Opinion » Bill Cope

Mmm, Mmm, Pie!

Part II: the rise and fall


Welcome back to this examination of the glorious, gorgeous mincemeat pie. In Part I, we explored my personal relationship with this culinary treasure from the Isle of Albion and how I have planned to fulfill my columnary obligations for the remainder of 2008 with the complete story of everything there is to know about this grand invention. This week, we shall discuss the central role it has played in shaping the history of the English-speaking world.

But first, I must address some misgivings among the staff and management of Boise Weekly. You see, before setting forth on this journey, I never actually approached my editor or publisher, bless their hearts, and asked if they would object to a four-part series on mincemeat pie. Nor did I seek counsel from my co-writers—consummate professionals, all—as to whether such a series on anything (a virtually unknown pie aside) was such a dandy idea. I simply assumed from the beginning that if there was ever a subject that called for a four-part series, it had to be the mincemeat pie.

In retrospect, I can see now that I may have miscalculated the degree of joy with which this endeavor would be received. On deadline day when I handed in Part I, my editor read the first paragraph, spit out her ever-present toothpick, and shrieked, "A four-part series on mincemeat pies? You gotta be s****ing me!"

Other staffers, clustered near enough to that editor's desk they could not help but overhear, called out mockingly, "Hey Cope, why didn't you just phone it in?"

Before I could get out the door, word had spread throughout BW Central. Sales personnel gathered in the hallways and murmured angrily as I passed. The publisher, herself, came from her office and glared at me as though she'd seen me lift something from her purse.

It felt awful. So before I left, I assured everyone that my four-part series wouldn't be just about mincemeat pies. I told them I was using mincemeat pies as a metaphor for so many other things. Things relevant, things important, things political, social and even spiritual. I told them that through the lens of a mincemeat pie could be seen novel and inspired opinions on the economic meltdown, the Iraq War, the scandal in Illinois, Butch Otter cutting agency budgets, why Adam Sandler sucks and more.

In short, I still have a job. But in the remainder of the "Mmm, Mmm, Pie!" saga, if you notice that I stray slightly off the mincemeat-pie path into other issues now and then, you will understand why I had to do it.

Now, on with the saga!

In the 11th century, as the Crusaders made their way home from the Holy Lands (after trying unsuccessfully to negotiate a settlement between the area's Christians, Jews and Muslims), they carried with them savory spices previously unknown among the British tribes, who were accustomed to a steady and unvaried diet of boiled turnips and the occasional hedgehog. Being so difficult to come by, those spices were saved for special occasions, the most special of which was Christmas. To celebrate and exalt the birth of the baby Jesus, cradle-shaped crusts were filled with dried fruits, suet from the butchered carcasses of the available farm animals, some fermented berry drippings, and, of course, the aforementioned spices. There wasn't much to look forward to in those days, so the "Christmas Pie" (as it came to be known) must have looked darn yummy to people who hadn't yet invented mashed potatoes or fudge.

By 1413, the treat was so embedded in English culture that Henry V (of "once more into the breach" fame) refused to be crowned king unless there were stacks of Christmas pies prepared for the post-coronation bash. His great-grandson, Henry VIII (of "off with her head, too" fame) decided real meat would be better in the pies than suet. (Little known fact: The first attempts to make the pies using real meat resulted in entire rump roasts, racks of rib and boars' heads being haphazardly slathered with a crust and baked to varying degrees of doneness. After wrestling with a slice of pie that contained a full sirloin of stag, taken that same day from the royal forest, Henry suggested the meat be cut into smaller, bite-sized pieces. Hence, "minced meat.")

By the 16th century, one of the earliest cookbooks, the Goode Haws-Kepenge Booke of Cokerye, set the "Minst Pye" standard with a recipe that called for, "Moutton or beyfe, fyne mynced and ceasoned wyth peppre and salte ... a lyttle vyneger, prumes, greate raysins and dates, and soake wyth the fattest of the broathe of powdred beyfe until all is gelloedye." (Part III of this chronicle will include a recipe for a modern mincemeat pie, and you may be surprised to learn how little has changed in 500 years. Except for the spelling.)

Thenceforth, all should have been well in the world of mincemeat pies, and would have been, were it not for Oliver Cromwell. As you remember, he was the Bill O'Reilly of his time in that he could not resist telling others how they should be observing the holidays. He and his infamous Puritan Council (equivalent to the present James Dobson's Focus on the Family) regarded Christmas as nothing more than an excuse for gluttony, drunkenness and debauchery. In 1657, Cromwell outlawed the celebration entirely, along with everything that went with it—including the "Christmas Pie." (Cromwell regarded all pies as "guylty, forbydne pleashoores." It is widely accepted that the movie American Pie was modeled on him as a teenager.)

With the same fortitude they displayed some 300 years later during the Blitz, the common English people would not be cowed. They began to make their dear pies in odd and eccentric shapes—"Secret Pies," they called them—to fool the jack-booted Cromwellians into believing they weren't pies at all, but instead were crusty bookends, or perhaps doilies. There is one reported incident where the center was cut out of a Bible so that a taboo pie might be smuggled inside, "over the vallye and througheth the woode to grande-marm's hawse," undetected.

The madness of Cromwell spread across the pond to Puritan communities in America. From 1659 to 1681, the pie was banned in Boston, along with the holiday and festivities associated with it. But all too soon—before I can tell you how mincemeat pies were indispensable to the birth of our nation, the ruination of George Washington's teeth, Pickett's fatal lethargy at Gettysburg, and how old Joe Kennedy made his fortune—I come to the end of Part II.