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The Real American Pie

Mince pie was once inextricable from our national identity. Blamed for bad health, murderous dreams, the downfall of Prohibition, and the decline of the white race, it nonetheless persisted as an American staple through the 1940s. So what happened?

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Cover of the December 17 Reader; click image to enlarge
  • Cover of the December 17 Reader; click image to enlarge

As an icon of the American way, apple pie is a johnny-come-lately, a usurper, a pale pretender to its pastry throne. The phrase as American as apple pie is of 20th-century origin and didn't attain wide currency until the 1940s. Perhaps not coincidentally, the 40s are also when mince pie went into eclipse as our defining national dish.

But to its 19th- and early-20th-century admirers, mince pie was "unquestionably the monarch of pies," "the great American viand," "an American institution" and "as American as the Red Indians." It was the food expatriates longed for while sojourning abroad. Acquiring an appreciation for it was proof that an immigrant was becoming assimilated. It was the indispensable comfort dish dispatched to American expeditionary forces in World War I to reinforce their morale with the taste of home. "Mince pie is mince pie," as an editorialist for the Washington Post put it in 1907. "There is no other pie to take its place. Custard pie is good and so is apple pie, but neither has the uplifting power and the soothing, gratifying flavor possessed by mince pie when served hot, with a crisp brown crust."

Moreover, unlike apple pie or anything else on the American menu before or since, mince pie dominated in multiple categories. It was beloved as an entree, as dessert, and, in parts of New England, as breakfast. And although more popular in winter than summer, and absolutely mandatory at Thanksgiving and Christmas, mince pie was eaten year round, unconfined to the holiday ghetto it now shares with iffy ritual foods like eggnog, green bean casserole, and marshmallow candied yams.

Most remarkably, mince pie achieved and maintained its hegemony despite the fact that everyone—including those who loved it—agreed that it reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.

Consider the case of Albert Allen of Chicago, arrested in 1907 for shooting his wife in the head. "It was this way," Allen was quoted as saying by the Trenton Times, "I ate three pieces of mince pie at 11 o'clock and got to dreaming that I was shaking dice. The other fellow was cheating and I tried to shoot his fingers off. When I awoke, I was holding the pistol in my hand and my wife was shot."

So maybe it happened that way and maybe it didn't. The point is that newspapers from the time of the Early Republic through the 1930s abounded with comparable cautionary anecdotes—as well as a lot of jokes—about the dangers of mince pie. Supposing Allen's excuse was on the level, he got off lightly compared to poor George Humphreys, whose death at sea, initially ascribed to yellow fever, was subsequently determined to have resulted from his gluttonous consumption of three mince pies—or so the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in 1888. Not rotten or poisoned or contaminated mince pies, mind you: just mince pies.

Mince pie Cartoon published in Harper's Magazine, November 1894
  • Cartoon published in Harper's Magazine, November 1894

News items like these harmonized beautifully with 19th-century newspaper ads for patented stomach cures and digestive aids, which foregrounded mince pie as the K2 of digestive summits. But for every published warning on the dangers of mince, the newspapers published a poem, essay, or editorial praising it as a great symbol of American cultural heritage or a nostalgic reminder of mother love and better times bygone—or even, as the State of Columbia, South Carolina, asserted in 1901, a beneficial Darwinian instrument that had "thinned out the weak ones" among the pioneering generations.

The mince pie we speak of here bears only passing resemblance to present-day mincemeat pie, that gooey vegetarian article sitting next to the store-bought gingerbread men at office holiday parties. The mincemeat savored by our forebears was made with actual meat (beef, typically, or sometimes venison), flavored with substantial quantities of booze (usually brandy but sometimes rum and/or Madeira).

I set out recently to bake two large mince pies by scaling down recipes published in the 1890s by the Chicago Tribune and the San Francisco Chronicle. (The former I chose for its local provenance and wealth of detailed instructions, the latter for its reassuring headline: "Harmless Mince Pies: They Are Said to Be Hygienic and Safe to Eat.")

Cautious investigator that I am, I decided to spread the risk around. My plan was to take these beefy dishes to the Thanksgiving dinner I'd been invited to, persuade or coerce the guests there to try them, and canvass their reactions.

minced boiled beef

My quest began with a stop at my local butcher shop, where I scored a three-pound roast of beef and a pound-and-a-half of suet. Suet, if you don't know, is raw, shredded beef fat, ideally harvested from the regions around the loins and kidneys. Except for people who stuff their birdfeeders with it in wintertime, there's not much call for this commodity in these cholesterol-conscious times, but the butcher at Villager Foods in Oak Park was kind enough to run off a greasy, maggot-white batch especially for me at a reasonable price.

