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Ghosts of Christmas Past

Mincemeat Pie
by John Raven, Ph. B.

I've reached the age where Christmas and the other annual events seem to come around about once a month. In my youth, Christmas seemed to always hang in the distance like a tempting treat that you just had to wait for. You couldn't rush it.

Nowadays, the Christmas season starts right after the Fourth of July, and there are "Christmas Stores" open year around.

I think you probably appreciate something more when you have to wait for it a while and do something to earn it. When I was very young, I had to start behaving about the end of September to insure that Santa would come calling.

The thing I remember most about Christmas long ago is the smell. The old house that spent most of the year smelling of fried food, dairy residue and Lysol took on a most pleasant smell. Christmas time always meant there would be fresh apples and oranges in the house. My folks came from a time when an orange was as treasured as the finest box of candy is now. The apples and oranges came into the house a week or so before the actual Christmas date. Along with the scent of the fresh fruit was the smell of Mama's holiday cooking. The week before the Christmas celebration the house hummed with activity.

For many years, my parents hosted the family holiday gathering. Usually twenty to thirty folks came for the day. If memory serves, the peak attendance one year was sixty-four of the aunts, uncles and cousins with a couple of friends thrown in because they didn't have any other place to go. Mama and Daddy did the turkey, dressing and potato salad. The visiting kin brought the side dishes. The aroma of cooking cornbread for the dressing and the boiling of giblets for the gravy made the house smell good for days.

Did I mention the unforgettable smell of the cedar tree that stood at attention in the living room? No one had cedar fever in those days. As a matter of fact, I think the cedar aroma cured a lot of ills.

To me, the best Christmas smell was the mincemeat that mama boiled up for a pie. Mincemeat was the one pie we never had at anytime other than Christmas. The mincemeat filling came in a little red cardboard box. All mama had to do was put it in a pot with some water and cook it a while before putting it into the shell. I remember reading the list of ingredients on the mincemeat container and always wondering out loud about the meat it contained. I was always assured that yes, indeed there was meat in the pie. It just didn't sound right but the pies were delicious and smelled better than anything else.

Mincemeat was invented in England as a way of preserving meat without salting or smoking it. The spices and cooking preserved the high protein meat quite well. Mincemeat is a mixture of fresh and dried fruit and spices, along with the meat. Since it no longer serves its original purpose, its exotic taste and aroma have moved it into the dessert category.

The packaged mincemeat that Mama used is still available at most supermarkets. It's become quite expensive for some reason. You could probably save some dollars by making your own mincemeat at home for the holidays. Here's how.

Mincemeat

  • 3 pounds green tomatoes, chopped and drained
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 3 pounds tart apples, chopped
  • 4 pounds firmly-packed brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons ground cloves
  • 1 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup ground suet
  • 1 pound ground venison, elk or beef
  • 2 pounds raisins
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 3 teaspoons cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • Rum or brandy to taste
In a large pot over medium-high heat, cover tomatoes with cold water; bring to a boil for 5 minutes. Drain. Reduce heat to low. Add cider vinegar, apples, brown sugar, cloves, nutmeg, suet, meat, raisins, salt, cinnamon, and butter or margarine; simmer 30 to 45 minutes. Remove from heat; add rum or brandy to taste. Refrigerate or pack in hot sterile jars and seal. Makes about 6 pints.

This recipe is about as authentic as you can get, being it uses the green tomatoes which would have been abundant in the fall of the year, along with the apples.

To make the pie, just put 4-1/2 cups of mincemeat in an unbaked pie shell, top it with pastry, crimp and poke lots of holes for the steam to vent, and bake at 375°F for 30 to 40 minutes.

You are not limited to pies. Delicious muffins and cookies using mincemeat are also great for the holidays. I don't have the space here to include those recipes, but if you'll email me I'll get one to you.

After World War II was over and sugar and cocoa came back on the grocer's shelves, we wanted some fudge for Christmas. There was a recipe on the cocoa box, and we followed it as best we could. We never did figure out that "Soft ball stage" thing. We didn't have a candy thermometer, nor did we know anyone who had one, so it was by guess and by golly. As a result our fudge never took a "set". As best I remember, the fudge was consumed just as soon as it cooled enough to dip and eat with a spoon. It was still mighty good. The "quick fudge" recipe using canned milk and chocolate morsels came along but it just wasn't the real thing. I never make fudge because, although I am confident I could get it to come out just like it is supposed to, I know it wouldn't last long enough to have to find something to store it in.

Here's wishing all the readers of Texas Cooking Online a very happy holiday season. Cook something good for the family, and remember: avoid anything that says "brown and serve" on the package.

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