, people in the olden days got to eat better food than we modern Americans. Everything was organic, everything was handmade, and, before refrigeration, everything had to be picked-that-morning fresh.
Of course, many of the "old" dishes had passed out of circulation and become mysterious: hoecakes, hominy, aspic, terrapin soup, steamed puddings, croquettes, and parfaits. I longed to try them all, but the recipe that intrigued me the most was the recipe for mincemeat. Apparently, it was a substance no householder could bear to be without! Gargantuan amounts were put down yearly in stone crocks. Without refrigeration, the mincemeat was used for months, straight from the crock. The intensity of interest in method and recipe, the sheer number of recipes that used mincemeat (not only pies but cookies, tarts, bars, puddings, and creams), and the enormous popularity of mincemeat seemed amazing to me. I had never known anyone to actually make (or eat) it, and like plum pudding, I had only read about it in books ... old books. Like Oliver Twist and Little Women.
The earliest recipes for mincemeat date from the Middle Ages, and though recipes differ in various respects over the hundreds of years since then, the essentials remain constant. First: minced meat. In fact, meatless versions of mincemeat only begin to show up in modern times (often called "mock mincemeat"), reflecting meat scarcity and World War II rationing. Secondly: fruit. Dried fruits, such as currants or raisins, diced apples, and citrus peels. Then the fancy stuff: sugar, spices, and booze.
The spices and citrus peels, and even the dried fruits, had to come from the Orient, and part of mincemeat's initial cachet was its costliness. Prepared in medieval times by the great landowners and served to the tenants and laborers, for hundreds of years, mincemeat was the last word in sumptuous dining and showing off. As trade made the ingredients more affordable, folks began making their own mincemeat – still, however, reserving it for the holidays and cold weather. For a dish to be so beloved, for so long, and then to simply disappear ... it didn't make any sense to me. I decided to make it, the right way, from the Encyclopediae of Cookery recipe, and see for myself.
The recipe from my beloved volume four reads as follows:
7 pounds of currants; 3½ pounds cored and peeled apples; 3½ pounds of beef; 3½ pounds of suet; half a pound each of citron, orange, and lemon peel; 2½ pounds coffee sugar; 2 pounds raisins; four nutmegs; 1 ounce cinnamon; a half-ounce cloves and mace; 1 pint brandy; and 1 pint white wine. Chop very fine, adding to pan as finished, cook, and store in stone crocks.
Pretty simple, except: Where can you get citrons, and what are they? Like quince, a once common ingredient that has become so erased from our American cuisine that I couldn't find a grocer who even knew what it was. I finally settled for grapefruits, reasoning that if a bitter and fragrant citrus fruit was called for (the definition in my dictionary), Texas pink grapefruit was the best I could do (there was no Internet at the time). Not knowing if I would like it or not, the sheer cost, plus not having a pan huge enough, caused me to cut the recipe in half; I didn't want to cut it down any further than that, because I really wanted it to be authentic. (As it was, I had to make it in an industrial kitchen, in a pan 2 feet in diameter. To make the whole recipe? One would have to have a missionary-boiling-sized iron kettle, the kind that is hung from a tree limb over an open fire. Seriously.)
I cheated slightly and had the butcher grind the beef and suet for me, but everything else I minced fine with a steel knife, and believe me, it took all day long. (I think in the manor days, there would have been other kitchen serfs laboring alongside me!) Also, the recipe called for citrus peels, not juice, so I also ended up with quarts of orange-grapefruit-lemonade left over, a total bonus! Coffee sugar is just an old-fashioned way to say white sugar (when the recipe was written, the cook would have had to grate a solid brick of white sugar against a grater to granulate it), and the spices and spirits were easily obtained (in stark contrast to the Middle Ages, or even the 1850s, when they would have had to come from the Far East in tall ships, at sea for months or years).
When all was added to the gigantic pan and mixed and cooked, I tasted it. It was ambrosial. Truly. Heavenly transporting! Mincemeat is one of those foodstuffs that is greater than the sum of its parts. Cinnamon and orange, brandy and raisin flavors predominate, in the exact proportion that "tastes like Christmas" – in texture strangely light, despite its richness, highly spiced and flavored, yet wholesome and digestible. A miracle food!