Next I was off to the grocer's to procure sweet (unfermented) apple cider, raisins, currants, a big bag of Granny Smith apples, and a pint of brandy.

Back home I reluctantly submerged the gorgeous top-round roast in boiling water, then left it to simmer for three hours. Simultaneously I boiled the cider until its volume was reduced by 85 percent, which yielded the syrupy goo known (logically enough) as boiled cider.

As my pots steamed and bubbled away on the stovetop, I assiduously soaked and rinsed the currants per the Trib's advice, so that they wouldn't introduce any dirt into my pies. This effort was probably wasted—I believe our current currant producers have found a technological fix for the dirt problem. But the instruction helped me make sense of an enticing 1905 advertisement I'd read in the Anaconda (Montana) Standard touting a local bakery's mince pies as "absolutely free from grit." (The grit question in turn put me in mind of advice promulgated in 1899 by the National Society for the Promotion of Health, recommending that pie eaters ready their stomachs for mince by swallowing six five-grain capsules of "sand from the shores of Lake Michigan," a precaution that would enable them to safely "digest food as chickens do.")

Once the simmering roast had come to term, I fished its gray, shrunken mass from the pot and laboriously whittled it into pea-sized chunks, taking pains per both recipes to remove all gristle and fat. (Heaven forbid any fat should sneak into a dish that calls for fistfuls of suet.)

My meat minced and my cider boiled, I combined these two ingredients with a mountain of chopped and peeled apples, a foothill each of raisins and currants, two cups of molasses, and a terrifying three-quarters of a pound of suet.

Dividing the resultant glop into two batches—Trib and Chronicle—I heavily seasoned both with cloves, allspice, and cinnamon. The Chronicle recipe additionally called for grated citrus peel, orange and lemon juice, grape jelly, and mouth-numbing quantities of nutmeg and mace.

Mince Pie: the finished product - CLIFF DOERKSEN

Ideally I should have have next poured half a quart of brandy on the Chronicle batch and then packed it in a stone crock to "ripen and blend" in a cool, dry place for three weeks, but my timetable didn't permit it. Instead I poured each filling into a waiting crust. Before sealing off the tops with pastry, I dosed each pie, per the more conservative Trib recipe, with three ounces of brandy. Lastly, I took pains to stab multiple vents in the top crusts, having recently read a tragic 1872 news item about a three-year-old boy in Shakopee, Minnesota, who died of burns resulting from the explosion of an unvented mince pie his mother had just withdrawn from the oven. Then I put them in to bake.

Mince pie was brought to American shores by the British religious dissenters who settled New England, but it arrived under a cloud. English Puritans regarded the dish as inherently popish, and during the rule of Cromwell mince had been banned, along with such related pagan folderol as Christmas, maypoles, gambling, and musical instruments in church.

Several New England colonies likewise had laws against mince (and Christmas). Yet the dish somehow survived suppression, and as Puritan theocracy waned and a relative pluralism bloomed, it thrived. In an age before refrigeration, making mince was a useful way of preserving meat, and doubtless it provided a nice change from dried beef and salt pork. And preserve mince definitely did, thanks primarily to its gooey, concentrated sugars (which, as in jellies and preserves, keep bacteria at bay by sucking the moisture out of their bodies) and redolent spices (also powerful antibacterial agents). Among their many other amazing attributes, mince pies were said to remain "good" almost indefinitely.

Chicago Tribune mince pie recipe
  • Chicago Tribune mince pie recipe

Over time mince oozed its way out of New England, south down the coast and inland via the river systems and canals. By the mid-19th century it was popular in every section of the country settled by Europeans. But it never quite shed its aura of theological dodginess, and throughout its long reign as America's "monarch of pies," mince remained taboo for Protestant clergymen. Many men of the cloth actively sermonized against it, perhaps none more eloquently than prominent abolitionist and health nut Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who in 1860 described the pie as "very white and indigestible upon the top, very moist and indigestible at the bottom, with untold horrors in between."

