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Mince meat has small but devoted following for holidays

December 13, 2010

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A hundred years ago, mince pie was as common at Christmas as the candy cane. As far as desserts were concerned, it was as popular as pecan, pumpkin and apple pie.

Regina Robbins, Lawrence, grew up eating the pastry. Her mother would make mince meat from scratch each holiday season. The tradition is one Robbins keeps alive, at least from time to time, for Robbins still likes the pie.

Robbins is a part of a shrinking minority. Mince pie has toppled from its spot as one of America’s beloved pies.

There are a lot of reasons why mince meat has drifted into obscurity. For one, in the early 20th century, the Volstead Act assaulted the pie’s flavor by outlawing the alcohols — brandy, bourbon and rum — that were used to flavor it. The 1933 movie “State Fair” pokes fun at Americans’ tendency to drench mince meat with alcohol by having characters flood a mince pie with bourbon; the alcohol-packed pie ends up winning first prize.

Another reason for the pie’s waning popularity, says Robbins, is that it’s largely misunderstood.

“People hear the word ‘meat’ and think it has meat in it,” says Robbins. “(But) there’s no meat in it at the store.”

Mince meat pie originally contained meat. It was a combination of beef, dried fruits and suet — a white hunk of fat usually found on the edge of an animal’s kidneys. The fat aided in preserving the meat and the fruit. With preservation no longer relevant, chefs began to lop meat from recipe ingredient lists. The pie is still called mince meat whether it has meat in it or not.

“The original recipes call for beef,” says Norma Grubb, a 90-year-old pie baker from Dover, Kan., who grew up eating and making mince meat. “If you buy (mince meat) in a jar, it doesn't even have any meat in it.”

Dillons grocery store offers a ready-made mince meat pie, but it is devoid of beef. Instead it is loaded with apples, raisins, currants and orange zest, all of it laden with holiday spices.

Sheila Lowrie, a Dillons spokeswoman, says Dillons provides the pie every holiday season, from Thanksgiving to Christmas.

“It has a limited following of customers, but it can be an important family tradition for the holidays,” Lowrie says. “We offer it to help people complete some of those family traditions.”

Mince pie is not pumpkin, however, and with a scant consumer base, it is only stocked in small quantities.

Grubb, whose coconut cream recipe was named best pie in the nation by “Good Morning America,” remembers eating mince meat pie with and without the meat. On one occasion she traded beef with green tomatoes, producing pleasant result.

Regina Robbins has also had mince pie with green tomatoes.

“It tastes Christmas-y,” says Robbins about the pie. “It has lots of spices.”

Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and allspice are typical spices found in mince pie.

Grubb’s sister, older by a decade, would make mince pie at Thanksgiving and Christmas. The process started weeks, sometimes months, before the actual baking began. Rather than produce enough filling for one pastry, she would can enough mincemeat for dozens of pies. This practice was not unusual.

People would often can large amounts of mincemeat when they prepared the filling, which explains why many recipes call for bulk ingredients. And though people produced the pie in large amounts, mince meat is only meant to be eaten in small bites.

“It’s so rich you don’t eat it like apple,” says Robbins.

Most pies are sliced into six or eight pieces, but with mince meat, the pies are divided into even thinner segments.

“You might want an eighth of a piece or smaller,” says Grubb. “They are rich. I imagine because of that suet.”

Grubb says she’s unsure why mince meat isn no longer popular.

“To me, it’s good. I always liked it,” says Grubb. “It was a pie we wanted to have sometimes even for Thanksgiving, but definitely mince pie for Christmas.... It’s becoming a thing of the past.”

RICH MINCE MEAT

2 pounds lean beef

1/2 pound suet

4 pounds tart apples

3 pounds sugar

3 pounds currents

2 pounds raisins

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon mace

2 oranges

2 lemons

1/2 pound citron chopped

1 teaspoon salt

Stew the beef in very little water until tender; cool and chop

Add to the beef the suet and the pared, cored and chopped apples.

Carefully pick over the currents and raisins, then wash and dry. Add to this sugar, spices, oranges and lemon juice along with grated rind of oranges and 1 lemon, 1 chopped citron and salt.

Mix thoroughly, pack in stone jar and keep in a very cold places just above freezing if possible.

The mince meat should be thoroughly stirred each time any is taken out and occasionally moistened with a little grave juice, orange juice or left over canned fruit juices.

GREEN TOMATOES MINCE MEAT

3 pints chopped apple

2 teaspoons cinnamon

3 cups sugar

1 cup suet chopped fine

1/2 pound raisins

1 pint green tomatoes ground

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon allspice

1 teaspoon cloves

1/4 cup vinegar

Mix bring to a boil, simmer until thick.

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