A German colleague was recently telling me about her confusing first try of a mince pie. Tucking in with savoury expectations, she was stunned to find that they were sweet. She described with flailing arms how reality briefly fell apart, exclaiming, ‘Why would you call them mince pies!?’
Mince pies and mulled wine. Image from Flickr user Nick Webb.
For a good few centuries, mince pies were just that – pies filled with minced meat. They have an ancestor in ‘chewet’ or ‘chewette’ pies: small in size, these medieval specialities had fillings of chopped meat or fish and were baked or fried. ‘To mak chewettes of beef tak beef and cutt it smalle’, instructs the 15th century Noble Boke off Cookry. In general, beef was a very popular filling, and it was common to enhance the flavour with dried fruit and spices.
‘Mince pie’ (in the meat sense of the term) has its first recorded use in the next century. French Schoole-maister, a French and English conversation guide from 1573, has the line ‘O Lorde, he hath supped up all the brothe of this mince pie.’ Increasingly eaten at Christmas time, mince pies came to be associated more and more with the festive season. So playwright Thomas Dekker writes in his 1604 pamphlet, Newes from Graues-end:
‘Ten thousand in London swore to feast their neighbors with nothing but plum-porredge, and mince-pyes all Christmas.’
What a feast that would have been…
A more homely feast of mince pies in front of the television. Image from Flickr user Simon Cocks.
Mince pies were also called ‘shred’ pies or ‘shrid’ pies, likely referring to the shredded meat inside them. Not surprisingly, ‘Christmas pie’ was another term which was used. During the 1600s, suet started to accompany or take the place of beef, with the sweet-and-spicy dried fruit addition becoming more prominent.
By the Victorian period, recipes for mincemeat largely left out the actual ‘meat’. Only suet remained, giving the mince pies that we know today. Suet may now be replaced with vegetarian alternatives.
Home-made mince pies with their fruity filling. Image from Flickr user Ben Aston.
As Leah Hyslop writes, there have been various theories for why mince pies came to be specifically eaten at Christmas time, with none being particularly certain. For all that, it is clear that while the sticky fillings inside mince pies have changed over time, their name has well and truly stuck.