Thanksgiving is a special holiday for my family and me as the first generation immigrants. I remember how exciting and symbolic it was to celebrate it the way the rest of the country does — with turkey, cranberry sauce, and apple or pecan pie. For a few years, it was fun to shop for these seasonal foods and feel being a part of this culture. Then, at some point, we decided to step outside the box and make modifications to our super traditional Thanksgiving dinner. One year, everything was cooked and plated using modernist cuisine techniques. Next, we played with heritage wild turkey and other heirloom varieties of everything on the table. Almost every year, it’s a culinary discovery. It became a tradition. This year, my daughter suggested learning more about historical Thanksgiving recipes. We decided to start with a dessert. Or whatever this is.
If you think it’s an apple pie, think again. According to Chicago Reader, “The phrase as American as apple pie is of 20th-century origin and didn’t attain wide currency until the 1940s.” Apple pies were always cherished, but it’s the Mincemeat pie that was an American favorite holiday pie for ages.
If you think “meat” in traditional “mincemeat” means “fruit,” think again. The true Mincemeat pie is made with real beef, suet, apples, apple cider, raisins, and abundant, flavorful spices. It was not sweet. The tartness of pre-mass-market apples was balanced with boiled (concentrated) hard cider and raisins, no sugar added.
Even though American taste buds are known for the love of sweet and salty food combinations, traditional Mincemeat pie is seen today as an acquired taste. There are many implications on why early settlers combined savory meat and ingredients that are considered belonging to dessert dishes. Was it really for food preservation purposes or our ancestors were fond of bold flavors?
If you think you can’t imagine the taste of this pie, think again. Think about other protein + fruit pairs (minus pie crust) you know — roasted turkey with cranberry sauce, roasted duck or goose stuffed with apples and prunes, pork ribs with pineapple — it’s not that bizarre as it seems. It’s delicious!
The First American Cookbook (1796): “Four pound boiled beef, chopped fine, and salted; six pound of raw apple chopped also, one pound beef suet, one quart of wine or rich sweet cider, one ounce mace, and cinnamon, a nutmeg, two pounds raisins, bake in paste No. 3 three-fourths of an hour. As people differ in their tastes, they may alter to their wishes.”
Chicago Tribune (1908): “SIMPLE MINCE PIES. — Boil until tender about five pounds of beef; salt it when partially done. Let cool in the liquor, remove fat, chop fine, and measure. Use twice as much finely chopped apples, which must be tart, as you do meat. Then add some of the liquor in which the meat was boiled, also a little of the fat and one quart of boiled cider.
If not enough fat, add a little butter. Add also two teaspoons of cloves, three of cinnamon, the same of mace, and three pounds of raisins. The amount of sugar will depend on the sourness of the apples. Use brown sugar and sweeten to taste. After all the ingredients have been mixed well and warmed, if found too thick, thin it out with cider or grape juice. When this is hot, you can put it in your fruit jars, seal up as you do your fruit and keep until wanted.”