A Harte Appetite: The making of mincemeat
The universe, they say, is full of mysteries, and the culinary world is no exception. Why, for example, is Boston cream pie called a pie when a child of 3 can plainly see that it's a cake? How come we call peanuts nuts when they are actually legumes? And why can't you count a piece of carrot cake as a serving of vegetables?
The typical Thanksgiving table reminds us of yet another culinary mystery: Why is there no meat in mincemeat? Actually, that mystery is relatively easy to solve.
The word "mincemeat" evolved, not surprisingly, from the earlier "minced meat" and in the beginning it did contain meat, and plenty of it -- enough that in its original formulation mincemeat pie was usually served as an entree. A 16th-century recipe, for example, called for a hare, a pheasant, two partridges, two pigeons and two rabbits.
Over the years, however, cooks began adding fruits, sugar and spices to minced meat as a way of preserving it without resorting to salting or smoking, a technique that can be traced back to ancient Rome where the gourmand Apicius, author of the first known cookbook, advocated preserving meat using honey.
Up until at least the middle of the 19th century, recipes for mincemeat or mince pie still called for the addition of minced beef. For instance, Mrs. Beeton's famous "Book of Household Management," probably the most famous cookbook in the English language, published in 1861, does.
Beef, though, was not the only meat used as a major ingredient in early versions of mincemeat pie. Mutton was a frequent choice, while pork and goose were not unheard of. I've seen references to venison, caribou, elk, buffalo, bear and even whale meat. Then, of course, there's Sweeney Todd's notorious approach.
Gradually, in a culinary case of the tail wagging the dog, mincemeat was increasingly sweetened with more fruits and spices to the point where, save for the occasional recipe specifying beef suet, it now contains no meat at all and is served as dessert rather than main course. The only thing it has in common with the original version is the mincing of the ingredients and, of course, the name. (Though this situation does not keep the famed California restaurant, the French Laundry, from putting braised beef chunks in its award-winning mincemeat pie.)
Though mincemeat can play a role in all sorts of dishes -- pancakes, muffins, cakes, cobblers, cookies, stuffing, souffles, cheesecake and even chili -- it's most customarily used in pie, particularly holiday pies. In England mincemeat pie has been the rage ever since Henry V served it at his coronation in 1413, despite its being banned by Oliver Cromwell for a while in the 17th century. To this day it is what British children put out for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. Though in this country it was once a year-round dessert, it has become less popular. Fortunately, it's still a staple at the Thanksgiving table, for while "Hurrah for the pumpkin pie" is how the song goes, mincemeat pie is worth cheering about, too.
Brandied Mincemeat Ice Cream Pie
If you think you don't like mincemeat, this recipe, adapted from one developed by pie maven Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of "The Pie and Pastry Bible," just might change your mind. The sweetness of the mincemeat is tempered by ice cream and a bittersweet chocolate wafer crust. Let's not mince words. It's fabulous.
1 and 1/2 cups chocolate wafer crumbs
1/8 teaspoon salt
5 tablespoons melted butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups vanilla ice cream
3/4 cup mincemeat
1 tablespoon brandy
Combine crumbs, salt, butter and vanilla. Toss with a fork to blend. Press mixture into the bottom and sides of a 9-inch pie pan. Freeze. Soften ice cream and stir it together with the mincemeat and brandy until well blended but not melted. Spoon into pie shell, cover with plastic wrap, and freeze for at least 24 hours. Transfer pie to refrigerator 30 minutes before serving so it can soften slightly.
Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs Fridays 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.