The Great American Viand

Most Americans today have scarcely heard of mince pie. Those who have consider mince pie to be a British thing. Quite an irony when you consider that mince pie was once the quintessential American pie. Far, FAR more popular than apple or cherry, 19th Century Americans ate mince pies all through the year for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

So if mince pies were so darn popular…what happened? The answer is somewhat unclear. However it seems to be the case that in the early 20th Century mince pies came under a sort of popular attack, not unlike what we’ve been seeing with fruitcakes the last couple of decades. Starting in the 20’s or so, they became a sort of national joke. More earnest critics of mince pies claimed they were responsible for everything from indigestion and nightmares to psychosis and death.

For a full exploration of the subject, I can recommend no better source than The Real American Pie by the late Cliff Doerkson.

But even his excellent essay doesn’t answer the question: what caused the mince pie to all but disappear in America? My guess: the rise of food sanitation. There’s no question that traditional mincemeat preparation was unsanitary to say the least. I mean let’s face it: a mixture of apples, dried fruit, cooked meat and spices that was left to ripen at room temperature for weeks? Sure it had lots of sugar and alcohol in it, but even at its best a mincemeat crock would have been a brew pot for all sorts of ugly critters. Plus who knows what sorts of ingredients went into them? The original mystery meat indeed!

Doerkson documents that mince pies were abandoned by Americans after World War II. That roughly coincides with the disappearance of another venerable — and frequently unsanitary — American food institution: the lunch counter. Lunch counters were a go-to source of cheap eats for single men, workers and travelers from roughly the late 19th Century through about 1950. A godsend for men who didn’t cook, they were in another sense distribution points for food borne illness.

As America became increasing mobile in the post-war years, the demand arose for food sources that didn’t provide a free case of Bacillus cereus with every purchase. Regional and national chains like McDonald’s answered that call. Ostensibly they sold hamburgers and fries. Their real products were safety and cleanliness — delivered consistently, wherever you went.

With food sanitation rising as a discipline, it’s not hard to imagine why dicey preparations like real mince pies disappeared. And where they did survive, why recipes changed from the hard-to-keep real meat pies to easy-to-keep meatless versions. Makes sense to me anyway. Any further thoughts on this very interesting subject are welcome!

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