When I was a kid my mom made mincemeat every fall during productive deer seasons. She used neck meat, which is gelatinous and full of gristle. This doesn’t sound appetizing, but it always made good mincemeat.
When you say mincemeat you never quite know what to expect. It has evolved greatly over the years. Early recipes were far denser in the meat department than the modern kind. They were more like souse, head cheese to some. Even the sound of it is a turnoff to most people.
Centuries ago in Europe, people preserved meat with liquor, sugar and spices. They let the mixture ferment. It was a way of salvaging scraps that otherwise would spoil. In those societies wasting wasn’t an option. The resulting concoction was used more as a main course. Modern recipes lend themselves largely to dessert.
Regardless of the nuances in recipes, mincemeat pie has become a holiday tradition in many places. I think of it more as a Thanksgiving treat, but more people associate it with Christmas. Over the years numerous types of meat have been included. According to most sources mutton was the first meat used.
My mother-in-law always made mincemeat when the family butchered hogs. There was nothing like a good hog killing to put several jars of mincemeat on the shelves. She used the head meat to make it and she never restricted it to pies. She swore that was the only type of meat she’d use. Cookies were probably my wife’s favorite use. She still pines for ‘Mom’s mincemeat cookies.’
I make a mincemeat bread that’s quite similar to steamed brown bread Mainers like to eat with their baked beans. For maximum richness I include plenty of black-strap molasses. It’s simply too good to restrict to holidays, but being calorie dense, maybe it’s best to use discretion if you want your pants to fit.
Once ingredient we were able to collect in West Virginia that we had to buy in Maine was currants. Years ago Maine had strict and successful regulations concerning currant and gooseberry eradication, so foraging them was impossible. When I moved to West Virginia I collected wild currants and saved them to use for mincemeat in the fall. I think using real currants and not just raisins and apples is crucial to successful mincemeat.
Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves are the three dominant seasonings. This trilogy of spices captures the unique flavor. They along with some type of liquor and sugar were essential to preserve the meat. I don’t use any booze in mine. I include a little rum flavoring and ginger but that’s about it. I do think the taste is enhanced by some animal fat though. Most recipes call for beef suet, but I think pork fat is just as good.
Some modern recipes leave out animal products altogether. Instead they include butter or olive oil as the main lubricating and flavor enhancing agent. Raisins, apples, cranberries and nuts add bulk to the vegan mixture. The final result is sweeter, fruitier and far more suited to dessert than the main course.
Personally, I could eat mincemeat any time of the year, though I usually consume it more from Thanksgiving to New Years. The flavor brings back so many childhood memories. It also conjures images of my in-laws who have both passed. For me, mincemeat is a nostalgic mixture to be savored and appreciated anytime, just like family.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.