You could always tell Thanksgiving was approaching at my grandmother’s house because a big bowl of mincemeat appeared on the end of the kitchen counter Once a day Grandma would lift the cover and pour a generous splash of brandy over the contents of the bowl. There was a curious air of conspiracy to the ritual, and even though I can’t remember exactly how many days the brandy steeping went on, I do remember that no one was to mention it in front of Grandpa.
Originally intended as a way to use remnants of the butchering process, mincemeat is a centuries-old preparation brought to America by settlers of England. It is said that as far back as Elizabethan times, English cooks combined scraps of meat and bits of fruit in huge stoneware crocks. Cider was poured over the contents, and as assortments of spices was added for flavor. The crocks were covered and set aside. As the cider fermented, it preserved the meat and fruit, and the flavors of the mélange melded and deepened over time.
Early Colonial housewives enthusiastically adopted the custom, incorporating whatever native ingredients happened to be on hand. Venison, rabbit or other game formed the customary foundation of the mixture, but eels and oysters were also used if available.
New England-style mincemeat was sweetened with boiled cider or molasses and accented with traditional spices, notably cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger. Tart jelly such as currant, damson plum, or crab apple provided a piquant spark. Orange marmalade and strawberry jam were also frequent components, as were raisins, dates, and figs. Some cooks included more unusual ingredients, like pickled watermelon rind and sour cherries. Sherry, cognac, applejack, rum, and whiskey were liberally added for flavor as well as their preservative attributes. Yankee cooks took great pride in their mincemeat and held their own secret recipes. Mincemeat was often put by for at least a year so its flavors could mellow.
Quite clearly, the creation of homemade mincemeat was a long and involved procedure, and the end product was more complex and perhaps more satisfying than today’s commercial product. If you would like to recapture the satisfying essence of homemade mincemeat, try one of the following recipes. Chopping the ingredients in a food processor will greatly reduce the time you need to spend. Beef or pork is recommended here as a contemporary stand-in for venison, although either venison or rabbit may be substituted if you have it.
Homemade mincemeat may be canned in mason jars and stored for one year in a cool, dry place. It may also be frozen for six months or kept in the refrigerator for up to a month. If you wish to augment its flavor, you may attempt empty defrosted or canned mincemeat into a nonreactive bowl three to five days ahead of when you plan to use it, and stir in 1/4 cup of brandy, cognac, or rum every day. Keep the bowl lightly covered. The correct mincemeat consistency is that of a loose relish. To test, spoon some onto a plate. The mincemeat should hold its shape, exuding only a thin film of juice.
Gift-wrapped containers of homemade mincemeat make a welcome holiday gift. And its use needn’t be limited to the traditional pie. Alternative mincemeat recipes like Mincemeat Upside-Down Cake and Mincemeat Muffins are equally delicious. — Judy Gorman“Mincemeat Magic” and the following recipes first appeared in the November, 1988 issue of Yankee Magazine.