What is mincemeat?  First, take this quiz . . then read the rest of this page.

What is in a mincemeat pie?

Mincemeat pies have been a winter holiday tradition in Britain and America for hundreds of years. But what is really in mincemeat anyway? Take this quiz to find out!

History of Mincemeat

Mincemeat pies are associated with the winter holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Traditionally, the filling was made of chopped meat and animal fat, dried fruit, spices, sweetening (honey, molasses, or sugar), and alcohol, often brandy. Mincemeat was prepared and preserved in the late autumn or early winter when animals were slaughtered and fruit was abundant. The minced meat often came from the odd parts of the slaughtered animals such as the feet or head.

Mincemeat pies can be used to illustrate several themes in social studies.

Geography. Map the origins of the ingredients for mincemeat.  In the 18th and 19th centuries, meat, apples, cider, and butter came from one’s own farm or a nearby market. On the other hand, many of the ingredients were shipped to America from distant, tropical locations – molasses, sugar, spices, oranges, lemons (citron).  Brandy might be made locally or imported. Mincemeat tells the story of world exploration and colonization.

Advertisement for early "convenience" food, 1891
Advertisement for early “convenience” food, 1891

The impact of industrialization on daily life. By 1891, pre-packaged mincemeat could be purchased for pies. More Americans moved to towns and cities and urban families could not raise their own beef and pork or grow their own apples for mincemeat pies. New food preservation techniques and food processing factories supplied more and more pre-packaged convenience foods for home cooks. The 1891 advertisement (left) was featured in a charity cookbook.

Temperance Movement.  As the temperance movement grew throughout the 19th century, alcohol began to disappear from mincemeat recipes. In The Skillful Housewife’s Book, 1852, the author, Mrs. L. G. Abell noted “A good mince pie is a general favorite, and formerly brandy was deemed indispensable in giving them the right flavor. But we are happy to inform our temperance friends and others, that a mince pie can be made equally good without either wine or brandy.” (p. 137)

Changing Diet Trends and Holiday Traditions. Mincemeat can still be purchased in modern grocery stores, but it may be falling out of style. Modern recipes often omit the meat that gave the tasty pie filling its name.

Primary Source Analysis. The first three mincemeat recipes below were published in well-known 19th century cookbooks. The final recipe was published in a charity cookbook.  One of the sponsors of the cookbook was a manufacturer of packaged mincemeat, T. E. Dougherty. The Ladies’ Aid Society that published to book also included a “recipe” for making pies from this pre-packaged mincemeat . .
“Stew one package of Dougherty’s New England Condensed Mince Meat with a quart of water for twenty minutes. Sugar, fruit syrup, vinegar or any preserves may be added to suit the taste, in this case useless water.”

Mince Pies, 1828

from Seventy-five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats by Eliza Leslie, 1828
One pound and a half of boiled beef's heart, or fresh tongue, chopped when cold.
Two pounds of beef suet, chopped fine.
Four pounds of pippin apples, chopped.
Two pounds of raisins, stoned and chopped.
Two pounds of currants, picked, washed and dried.
Two pounds of powdered sugar.
One quart of white wine.
One quart of brandy.
One wine-glass of rose-water.
Two grated nutmegs.
Half an ounce of cinnamon, powdered
A quarter of an ounce of cloves, powdered
A quarter of an ounce of mace, powdered
A tea-spoonful of salt.
Two large oranges.
Half a pound of citron, cut in slips.
Parboil a beef's heart, or a fresh tongue. After you have taken off the skin and fat, weigh a pound and a half. When it is cold, chop it very fine, Take the inside of the suet; weigh two pounds, and chop it as fine as possible. Mix the meat and suet together, adding the salt. Pare, core, and chop the apples, and then stone and chop the raisins. Having prepared the currants, add them to the other fruit, and mix the fruit with the meat and suet. Put in the sugar and spice, and the grated peel and juice of the oranges. Wet the whole with the rose-water and liquor, and mix all well together.
Make the paste, allowing, for each pie, half a pound of butter and three quarters of a pound of sifted flour. Make it in the same manner as puff paste, but it will not be quite so rich. Lay a sheet of paste all over a soup-plate. Fill it with mincemeat, laying slips of citron on the top. Roll out a sheet of paste, for the lid of the pie. Put it on, and crimp the edges with a knife. Prick holes in the lid. Bake the pies half an hour in a brisk oven.
Keep your mince-meat in a jar tightly covered. Set it in a dry cool place, and occasionally add more brandy to it.

Mince Meat, 1832

from The American Frugal Housewife by Lydia Marie Child
There is a great difference in preparing mince meat. Some make it a coarse, unsavory dish ; and others make it nice and palatable. No economical house-keeper will despise it; for broken bits of meat and vegetables cannot to well be disposed of in any other way. If you wish to have it nice, mash your vegetables fine, and chop your meat very fine. Warm it with what remains of sweet gravy, or roast-meat drippings, you may happen to have.
Two or three apples, pared, cored, sliced, and fried, to mix with it, is an improvement. Some like a little sifted sage sprinkled in.
It is generally considered nicer to chop your meat fine, warm it in gravy, season it, and lay it upon a large slice of toasted bread to be brought upon the table without being mixed with potatoes ; but if you have cold vegetables, use them.

Mincemeat for Pies, 1836

The Virginia Housewife by Mary Randolph, 1836
BOIL either calves or hogs' feet till perfectly tender, take them through a colander; when cold, pass them through again, and it will come out like pearl barley; take one quart of this, one of chopped apples, the same of currants, washed and picked, raisins stoned and cut, of good brown sugar, suet nicely chopped, and cider, with a pint of brandy; add a tea-spoonful of pounded mace, one of cloves and of nutmegs; mix all these together intimately. When the pies are to be made, take out as much of this mixture as may be necessary; to each quart of it, add a tea-spoonful of pounded black pepper, and one of salt; this greatly improves the flavour, and can be better mixed with a small portion than with the whole mass. Cover the moulds with paste and put in a sufficiency of mincemeat, cover the top with citron sliced thin, and lay on it a lid garnished around with paste cut in fanciful shapes. They may be eaten either hot or cold, but are best when hot.

Mince Meat, 1891

From The Universal Cook Book by the Ladies' Aid Society of the First Universalist Church of Englewood, Chicago, Ill, 1891
Two and one half pounds meat.
Five pounds of apples.
Two pounds sugar.
Half pound butter.
One pint molasses.
Four teaspoons cinnamon.
Three teaspoons cloves.
Five teaspoons nutmeg.
One quart cider.
Two pounds raisins.

For more ideas about using food and recipes as a theme in the classroom, see Investigating Family, Food, and Housing Themes in Social Studies

Author’s note: My grandmother, Helen Williams (1812-1998), made her own mincemeat pie filling in the late fall or early winter when hogs were killed on her farm. Believe me, the recipes sound unappetizing but the result is wonderful in pies!