The pie's reputation as a daredevil's delight got a boost from the Market Revolution of the early 19th century, which saw the production of mince increasingly outsourced from the home kitchen to the commercial bakery; in subsequent decades it moved to the canning factory. Even when produced in the home, mince had always inspired a fair amount of what-the-hell-is-in-this-stuff-anyway japery, but the commercial version was the original mystery meat, and humorists responded accordingly. Charles Dickens's 1837 novel The Pickwick Papers, to cite a prominent trans-Atlantic example, includes a gross-out joke about a London piemaker who stuffs his wares with stray kittens. This was actually not so far-fetched in the context of completely unregulated food markets—though when American federal and state authorities got serious about enforcing the new Pure Food and Drug laws against Big Mince in the early 20th century, their lab work revealed many samples of commercial mince to contain no meat solids whatsoever. And the mince pies served by 20th-century metropolitan bakeries, diners, and automat restaurants were, at least in popular myth, good for a free prize with virtually every forkful (e.g., telephone slugs, bits of newspaper, collar buttons, streetcar transfers . . . ).

Mince's bad reputation was also reinvigorated by the rise of the temperance movement. The Puritans' objection to mince in colonial times had had absolutely nothing to do with alcohol; in fact it was accepted practice among them to begin one's strenuously pious days with a flip, a toddy, a "phlegm-cutter," or one of several other traditional rum-based breakfast cocktails. But the evangelical anti-booze crusaders of the 19th century were a different stripe of zealot. We're talking here about people who declared jihad on backyard apple trees because apples could be turned into cider, so you can imagine how receptive they were to the argument that brandy was just a flavoring extract whose intoxicating content evaporated in the oven. Thus in 1885, Marion Howland, Christian gentlewoman and author of the best-selling homemaker's manual Common Sense in the Household, felt obliged to respond in print to the evangelical critic who harshed on her book, with its brandy-fueled mince recipe, as a work that "stifled and sickened the Christian reader."

San Francisco Chronicle mince pie recipe
  • San Francisco Chronicle mince pie recipe

"I have made up huge batches of mince upon (so-called) temperance principles," retorted Howland. "Like all imitations, they were burlesques and caricatures, and each slice had more dyspepsia in it than could be evolved from whole real Christmas pie."

It's easy to snicker at the temperance nags and their fixation with mince as an addictive gateway pastry, but they weren't wrong in identifying the pie as a significant enemy. When the 18th Amendment went into effect in 1919, the national liquor and catering interests began lobbying and lawyering hard to create a loophole in the Dry Law that would exempt the culinary arts. The campaign culminated in an October 1922 federal court case pitting Chicago's Old Victory Distillery against Prohibition enforcement officials. A 60-page brief submitted by the distillery's lawyers built the case for booze in the kitchen almost exclusively in terms of its implications for the future of mince. They won the case handily.

The presiding federal judge tipped his hand early as to the direction of his ruling, invoking a pro-mince chestnut by Indiana doggerel poet James Whitcomb Riley: "I haven't looked through the brief entirely," he said. "But the appeal certainly is seasonable as we approach the days 'when the frost is on the pumpkin and the corn is in the shock.'"

Liquor would again be legal for culinary purposes, though subject to regulation through a system of licensing. But as with all similar exemptions to the Dry Law (medical, industrial, ritual), much of the product earmarked for mince pies and plum puddings wound up on the black market. And mince itself could be retooled as a camouflaged liquor-delivery medium: In 1919 the Chicago Tribune reported that the average alcohol content of canned mince samples on display at a trade show for the hotel business had spiked to 14.12 percent, offering a far more efficient buzz than legal near beer, with its measly .5 percent. "I love pie," declared one attendee. "Here's how!" leered his companion, and they clinked their plates together like cocktail glasses.

Still, the booze issue was always secondary to the primary question of mince's digestibility. Victorian and Edwardian Americans took digestive health very seriously, adopting any number of fad diets and plans of alimentary reform in the quest for happy stomachs. (Among the most popular of these was Fletcherism, which advocated chewing each mouthful of food at least 32 times. According to diet guru Horace Fletcher, the toxin-free "digestion-ash" generated by his system would emerge from the body "in little balls ranging in size from a pea to a so-called Queen Olive" and "have only the odor of hot clay or a hot biscuit.")

Mince's notorious indigestibility underwrote its reputation for causing bad dreams, which were well-known to originate in the stomach. Lobster, hot doughnuts, Welsh rarebit, and cheese were also thought to reliably stimulate nightmares, but only with mince was the mental derangement understood to extend into the eater's waking state, as in the case of the jailer in Kokomo, Indiana, who in 1918 shot up his own prison while under the reported influence of a dinner of pig's feet and mince pie.

