We had already finished off the last of the Christmas roast beef. We spent Boxing Day tidying up the port and Stilton while packing. Then, on the 27th of December, our English trial was over.
At four in the morning, I frantically shoved mince pies into a bloated briefcase. Our suitcases were crammed full of that combination of wool and books that sustains academics. I burrowed out holes amongst it all to fit more mince pies. The taxi would arrive in minutes. By the end of the day we’d be back to our old life in America, where chocolate had long ago erased the history of desserts spun from rich foreign fruits and rare spices.
But along with picking up a soft ‘a’ and a fondness for pubs, during her father’s fellowship our four-year-old daughter had developed a mince pie habit. And so had I.
It was not for the melange of raisins and minced apples, often mixed with walnuts or pecans, sometimes molasses, sometimes corn syrup, and spread nine, or even ten, inches wide in a pie shell. The mince pie is not the kind that Americans pass round once a year at Thanksgiving, more for nostalgia than taste.
English mince pies may share a lineage, but they are a different breed altogether. A wide prairie is not a small, self-contained island. New England necessity is not aristocratic indulgence. In a seafaring nation whose heavy ships have hauled back a taste of Italy and Portugal and Greece and India and Indonesia for the better part of a millennium, this is a mince pie: a heaping tablespoon or two of port-soaked sultanas and currants, candied citrus, and spice, all tucked into a miniature pastry parcel. Like so many dishes that become cultural signifiers, there’s hardly anything about it that is native. Its very Englishness is in the way it tells a story of import and empire.
While living in England, I quickly learned that wherever two or three are gathered in the name of St. Nicholas, there shall ye find mince pies. Omnipresence is the first clue to their mystical force. We ate them at school plays and after carol services. We ate them in cafés and coffee houses, at fairs and charity sales. Clothing shops set up tables of free mince pies in the window to entice customers inside. Bookshops did the same. When we went to meet Father Christmas, hassled parents queued for the relief of a mince pie. When we rode the vintage holiday train, every child was given a mince pie. You only had to think “Christmas” and voila! there was a mince pie. It is easy to see how the retail chain Marks and Spencer sells more than 31 million pies a year.
They were everywhere.
Each year the best mince pies in all the land are revealed and the findings show the wizardry the pies have to erase cultural divides. The Daily Mail feeds its right-wing readers the results from the UK version of Consumer Reports. The more liberal Independent audience eats up the paper’s in-house ratings. Regardless of the outlet, reviewers weigh up the balance of pastry to filling, assessing the fruit, using the quantity of glacé [candied] cherry as a benchmark of where it all went wrong or decrying the infiltration of a North American dried cranberry. They pit port against brandy, rhapsodize about flakiness, and consider the tension between citrus peel and spice. In the end, the results often challenge a culture famous for its class rigidity. Discount grocery store chains like Lidl or Aldi often win higher marks than middle-class Waitrose, or the still more posh Harrods. Even debates about whether to eat them warmed in the oven or right out of the box, with a dollop of cream, or pure and naked as the day they were baked, show no respect for class, creed, or color. There are no tribes. Only the essential criteria for the best.
During our final month in England, I ate at least two a day – one for a morning distraction from writing and one as high-sugar fuel before starting the four-mile cycle to Pru’s nursery on the other side of Cambridge. It gave me the stamina to tow a tagalong bike over the cobbled streets and through the throngs of tourists who would mistake me for an authentic pie-fed British mum. (Sometimes I stopped in town on the way to try a new mince pie as I worked my way through the local offerings.) I greeted Pru at the classroom door with a mince pie to sustain her for the shared ride home, where we ate dinner before having more mince pies for dessert. “It’s fruit,” I told myself. “It must be healthy.” And even if it wasn’t, we wanted to do whatever we could to be English, in the hope that maybe, if we melted into the culture, the British would let us stay and keep being just like them.
A lot of people like to tell stories about the “real history” of mince pies, but as with a lot of food history, the truth is that there is no truth. Every story is woven out of the shroud of apocrypha, the tapestry of national mythology, a thread of false logic. And even a needle poke of good intentions.
“Mince pies have a long and hidden history,” says Marc Meltonville, the food historian for the Historic Royal Palaces. He reminds me that Christmas fare in the time of Henry VIII was simply a better version of what was eaten year-round, and the things called mince pies were a 365 experience. “Before they became the staple of any Christmas tea time, they were pies with minced things in them,” he explains. “This could be meat, or fruit, or both.”
Like in Thomas Dawson’s late 16th-century cookbook, The Good Housewife’s Jewel, in which mutton and veal pies are spiked with cinnamon and prunes. In oyster chewets (small pies), shellfish are flavored with sugar, dates, and saffron. You see it in Gervase Markham’s 1615 household manual, The English Housewife, in recipes for a herb tart where sorrel, spinach, and parsley are blended with currants, sugar, and cinnamon. And of course, you see it in Markham’s recipe for “minced pie,” that is, mutton and suet shredded fine and mixed with currants, raisins, prunes, and orange peel.
But by the 17th century, the link between the pie and the holiday was tightening. In his poem, “Ceremonies for Christmas,” Robert Herrick summoned the mince pie to duty in the middle of what Anglicans saw as the Puritan “war on Christmas”:
Drink now the strong beer
Cut the white loaf here
The while the meat is a-shredding;
For the rare mince-pie
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that’s a-kneading.
A year after we left England, bags and pockets crammed with pastry and fruit, we returned. Possibly forever, we decided. Like the mince pie of old, England would be for life, not just for Christmas.
As we endured another overly warm winter in the American South, our life disappeared into moving boxes. We panicked about sending four troubled shelter pets on a transatlantic flight to our new forever home. We reached our limit as the credit cards exceeded theirs. We argued over how to conjure up Christmas food and presents only 24 hours after arriving in a remote Norfolk village. Some days, the chaos and uncertainty were too much for a now five-year-old Pru.
Luckily, we had learned a magic trick.
“Don’t worry,” we soothed, “there will be lots and lots of mince pies when we get there.”
And then the call and response we repeated throughout December:
“How do you know?”
“Trust us. We know. It will be like before.” It wouldn’t be, really. It would be entirely different in more ways than we yet knew. But we did know that we could count on one thing being constant.
By the 24th, the seven of us were tucked into a cottage on the edge of a muddy Norfolk field. It felt like the edge of England. It felt like the edge of the world. And it felt like we might just fall off if we tried to look too far ahead in any direction. We were exhausted. But each one of us had a special page in our passport, and it said we could stay. At least for three years – more than 90 million mince pies in Marks & Spencer terms.
As a silent night of the black northern winter settled around us, we finished off another round of Stilton. And then came the mince pies. Pru wrote a note to Father Christmas. She poured him a glass of port – all on her own. She deliberated over which one of the remaining pies was the perfect one. (This English Santa, the one they called Father Christmas, didn’t answer to milk and cookies.) She put it on a plate, and she put the plate and port and the note of appreciation next to the fireplace.
In the morning, Pru found gifts in place of her offering and a note of thanks for such a wonderful pie. Now every year, just like a proper English child, she does the same. And every year the same exchange takes place, just like it does for lots of children all over the island. A year of happiness, a year of what your heart desires, all for just a mince pie.
Is there any other pie that can work magic like that?
About Anne Bramley
Anne Bramley is an independent scholar and the author of Eat Feed Autumn Winter: 30 Ways to Celebrate When the Mercury Drops. Her work has appeared at NPR’s The Salt, Saveur.com, and the Washington Post. She lives in Norwich, UK.