Thinking with pies
The brandy is the first thing that hits me, followed by the creeping spiced sweetness of currants and raisins. Then, bafflingly, there emerges the equally spicy taste and texture of meat. All of this is encased in a crisp, short-crust-type pastry and topped with some fairly inept attempts at pastry decorations (see picture, top right).
I wasn’t sure how I felt about the ‘Minc’d pie’ I had just created, but the affront it presented to my taste-buds and the early modern recipe I used to make it did make me curious.1 Given that the combination of sweet fruits and spices with actual minced meat is quite challenging to a modern palette, what was its function at a late-seventeenth-century dinner? Modern mince pies have a very specific Christmassy association and the taste of one can evoke strong memories of occasions of Christmas past. Did early modern consumers of minced pies hold them in such esteem as we do?
What started off as an harmless attempt to carry out my own “Great Historical Bake-Off” alongside BBC One’s Great British Bake Off has now developed into a somewhat distracting interest in historical food and its production, consumption, and wider significance. Food preferences are not a simple matter of individual taste but rather are shaped by economic, social, religious, and cultural influences.2 Furthermore, occasions when early modern people gathered together to eat and drink could be important in shaping community relations and event promoting political ideas. In England in the second half of the seventeenth-century, for instance, ‘County feasts’ emerged as a way for notables from the same county to gather together in London, pursue charitable activity, and promote the unity of the county through ‘feast sermons’.3 However, it was not just occasions of consumption but the specific food items that attended them that could have wider political and social resonances.
Take, for instance, the minced pie. Served alongside a number of meat, dishes and stews, minced pies were staple Christmas fare across the early modern period. During the mid-seventeenth-century, however, they gained a new significance. Although the regime of Oliver Cromwell never actually banned them, the austere attitude to festive celebrations adopted by many of the religious sects that proliferated in this period turned minced pies into something of an emblem of rebellion amongst those who took a less puritanical stance.4 Several pamphlets and broadside ballads written in objection to Quaker belief and practices made reference to minced pies when mocking Quakers’ refusal to comply with ordinary social manners and expectations. One author, taking in jest the voice of a Quaker, asked his audience ‘Hadst thou sweetned thy Gumbs / With Pottage of Plumbs / Or profane minc’d pie hadst swallow’d’, whilst another bemoaned Quakers’ refusal to condescend to ‘be condemn’d to swallow Heathen Plum-broth and Minc’d Pye at the time called Christmas’.5 More broadly railing against the condemnation of indulgence propounded by many radical religious sects in mid-seventeenth-century England, the author of a short “tract” entitled The exaltation of Christmas pye hailed the consumption of all manner of forms of plum pie as exceedingly good for the soul. He finished his piece with the rallying-cry ‘Then let us Eat Christmas or Plum pye and rejoyce, Drink, Eat, and be Merry, Play at Cards and win Money, for that the dayes of the Year, are now like the dayes of Man, short and soon Vanishing’.6 For these opponents of the puritan cultures of Interregnum England, the minced pie was not just a tasty Christmas treat. Rather, it was a symbol of what they viewed as harmless festivity; ammunition for thinly-veiled attacks on the policies of the Interregnum regimes.
There are many more practical questions that making my own early modern minced pie made me want to understand. What, for example, can the huge quantities that most early modern minced pie recipes seem to produce tell us about the occasions they were served at, and the people for whom they were cooked? What did the patterns on the pastry (for a much better informed and presented version than mine, see the work of Ivan Day) signify, if anything? Where on the table were these pies placed? Were they a matter of pride or simply one thing amongst a large spread? Such issues could easily be raised without first making a pie, and I do not make any claim to have the expertise necessary to have made an accurate representation of pies as early modern people would have eaten them. There is, however, something about engaging with a manuscript source not just by reading but by doing that makes much clearer the questions that need to be answered before its context can be understood. In that sense, although my pie was not pleasant to the palate, it was ample food for the brain.
1 Wellcome Library: MS.1796/12 – cookery book, c. 1685-1725. Viewed online at http://archives.wellcomelibrary.org/DServe/dserve.exe?dsqIni=dserve.ini&dsqApp=Archive&dsqDb=Catalog&dsqCmd=show.tcl&dsqSearch=(RefNo==%27MS1796%27), 17 October 2015.
2 Stephen Mennell, All manners of food. Eating and taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the present (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1985), pp. 15-17.
3 Newton E. Key, ‘The political culture and political rhetoric of county feasts and feast sermons, 1654-1714’, Journal of British Studies, 33, 3 (July 1994), pp. 224, 242-6, 250.
5 John Denham, A relation of a Quaker, that to the shame of his profession, attempted to bugger a mare near Colchester (1659); Anon, The Quakers art of courtship, or, The Yea-and-nay academy of complements calculated for the meridian of the Bull-and-Mouth (London: 1689).
6 P. C., The exaltation of Christmas pye as it was delivered in a preachment at Ely house (1659), p.11.