13. Recreating an Early Modern Mince Pie

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The first bite is rich with the unmistakable taste of Christmas: nutmeg, cinnamon, and a distinct essence of spiced citrus fruit. But an early modern mince pie, as presented in Robert May’s 1660 recipe, also contains less familiar ingredients, including copious amounts of minced meat, suet, and a curious ‘ounce of caraway-comfits’.[1] The latter, we discovered, were a type of early modern sweet created by layering sugar syrup on caraway seeds. The result was a hearty and distinct mix of sweet and savoury flavours.

Our recreation of an early modern mince pie adds to an exciting turn in historiography towards the reconstruction of past materiality. As Pamela Smith has argued in her reconstruction of metal life-casting, only by reconstruction can we understand the tacit knowledge possessed by early modern people.[2] We had to guess at the timings needed to cook ingredients, which were not provided by the recipe but which were probably known by its early modern users. Reconstruction allowed us to better understand the ingredients, the pure physical exertion needed, and, importantly, the sensory experience involved in an early modern mince pie.

How better to discover an early modern Christmas than through its food?!

By Elly Barnett

[1] Robert May, The accomplisht cook, or, The art and mystery of cookery wherein the whole art is revealed in a more easie and perfect method than hath been publisht in any language (London: R.W. for Nath. Brooke, 1660), p.232.

[2] Pamela H. Smith and Tony Benntjes, ‘Nature and Art, Making and Knowing: Reconstructing Sixteenth-Century Life-Casting Techniques’, Renaissance Quarterly, vol. 63. No.1 (2010), pp. 142-3.

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