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The History of Mincemeat Pies, from the Crusades to Christmas

Mentioned by Shakespeare, allegedly banned by Puritans, and enjoyed by many still, these traditional treats have a long history in English cuisine

Take a bite of history on National Mincemeat Day (Darian Stibbe / Pixabay)
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"Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables." The reference to "baked meats" in this scene from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" may sound odd to the modern ear, but the mince pie was a popular dish of his era in England. However just a few decades later, these savory treats came under the scorn of Oliver Cromwell and his religiously strict government and were reportedly banned as part of a crackdown on celebrations in general. On National Mincemeat Day, one can look back on the interesting history of this quintessentially English dish.

Religion and mince pies have a long history together—their origins in English cuisine appear to date back to the 12th century and the Crusades, according to J. John in his book "A Christmas Compendium." Middle Eastern cuisine had long used a variety of spices to make meat dishes that were both sweet and savory, sometimes with fruits mixed in. By the late 14th century, a recipe for a kind of mince pie had already made its way into one of the oldest known English cookbooks, "The Forme of Cury," historian Katherine Clements notes. The ominously named "tarts of flesh" were a decadent creation, with the recipe calling for boiled pork, stewed bird and rabbit, eggs, cheese, sugar, saffron, salt and other spices all piled into a pie shell. "An extravagant dish, surely meant to be eaten at times of celebration," Clements writes of this recipe. Other tarts in the same book included figs, raisins and similarly exotic fruits mixed with salmon and other meats.

Mince pies (the "mince" comes from a Latin word meaning "small") soon did become a dish associated mainly with festivities, namely the celebrations of the Christmas season. During the twelve days of Christmas, Clements notes, wealthy rulers and people often put on massive feasts, and an expensive dish of meat and fruit like a mince pie made a great way to show off one's status. Furthermore, the pies were often topped with crust shaped into decorative patterns.

It was this extravagance that allegedly drew the ire of Cromwell's Puritanical government. For the Puritans of the era, the birth of Christ was a solemn occasion, not a cause of raucous feasting and celebration. While Clements has also cast doubt on Cromwell's personal role in the matter, it is true that the Puritan-dominated parliament of Cromwell's era of rule did crack down on Christmas celebration in England, including banning feasts of mince pies and other "gluttonous" treats. However, the people wanted their pies, and these bans were quickly rescinded when Charles II assumed control of England after Cromwell's government fell.

By the Victorian era, the meat of mincemeat began to be dropped from the dishes, making them more akin to the fruity pies we're familiar with. The treats also shrank in size, becoming more like individual snacks than extravagant dishes. Their popularity remains, however, with the Daily Mail reporting this month that more than $5 million worth of mince pies have already been sold this season in the United Kingdom, with Christmas still two months away. Take a bite and enjoy!

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