In an age impressed by Darwinian science but still largely wedded to the fallacy that acquired traits could be inherited, mince pie appeared to some as a threat to the very survival of the American people. Thus, Dr. Fenton B. Turck of Chicago warned a conference of the Mississippi Valley Medical Association in 1910 that the "armor-plate mince pie diet indulged in by all America" was rapidly bringing about "race deterioration not only in Connecticut and Maine, but in other states." Turck's dire views were later echoed and amplified by Dr. Andre Tridon, a French immigrant and Manhattan's leading Freudian psychoanalyst, who in 1921 cautioned Caucasian America that the national diet, with its "atrocious corned beef and cabbage and horrible mince pie," would ultimately undermine white supremacy and put the rising black race in control.

Tridon's racial anxieties might have been alleviated had he subscribed to the nation's leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, whose pro-mince bias—which extended to advocating it for breakfast—suggests that black Americans were eating themselves into oblivion at the same rate as everybody else. And both savants might have profited from the contrarian views of Professor John Mason Tyler of Amherst College, who explained to University of Chicago students in 1906 that the inability to digest mince pie was a symptom, not the stimulus, of race degeneration caused by "the strain of modern life."

Slideshows Annals of Mince Pie

More of Cliff Doerksen's turn-of-the-century finds

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God help me if I like this stuff, I thought while building my two mince pies. But now I just say God help me, because, man, those mince pies were pretty awesome if I do say so myself. The family resemblance of old-fashioned mince to modern mincemeat is unmistakable, but the real deal is stronger and yet more subtle, miles deeper, and yields an infinitely more complex concert of flavors. The crazy taste is accompanied by a hot, fatty mouth feel that's almost obscenely pleasing. It takes some getting used to, I will allow, but by my third slice I was pretty much hooked. That was the one I tried with ice cream on top, per the fashion pioneered in New York in 1904. (I ran out of pie before I could try it under a layer of hot melted cheese, another Gothamite innovation of the same era.) Yes, it was hard to digest, and yes, I had very weird, intense dreams every night I ate it. Don't ask.

Obviously my objectivity is open to question here, given my investment in the subject. But of the 11 tasters I enlisted in my baking experiment, only two found my mince pie displeasing. Other responses ranged from "weird but good" to "good" to "great." (No one else reported digestive difficulties; one participant reported a classic anxiety dream in which she was unexpectedly required to sing show tunes from the stage of a large crowded concert hall.)

Which raises a question I have yet to find an answer to: What the hell happened to mince pie? How did it fall from grace so quickly and completely?

Meat shortages during World War II might have had something to do with it—but then why didn't comparable shortages during World War I have the same effect?

Perhaps the 19th Amendment killed mince pie: Gaining the right to vote may have empowered housewives to strike against the drudgery of home mince production. Subsequently the inferior manufactured version could have skunked the entire brand, much as stale gas-station Krispy Kreme donuts have eroded the popularity of the fresh-fried item.

It's conceivable that technology drove the change in eating habits: In the era under consideration, constantly improving methods of refrigeration were altering American systems of food production and distribution at every level, from farm to factory to rail car to kitchen. The greater availability of fresh and frozen provender may have altered the public palate such that mince no longer tasted like ambrosia. At very least, the icebox and home fridge undercut the rationale for candying a prime pot roast before it rotted.

But these are only explanatory trial balloons (which I would be happy to license out to any grad student looking for an important dissertation topic). For the time being, mince's overnight decline remains an unexampled mystery.

Imagine, by way of analogy, that Americans abruptly and collectively lost their taste for cheeseburgers. Imagine the cheeseburger demoted to the same rank as eggnog, ritually consumed only on, say, July 4th. Suppose furthermore that the vestigial cheeseburgers served on America's birthday were prepared without meat. Now suppose that a condition of cultural amnesia set in such that we all forgot, within the space of a decade or so, that cheeseburgers had ever been considered the iconic centerpiece of our nation's diet.

I can't shake the feeling that the abrupt fall of mince signaled some profound but undiagnosed shift in American culture, some seismic rearrangement of who we are—since we are, after all, what we eat.

I promise to keep researching (and baking) until I figure it out or die trying. Until then, I leave you with this thought from the editorial page of the Montpelier Argus and Patriot for March 10, 1880: "Mince pie, like Masonry, arouses curiosity from the mystery attaching to it. Its popularity shall never wane until faith is lost in sight."

For more antiquarian oddities, patronize Cliff Doerksen's new blog, Bad News From the Past, at chicagoreader.com/badnewsfromthepast.

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