Food for Thought
---- — Not for the vegetarian, the squeamish, or the non-traditional.
After un-jarring my mother’s homemade mincemeat, which I knew for certain to be the “mock” kind, meaning no meat, I decided to try reality mincemeat.
That curator of authenticity, my aunt, always made the real thing. She hadn’t done it in years, but cooed to me over the phone, “Oh! I love real mincemeat!”
Challenge met, Aunt Marilyn.
Still, I flinched at the Market Basket meat shelves.
“Tongue?!” I cried out to her on my cell phone. “Marilyn, tongue?! — If I’m making this, you better be here for Christmas!”
Those of you still reading, those of you not afraid of tongue, those of you who love a purist-palooza cooking event, might be pleased to know that Market Basket has everything you need to make good, old-fashioned mincemeat: tongue, brisket, and kidney suet.
Only kidney suet has tallow, a necessary evil in mincemeat making. (Not that tongue isn’t evil; a battle with tongue requires courage.) Tallow, unlike straight suet, doesn’t decompose and can be stored for extended lengths of time. Tallow was a main ingredient in pemmican, the American Indians’ version of a protein bar. Mincemeat, the real kind, is not unlike pemmican; both are great sources of protein and fat that expire never.
(Mentioned in a previous blog, here’s the short history of mincemeat: it originated in 11th century Europe as a means of preserving meat. It was mostly meat and spices the Crusaders had just scored in The Holy Land. Apparently, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg, symbols of the wisemen’s gifts, were required mincemeat ingredients starting then.
Lest you think hating mincemeat is a modern concept, Oliver Cromwell banned it — and all things Christmas — as tokens of paganism in 1657. New England Puritans weren’t to be caught eating desecrated pies, and fined anyone for eating mincemeat between 1659 and 1681.
In 1861 a man named James Swan documented serving a bunch of traders on the Makeh Indian reservation in the Washington Territory a mincemeat made with whale meat.
Would the traditional mince pie, he worried, be welcomed if the diners learned it was made from whale? Yankee mincemeat was made from domestic animals or venison. His fears were soon dispelled. The small portions he had cautiously served were quickly downed and second helpings demanded by all.)
Tongue is so literal a piece of meat, there is no relief when handling it from the reality of what it is. There is no way not to imagine the full beast, its life start to finish. Tongue could drive a person at the speed of light to veganism — unless that person had an aunt like mine, whose belief in old ways and traditions was solid and comforting as a seasoned cast iron skillet. I saw generations of mincemeat makers in that tongue; I saw wives, mothers, and sisters of Crusaders sniffing at the nutmeg, getting excited about something besides turnips for dinner.
I grimaced and persevered, chopping and not looking. If I looked, I tried to limit my vision to small areas, one square inch at a time, blurring everything at the edges; it’s the entire 2 pounds of organ and that outer skin of taste buds that revolt.
Besides the gruesome tongue exercise, there’s poetry in the remaining mincemeat process. As a teenager I worked at Green Briar Jam Kitchen in East Sandwich. The woman I worked for made some of the most beautiful preserves in the world. The Mellon family ordered all their jams from Miss Blake. Throughout the year, whenever she made a batch of anything from piccalilli to rum-plum jelly, and the last amount didn’t fill a jar, Miss Blake set that not-full jar on a set of floor-to-ceiling shelves with all the other un-filled jars. Miss Blake always began her mincemeat recipe by emptying all those jars — from the green tomato relish to the sun-cooked peaches — into huge bowls and stirring it together.
I took my cue from Miss Blake and emptied ends of preserves into the bowl, in place of some of the recipe’s 2 cups of jam. Housecleaning is a mincemeat theme; I adapted James Beard’s recipe, and his first direction is to gather together all the last half-cups and quarter-cups of Apricot Brandy and Cognac, or whatever winey dregs are left in your liquor cabinet, and dump them in.
My mincemeat is “ripening.” I confess there is something soulful about this process, something about being brave with the tongue, about finding a glittering, pastry-encased ending for the homemade jams and jellies collected over the year (I sprinkled in some of the candied ginger Sarah Kelly had made from Alprilla Farm’s fresh ginger grown in Essex). Even that last pour of good port that I remembered serving at a dinner party two years ago found a happy ending, all to be baked in a pie on Christmas Eve. Making sure nothing goes to waste, the juxtaposition of jeweled candied fruits and homely meats, the winey scent of preservation at work, there are lessons to be learned in mincemeat, if not poetry.
Mincemeat, adapted from James Beard
Makes approximately 9 pounds of mincemeat, or enough for 5 pies
2 pounds beef brisket
2 pounds beef tongue
1/2 pound beef suet
1 pound seedless raisins
1 pound sultana raisins
1 pound currants
1/3 pound candied citron peel, diced and finely chopped
1/4 pound candied orange peel, finely chopped
1/4 pound candied lemon peel, finely chopped
1/2 pound sugar
1 cup strawberry preserves, or 1 cup preserves remains from your cupboard
1 cup raspberry preserves
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon mace
1 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
Sherry wine or cognac, or any alcohol you wish to sprinkle in
“Begin by assembling a goodly supply of Cognac, apple brandy, sherry, and if you can find it, boiled cider. If not, settle for more apple brandy or applejack and more Cognac. You can also use up any odd liqueur or that bottle you were given last Christmas and have kept hidden on a shelf. All these things will help to make your mincemeat better.”
Boil the brisket and tongue separately in salted water until tender. Let the rump cool until it can be handled, remove the excess fat, and chop coarsely or put through the coarse blade of a meat grinder, or chop loosely in a food processor, being careful not to let it get too fine.
Let the tongue cool, remove the skin, and chop or grind coarsely.
Chop the beef suet very finely and combine it in a crock with the meats.
Add raisins, sultanas, currants, citron, peels and mix well.
Add sugar and jams and salt. Mix spices together and mix into the mixture in the crock.
Mix ingredients well with the hands and then cover the mixture with Sherry, Cognac, etc. — enough to a make a rather loose mixture.
Cover tightly and let rest for two weeks.
Uncover and taste and add more spirits if necessary. Let rest for another two weeks before using.
At this point, if you wish to store the mincemeat in smaller containers, transfer it to sterilized jars or crocks, add more liquor, and seal or cover them tightly.
The mincemeat will keep more or less indefinitely in a cool place or in the refrigerator.
When using for pies: Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups chopped fresh tart apple to each 2 1/2 to 3 cups mincemeat. Fill pie shells. Bake at 450°F for 10 minutes; reduce heat to 350°F and continue baking until crust is well browned.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought weekly. Questions and comments may be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.