A miracle in more ways than one: Food historian Paula Marcoux writes that it was also one of the first convenience foods. After all, it kept for months, and it was already made. That explains why mincemeat figures so heavily in the old cookbooks. Before the days of opening a can, it was one of the only things at a housewife's fingertips that was ready to use. Mince pie for dessert? Easy! Make a pie crust, spoon in the mincemeat, and throw it in the oven. Way faster and easier than peeling a dozen apples or cracking a quart of pecans. Back when most families ate dessert twice a day, mincemeat was a godsend.
Once I had it all jarred and sitting in my refrigerator at home, the challenge became: How was I going to get my friends to try it? Because, I quickly found, no one wanted to. Many of my friends had never even heard of mincemeat, and even if they had, the first question was always the same:
"Is there meat in it?"
Well, you can't lie. I found that if I could persuade someone to take just one bite, the plate of mincemeat tarts would quickly disappear. That year I made quite a few mincemeat converts, some of whom ask me every November if I will be making mincemeat. (I had plenty of mincemeat for years after making that initial batch; even halved, that recipe made nearly 12 pounds! It freezes well, by the way.)
Proselytizing for mincemeat opened my eyes, however. Without a doubt, aversion to the idea of meat in a dessert is the cause of mincemeat's decline. Modern-day Americans think that mincemeat "sounds gross." Unless strong-armed into trying it, most Americans will studiously avoid it (even meat-free versions), simply because the name has the word "meat" in it. (If candy were still named "sweetmeats," probably no one would eat candy either!) At the same time, we are becoming a more culinarily adventurous country, and many of the dishes in my Encyclopediae of Cookery have made comebacks over the last 20 years: grits, venison sausage, sorrel, and beets, to name a few. It could happen for mincemeat. This month, Saveur magazine has an article on mincemeat, with several recipes; don't be too surprised if chefs begin to rediscover this amazing, ambrosial concoction.
From the Encyclopediae of Cookery, Vol. 4
7 pounds of currants
3½ pounds cored and peeled apples
3½ pounds of beef
3½ pounds of suet
Half a pound each of citron, orange, and lemon peel
2½ pounds coffee sugar
2 pounds raisins
1 ounce cinnamon
A half-ounce cloves and mace
1 pint brandy
1 pint white wine
Chop very fine, adding to pan as finished, cook, and store in stone crocks.
A Manageable Amount of Mincemeat
1 pound of currants
Four large Granny Smith apples
½ pound of lean ground beef
½ pound of ground beef suet
One citron or grapefruit
2 cups white sugar
¾ cups raisins
One half of a nutmeg (or one heaping teaspoon)
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon cloves
1 teaspoon mace
¾ cup brandy
1 cup white wine
Because you will be using the peels, I advise using organic citrus fruits. Beef suet will have to be ordered from your butcher or meat department a day ahead; it is not generally called for. Get the very best ground meat and suet you can, it does make a difference. I get mine from Richardson Farms.
Peel and core the apples and quarter them. Using a reamer, extract the juice from the citrus fruits and set aside. Place the pithy, juiceless citrus halves in your food processor and pulse them until they are finely chopped. In a large stove-top pan (such as a Dutch oven), melt the suet over medium heat, and when it begins to melt, add the ground beef. Then add the chopped citrus peel. Without wasting time cleaning the food processor bowl, put the apple quarters into the processor, and chop them up, too. Add to the stove-top mixture, and give it a good stir. Turn the heat to low.
Add the raisins, spices, brandy, and wine. Cook over low heat until the flavors meld, about an hour. If the mixture looks a little dry, splash some of the citrus juice in; otherwise, use the leftover citrus juice to make a nice cocktail, or enjoy it with breakfast.
When it's done, let it cool, and then pack it in jars and store in the refrigerator. This mincemeat is especially good made into small pies or tarts. If you make a large, American-style pie, only fill the crust up about halfway, and use a top crust or cut out fun shapes (like leaves!) from crust dough with a cookie cutter and arrange them on top, sprinkled with white sugar.
If you don't use it all this holiday season, it will freeze well and can be used next year.