Mincemeat pie (and other Christmas treats)

My father always insisted on a mincemeat pie for Christmas.

My wife, a south Texas native, had never heard of mincemeat until she met me.

Maybe it’s the English roots on my father’s side of the family that caused us to like mincemeat so much.

My wife is Hispanic, and tamales were the food item in her family that told you that Christmas was approaching. The first time I asked her to buy a mincemeat pie for Christmas, I was met with a blank stare.

“If you didn’t grow up with mincemeat, chances are you’re totally confused about what this food actually is,” Julie Thomson wrote for The Huffington Post. “From the sound of it, one would assume the meat was the main ingredient, but that would be entirely wrong. Well, almost entirely wrong.

“Mincemeat is (more often than not) just a mixture of chopped, boozy, spiced fruit that is widely popular in the United Kingdom. It is traditionally served around Christmas, often baked into pies. In order to understand how this spiced fruit recipe came to be called mincemeat, we have to take a look at history. Mincemeat was first created as a way of preserving meat — usually mutton — without having to salt or smoke it. It became a Christmas staple when the Crusaders returned home in the 12th century with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The three spices used in this recipe were symbolic of the gifts given to the baby Jesus by the Magi, therefore linking this recipe to Christmas. The spices contain antimicrobial properties that helped keep the meat through winter (and also probably masked any flavors of old meat). The meat used was normally finely chopped — also known as minced in cooking lingo — and that’s where this pastry got its name.

“By the 20th century, beef suet replaced the meat in most mincemeat, and the fruits (such as apples, dried raisins and candied citrus) took center stage — always with booze like brandy. These days sometimes even the suet is taken out and replaced with butter.”

Translated to modern English, here’s a recipe from the 16th century: “Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to color it. Add a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunes, raisins and dates. Put in the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And if you want royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and combine them with flour to make the paste.”

King Henry V of England served mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. Oliver Cromwell considered Christmas a pagan holiday, and traditional mincemeat pie was banned for a time. King Charles II restored Christmas as a holiday when he ascended the throne in 1660, and mincemeat pie returned to England.

Mincemeat remains popular in a number of former parts of the British empire such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.

“Roasted leg of lamb tastes like Easter, turkey and dressing tastes like Thanksgiving and mincemeat pie tastes like Christmas, not just rich in flavor but in Christian tradition, Americana and history,” writes Lauren Fink. “This old world pie needs a revival in America, to the delight of our taste buds and historic sensibilities.”

I agree.

This will be my first Christmas without either of my parents (Dad died in the spring of 2011, but my mother continued to be a part of our Christmas celebrations; she died the week of Thanksgiving this year). My sister will be making a mincemeat pie for this Friday as we continue a family tradition.

As noted in an earlier Southern Fried blog post, a large fruitcake shipped from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, also will be on the table at our home. These cakes have been a Christmas tradition in our family for as long as I can remember.

Though it’s not a part of our family’s holiday menu, no Christmas ever approaches without me thinking of the Helena oyster loaf. That’s because I was a fan of Richard Allin, the Helena native who wrote columns for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, would extol the virtues of the oyster loaf in print each December.

This was his recipe for an authentic Helena oyster loaf: “Slice the top from a long pullman loaf. Remove all the crumb from the loaf, leaving only a boat made of the crust. Brush melted butter generously over the inside of the loaf and on the inside of the top, and toast under the oven broiler until pleasantly browned. Roll oysters in cornmeal and fry until golden brown and crispy. Assemble lemon wedges, green olives with pits, tomato ketchup and mustard pickle.

“After the loaf is toasted and the oysters fried, place a layer of oysters in the bottom of the loaf. Put in two or three lemon wedges and as many olives. Repeat the process, adding from time to time some of the ketchup and the mustard pickle. Continue until the loaf is filled, and top the oysters off with more lemon wedges, olives, ketchup and mustard pickle. Add the latter two items with care. If you wish, you may add them after the loaf is sliced and served. But if you do, you are not making the Helena version of the oyster loaf.

“After the loaf is assembled, cap it with the buttered and toasted top and put it back in the oven to heat for a while. When ready to serve, slice it across in about two-inch-wide sections. A chilled white wine goes well. So does beer. This is a Christmas eve dish. If you eat it at any other time, you do so at your own risk.”

Mustard pickles are no longer easy to find. The recipe consists of cucumbers and onions pickled in a mustard sauce along with turmeric and celery seed.

“The tradition of eating the oyster loaf on Christmas eve got started, in my family at least, many years ago when my grandfather would stop by an old Helena restaurant-delicatessen and pick up a couple of these specialties,” Allin wrote. “In those days, that particular restaurant made its own bread, a type of which was the long pullman loaf, named, I suppose, because it had the same dimensions as the railroad car. By the time I was invited into the family, it had become the practice to make the oyster loaf at home, although still using the restaurant’s singular bread. It was more economical, and the homemade loaf was more generously treated. So many good traditions have passed. The restaurant no longer makes either oyster loaves or bread. About the best we can do in Helena these days is … well, never mind.

“The tradition of the oyster loaf perhaps came up the river from New Orleans. It is known there as the mediatrice, so named because it was frequently brought home by wayward husbands who wanted to make peace with their angry wives. In Helena, it was simply a seasonal food item. Other methods were used to restore family tranquility. By the time the oyster loaf had arrived in Helena from New Orleans, there had been a few changes in its structure. The New Orleans mediatrice was simply a hollowed-out, buttered and toasted loaf of French bread into which mealed and fried oysters were piled. The top was put back on, and the delicacy was then sliced into serving portions.”

I’m drawn to these six words written by Allin: “So many good traditions have passed.”

I’m a traditionalist, especially at Christmas.

That’s why there will be a mincemeat pie and a Corsicana fruitcake at our home Friday.

 

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