I was an English major as an undergrad and for graduate school. It was later that I worked in Human Ecology for a second grad school. I must say that I fell in love with the food in so many British and American classics such as Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, and the books by Jewish author, Chaim Potok. One thing these books had in common was superb descriptions around food preparation. Oh, I forgot to mention that Patrick O’Brien’s books about the British fleet on the high seas during the Napoleonic Wars were full of great description of the foods on board a ship.
One of the things that peaked my interest in Dicken’s Great Expectations was the traditions around the food. Especially those served during holidays. In case you have not read Great Expectations, there’s this great scene where the story’s main character, “Pip” stole mincemeat from a jar in the pantry to feed an escaped convict, named, Abel Magwitch. This was an act that endeared Pip to Mr. Magwitch forever. Earlier in the story, before the theft, Pip’s sister, Mrs. Joe, had already made the “handsome mince pie” for the holiday gathering, so she did not notice any missing (Dickens 22) shortly after Pip had stolen it to feed his convict.
I love mincemeat! I continue to be intrigued that my Native American grandmother, born in the New Mexico, made mincemeat much the same way that the Brits made it.
Mincemeat has its origins in thirteenth century England when the aristocracy kept large amounts of dried fruits in their larders because varying climate made the storage of fresh fruit impossible. In addition to the variety it added, dried fruits served to disguise meat past its prime. Mrs. Joe likely served it because of tradition, and almost everybody in England continues to eat mince pies at Christmas, presently (Hale 86). The World Atlas of Food cites “Mrs. Beeton’s Household Management of 1856-1861” as having the original mincemeat recipe, which bakers continue to use today. It includes raisins, currants, lean rump steak (my grandma used beef tongue), beef suet, sugar, candied citron peel, lemon peel, orange peel, nutmeg, apples and brandy all mixed and stored in glass jars to mature for about two weeks (87). The Kerr Home Canning and Freezing book written more than a century later offers the same basic recipe as well (25). However, Kerr promotes the use of a pressure canner, 10 pounds of pressure for 90 minutes. Mincemeat’s function, besides serving as a sweet treat, lay in its relatively long shelf life, essential in not having adequate refrigeration (Davidson 507). At Pip’s Christmas dinner, the mince pie came just before the “savory pork pie”. Here’s a notes about pie crusts:
Quick Pie from Scratch
After finishing a lovely meal on a cozy winter evening, one of our friends said, “I wish we had a pie!” Luckily, our dear friend, Mary Lake, was at table, too. She’s one of the best pie-makers in the world! Mary and I bet, those around the table, that we could produce a pie from scratch in 30 minutes. The race was on! The stop watch began. Mary got busy making her famous oil crust, and I set to getting the apples ready. Fortunately, I had several quart jars of canned apples from the previous summer’s windfall of crispy, sweet apples. I dumped a quart of apples in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of quick tapioca, cinnamon, 3 tablespoons sugar, and a pat of butter. Here’s Mary’s crust recipe:
2 cups of all-purpose flour
Dash of salt mixed in flour – put flour/salt mixture in a bowl.
½ cup of vegetable oil (Mary likes corn oil for its nutty flavor)
5 tablespoons buttermilk (Make some with milk and vinegar if you have no buttermilk on hand)
1 glass pie plate. It must be a clear, oven-proof pie plate.
With a fork, emulsify the oil and buttermilk until well blended.
Add to flour mixture
Stir with a fork until all flour is well-moistened
Divide, and put half of the dough on a square sheet of parchment paper. Shape into a round, flat disc without handling the dough too much. Place another square sheet of parchment, and roll out the dough with a rolling pin. Once the dough is the size of your glass pie place. Shape to the pie plate. Repeat for the top crust. Once the top crust is rolled out, place the fruit in the pie plate with the bottom crust. Settle the fruit in to the crust, and then place the top crust. Shape the edges of the pie crust, cut air vents with scissors, and sprinkle crust with cinnamon sugar.
Place your pie in the microwave oven for 12 to13 minutes. Meanwhile pre-heat your conventional oven to 400°. After the time sounds for the microwave, remove the pie from the microwave, and place it into your conventional oven for 12-13 minutes, or until the crust is browned.
Mary and I put our apple pie on the table in 35 minutes. The microwave oven gets the fruit cooking and thickened. This shortens the time in the conventional oven, and prevents burned edges. Starting the pie in the microwave only works for fruit pies. Do not try with custard pies.
The featured picture is the mincemeat pie with the oil crust. You can see that the crust is tender and flaky. I did not add the cinnamon sugar mixture here, but it gives the crust a beautiful glow.
Mmmmm…I’m hungry! Thank you for reading.