The Mysterious, Murderous, and Meaty Past of Mincemeat Pies
To beef or not to beef? That is the question.
Mincemeat pie is a dish that isn't very common in the American kitchen, which can lead to some confusion for cooks, even those on the Allrecipes staff. When a few of us were discussing this classic Christmas dish, we realized that we were unsure if traditional mincemeat filling actually contains meat, and so my deep-dive into the pie's history began. After a brief interview with a British food historian, and driving two hours round-trip to a rural library to pick up a copy of The Christmas Encyclopedia by William D. Crump, I've finally learned the history behind this mysterious pastry.
According to The Christmas Encyclopedia, mincemeat pie — also commonly referred to as mince pie or Christmas pie — originated in medieval England. After knights returning from the Crusades came back with spices in-tow, they became common ingredients of the dish along with minced bits of meat (from a range of animals), suet, apples, sugar, raisins, and molasses. "They were about 30 to 50 percent meat in the late Tudor era," says food historian Annie Gray, Ph.D. "And the meat content dwindled slowly over the next 300 years — part of a wider process of distinguishing sweet from savory and delineating which foods sat in which course in meals."
"They also got smaller — Tudor pies were large, to be shared, but by the [18th century] they were individual," says Gray.
Mincemeat pies weren't just large pastries in the Tudor period, they also played a fairly large role in the history of one of England's most historic monasteries.
During Henry VIII's reign, he began phasing out Catholic properties and seizing them in the Dissolution of the Monasteries that started in 1536. Richard Whiting, the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, tried to curb the king's greed by secretly sending him a mincemeat pie containing hidden deeds to several of the abbey's costliest estates. A few of these deeds were stolen by Whiting's servant, Thomas Horner, who was immortalized for his deed in the nursery rhyme "Little Jack Horner." Despite Whitting's attempt to save it, Glastonbury Abbey was later seized by Henry and — according to The Last Abbot of Glastonbury and Other Essays by Francis Aidan Gasquet — Whitting and two of his priests were hanged for treason.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, mincemeat pie went beyond just a holiday treat and also offered significant symbolism. Around Christmas, it was popular to bake an elaborate pie that had dough resembling baby Jesus and included spices and sweetmeats as representatives of the gifts from the visiting Magi. This practice was often associated with Roman Catholicism, which prompted the Puritans — in both England and American colonies — to outlaw mincemeat pie due to its idolatrous nature.
"By the end of the [19th century] it was fairly rare to find actual meat in [mincemeat], though of course the suet was beef," says Gray. "Fully vegetarian mincemeat pies had to wait until veggie suet was invented," which would have come to fruition around the early 20th century due to the invention of Crisco, the world's first all-vegetable based solid fat.
Today, mincemeat pie has significantly less religious and political implications in our society than in the past. Currently, it's easy to find both mincemeat pies that are still made with beef suet and a small amount of minced meats (usually beef) and all-vegetarian mincemeat pies are readily available as well, especially if you purchase a pre-made jar of mincemeat filling. If you're interested in trying this richly historied pastry, then maybe bake both a meat and vegetarian version to learn what you like best. An easy starting place is with our recipes listed below.