Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Mince Meat Pies

I've always found mince meat pies one of America's most disgusting culinary traditions. I'm not sure that Cliff Doerksen's article on mince pie's history and his attempt to make one in a traditional manner made me feel different, but it certainly was fascinating. Among the bizarre asides within:

Mince pie was brought to American shores by the British religious dissenters who settled New England, but it arrived under a cloud. English Puritans regarded the dish as inherently popish, and during the rule of Cromwell mince had been banned, along with such related pagan folderol as Christmas, maypoles, gambling, and musical instruments in church.

Several New England colonies likewise had laws against mince (and Christmas). Yet the dish somehow survived suppression, and as Puritan theocracy waned and a relative pluralism bloomed, it thrived.


When the 18th Amendment went into effect in 1919, the national liquor and catering interests began lobbying and lawyering hard to create a loophole in the Dry Law that would exempt the culinary arts. The campaign culminated in an October 1922 federal court case pitting Chicago's Old Victory Distillery against Prohibition enforcement officials. A 60-page brief submitted by the distillery's lawyers built the case for booze in the kitchen almost exclusively in terms of its implications for the future of mince. They won the case handily.

The presiding federal judge tipped his hand early as to the direction of his ruling, invoking a pro-mince chestnut by Indiana doggerel poet James Whitcomb Riley: "I haven't looked through the brief entirely," he said. "But the appeal certainly is seasonable as we approach the days 'when the frost is on the pumpkin and the corn is in the shock.'"

And mince itself could be retooled as a camouflaged liquor-delivery medium: In 1919 the Chicago Tribune reported that the average alcohol content of canned mince samples on display at a trade show for the hotel business had spiked to 14.12 percent, offering a far more efficient buzz than legal near beer, with its measly .5 percent. "I love pie," declared one attendee. "Here's how!" leered his companion, and they clinked their plates together like cocktail glasses.

In an age impressed by Darwinian science but still largely wedded to the fallacy that acquired traits could be inherited, mince pie appeared to some as a threat to the very survival of the American people. Thus, Dr. Fenton B. Turck of Chicago warned a conference of the Mississippi Valley Medical Association in 1910 that the "armor-plate mince pie diet indulged in by all America" was rapidly bringing about "race deterioration not only in Connecticut and Maine, but in other states." Turck's dire views were later echoed and amplified by Dr. Andre Tridon, a French immigrant and Manhattan's leading Freudian psychoanalyst, who in 1921 cautioned Caucasian America that the national diet, with its "atrocious corned beef and cabbage and horrible mince pie," would ultimately undermine white supremacy and put the rising black race in control.

I could go on. If this doesn't whet your appetite for reading (because it sure as hell isn't going to whet your appetite for eating), I don't know what will. 

Update: A friend finds an anti-mince meat pie rant from 1879. Remarkable.