Thursday, August 16, 2012

The History of Christmas Mince-Pies

"As it's almost Christmas I thought today would be a great time to show you how to make Mince Pies. They are delicious!"

      Geese, capons, pheasants drenched with amber-grease, and pies of carps-tongues, helped to furnish the table in bygone Christmases, but there was one national dish—neither flesh, fowl, nor good red herring—which was held indispensable. This was furmante, frumenty or furmety, concocted—according to the most ancient formula extant—in this wise: 'Take clean wheat, and bray it in a mortar, that the hulls be all gone off, and seethe it till it burst, and take it up and let it cool; and take clean fresh broth, and sweet milk of almonds, or sweet milk of kine, and temper it all; and take the yolks of eggs. Boil it a little, and set it down and mess it forth with fat venison or fresh mutton. 'Venison was seldom served without this accompaniment, but furmety, sweetened with sugar, was a favorite dish of itself, the 'clean broth' being omitted when a lord was to be the partaker.

      Mince-pies were popular under the name of 'mutton-pies,' so early as 1596, later authorities all agreeing in substituting neats-tongue in the place of mutton, the remaining ingredients being much the same as those recommended in modern recipes. They were also known as shred and Christmas pies:

'Without the door let sorrow lie, 
And if for cold it hap to die,
We'll bury it in a Christmas-pie, 
      And evermore be merry!'

      In Herrick's time it was customary to set a watch upon the pies, on the night before Christmas, lest sweet-toothed thieves should lay felonious fingers on them; the jovial vicar sings:

'Come guard the Christmas-pie, 

That the thief, though ne'er so sly, 

With his flesh-hooks don't come nigh,
To catch it, 

From him, who all alone sits there, 

Having his eyes still in his ear, 

And a deal of nightly fear,
To watch it.'

      Selden tells us mince-pies were baked in a coffin-shaped crust, intended to represent the cratch or manger in which the Holy Child was laid; but we are inclined to doubt his statement, as we find our old English cookery-books always style the crust of a pie 'the coffin.'

      When a lady asked Dr. Parr on what day it was proper to commence eating mince-pies, he answered, 'Begin on O. Sapientia (December 16th), but please to say Christmas-pie, not mince-pie; mince-pie is puritanical. 'The doctor was wrong at least on the last of these points, if not on both. The Christmas festival, it is maintained by many, does not commence before Christmas Eve, and the mince-pie was known before the days of Praise-God Barebones and his strait-laced brethren, for Ben Jonson personifies it under that name in his Masque of Christmas. Likely enough, the name of 'Christmas-pie' was obnoxious to puritanical ears, as the enjoying of the dainty itself at that particular season was offensive to puritan taste:

'All plums the prophet's sons deny, 

And spice-broths are too hot; 

Treason's in a December-pie, 

And death within the pot.'

Or, as another rhymster has it:

'The high-shoe lords of Cromwell's making 

Were not for dainties—roasting, baking; 

The chief est food they found most good in, 

Was rusty bacon and bag-pudding; 

Plum-broth was popish, and mince-pie—

O that was flat idolatry!'

      In after-times, the Quakers took up the prejudice, and some church-going folks even thought it was not meet for clergymen to enjoy the delicacy, a notion which called forth the following remonstrance from Bickerstaffe.—'The Christmas-pie is, in its own nature, a kind of consecrated cake, and a badge of distinction; and yet it is often forbidden, the Druid of the family. Strange that a sirloin of beef, whether boiled or roasted, when entire is exposed to the utmost depredations and invasions; but if minced into small pieces, and tossed up with plumbs and sugar, it changes its property, and forsooth is meat for his master.' Robert Chambers' Book of Days, 1869

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