Have you tried the mince: Holiday Baking and Tradition

A Brief History of Christmas Cookies

Linzer heart, peanut kiss, date pinwheel — the names themselves are sweet. Americans love cookies like they love breathing air. And just as we don't question the air, how often do we wonder about the frenzy of cookie baking that signals the winter holidays? It's not just short days and long nights that make people want to get out the rolling pins and sprinkles.

Spices we associate with Christmas (cinnamon, cloves, ginger), along with small cakes (a.k.a. cookies) were introduced in Europe more than 700 years ago, to the few and the lucky who could afford them. According to the exhibit on "Sugar in the Atlantic World" now at the Clements Library, what made sweets widely available was increased sugar production (based on slavery in the Caribbean) when "between the middle of the 1600s and the middle of the 1800s, sugar was transformed from a luxury to a widely consumed commodity in Great Britain and the United States."

According to the culinary history research of Lynne Olver, at the Food Timeline:

"Cakes of all shapes and sizes (including smaller items such as cookies) have been part of festive holiday rituals long before Christmas. Ancient cooks prepared sweet baked goods to mark significant occasions. Many of these recipes and ingredients (cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, almonds, dried fruits etc.) were introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages…German lebkuchen (gingerbread) was probably the first cake/cookie traditionally associated with Christmas…" And, "By the 1500s, Christmas cookies had caught on all over Europe...The earliest Christmas cookies in America came ashore with the Dutch in the early 1600s."

—From "America's Best Holiday Cookies," McCall's [magazine], December 1994 (p. 85)

A Baker's Heritage

Unfortunately, my German, French and Irish fore-mothers didn't leave any recipes for their baking descendants. Even so, holiday baking in my family is a defining aspect of our Christmas celebrations. We look forward to particular treats every year (rum balls, sugar cut-outs and coconut lemon circles), and it would not be a good Christmas without them. This year is a little different. While I'm still planning on making these recent traditions, I also want to have something that reflects the older traditions of my cultural heritage.

I know I'm not the only one who thinks about these things. John Savanna of Mill Pond Bread in Chelsea once told me that his baking doesn't come from the baking traditions of his family; he's adopted the traditions of his community and of the people who ask him to recreate foods they want to taste again. Much of the special holiday baking Savanna does at Christmas time is German, recalling traditions of many of Ann Arbor's first residents, but with Savanna's own improvements: his citrus and spice-infused lebkuchen includes a bit of dough "starter" saved from the previous year for the depth flavor gained in aging. For the stollen, he's taken out the candied fruit, and it's now stuffed with organic and Michigan fruits (and mmm, dried cherries soaked in cognac) and covered in a drift of powdered sugar.

Mill Pond baker Gabe Blauer uses the fruity schnitzbrot soaked overnight with good eggs, sweet cream, vanilla and spices for his family's Christmas morning french toast. Of all the things at the bakery, it's his favorite.

The Great American Mashup

One of the great advantages of being an American is the incredible cultural mashup that has resulted in almost all foods of every culture being available to us. Witness, even the most rural communities can get cilantro and mangoes now. What we privileged products of the melting pot tend to forget is how food establishes identity — and how it is a physical experience of history. That history is why baking traditions based on cultural heritage are important. German lebkuchen, "the first cookie traditionally associated with Christmas," can tell us something about who we are and what our community is.

Some of the fortunate among us are still connected to a specific baking heritage embedded in our culture. For example, Elizabeth Marcano, owner of Marcano's Takeout, a new restaurant serving Venezuelan arepas on Packard, got very animated describing her memories of a special Christmas treat in her home. Ham bread, made with ham, olives, and raisins is something that defines her holiday, and she can't wait to make it for her customers. And I didn't expect this atCafe Japon, but their English baker made some delicious mincemeat tarts that I found irresistible.

Of Meat and Mince

Mincemeat, that sweet and spicy pie filling synonymous with holiday tradition, is probably second only to fruitcake in unpopularity contests. But it is one authentic connection I have to the traditions of the family that came before me. I knew my maternal great-grandparents, Dale and Eva Callihan, who traced their ancestry to Ireland, and I have a few spice-scented memories of the mincemeat that they used to make. In the multi-day undertaking in my mind's eye, I see steaming pots on the stove, bowls of raisins, jars of spices and their gnarled hands busy peeling bushels of apples and shelling piles of nuts.

Lynne Olver finds this about the origins of the mince: "Mince pie in Britain is a miniature round pie, filled with mincemeat: typically a mixture of dried fruits, chopped nuts and apples, suet, spices, and lemon juice, vinegar, or brandy. Although the filling is called mincemeat, it rarely contains meat nowadays…The earliest type was a small medieval pastry called a chewette, which contained chopped meat of liver, or fish on fast days, mixed with chopped hard-boiled egg and ginger. This might be baked or fried. It became usual to enrich the filling with dried fruit and other sweet ingredients. Already by the 16th century minced or shred pies, as they were then known, had become a Christmas specialty, which they still are. The beef was sometimes partly or wholly replaced by suet from the mid-17th century onwards, and meat had effectively disappeared from mincemeat on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century."

—Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 507)

Making something called a "chewette" is a tradition that needs to be revived, so this year I'm going to try to experience my own history by making some of these tiny mince pies. The Callihans used both beef and suet in their mincemeat, but I can only take tradition so far in one go; I need my mince to be meatless.

Sitting in the basement, I still have a peck of green tomatoes pulled off the vine just before a hard frost. I'm going to use them to make a rich and spicy Green Tomato Mincemeat, filled with apples, spices, and dried fruit, adapted from the original carnivore version. And while I'm making it, I'll be thinking about the origins of tomatoes along the coastline of South America, and of apples in Kazakhstan and spices from the Malaccas. I'll be considering sugar's checkered past. And I'll be thinking about how my own family arrived in this country, and remembering my great-grandparents' generosity and humor as I look down at my own hands peeling apples and shelling nuts.


I've been looking in some of Ann Arbor's old cookbooks now online at the Ann Arbor District Library's "Ann Arbor Cooks" collection. Here are the recipes I'm considering for my mince.

From Presbyterian Kings Daughters Cook Book, 194?
Green Tomato Mincemeat
1 peck chopped green tomatoes
1 1/2 pints chopped tart apples, 
2 teaspoons cinnamon 
1 teaspoon each of salt, allspice,and cloves
3 cups sugar
1 pound raisins
1/4 cup vinegar
1 cup suet
Mix all together. Bring to rapid boil and simmer until thick. Pour into sterilized jars and seal.

—Mrs. Geraldine Notley

From Yellow and Blue Cookbook, 1923
Mince Meat (Delicious)
4 pounds meat boiled and chopped
This means about 8 pounds before it is cooked.
Round steak or beef heart
Twice as much chopped apple
1 pound. suet
3 pounds raisins
2 pounds currants
1/2 pound citron
2 pound brown sugar
4 quarts cider
2 grated nutmegs
1 tablespoon each salt, pepper, mace,
4 tablespoons cinnamon
1 tablespoon cloves
Mix and heat. Put in cans. May be thinned with apple when put into pies. Add a little boiled cider. Makes 13 quarts.

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