History's Just Desserts

Exploring American History through Desserts and Their Makers


Mincemeat Pie: “Idolatrie in a Crust”

 Last week when I wrote about the creation of an American Hanukkah holiday, I mentioned that, like the Jewish festival of lights, Christmas wasn’t always widely celebrated in America.

“Idolatrie in a crust,” Puritans fulminated – or at least their satirists said they did – against the traditional Christmas food of mincemeat pie, and that pretty much captures their attitude to the holiday in general.

How could these committed Christians not like Christmas?  The holiday marks the birth of Jesus, to believers the messiah (or Christ, Greek for anointed) whose coming is foretold by the Old Testament.  Trouble is, nothing in Scripture identifies Christmas Day – December 25 – as Jesus’s birthday.  The Gospel of Luke does tell a story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, without giving a date for the holy infant’s arrival.  So how did we end up celebrating this world-changing event on December 25?  In the fourth century, the Church pragmatically decided on that date since it fell around the winter solstice, an event that was widely celebrated.  With their decision, Church leaders sought to Christianize the popular winter festival.  The flip side was – as Puritans would later point out – that pagan solstice traditions that looked forward to the fertile growing season and long days of light were absorbed into a Christian observance.  Hence today, following our ancestors’ use of greenery and fire to mark the solstice, we put up evergreen trees trimmed with lights to mark Christmas.

Besides the pagan roots of Christmas, Puritans had another objection to the holiday.  It was just too raucous.  Now, when I say raucous, you may think I mean jolly Englishmen were eating (mincemeat pies), drinking, burping, and singing loudly in the village tavern.  Since the Puritans were serious-minded folk, they wouldn’t like that sort of frivolity, would they?

The Puritans’ compatriots were eating and drinking to excess (and presumably therefore also burping.)  Ministers like Cotton Mather frowned upon the “long Eating” and “hard Drinking,” not to mention the gaming and fornicating that often went along with them.  But it was the singing, or rather the culture around it, that the godly really objected to, historian Stephen Nissenbaum tells us.

Christmastime, with the harvest and slaughter over, was a season when those lower on the social scale could vent the tensions and pressures that had built up over the year.  During this short season of plenty and leisure, they escaped their customary roles by dressing like their betters and taunting their social superiors to boot.  But beyond that, the lowly insisted on being treated decently, like they really were somebodies.  At Christmas, rowdy packs of young men had the right, you better know it, to visit their masters’ homes for food, drink, and even gifts of money.  In turn, the youthful visitors regaled their hosts with songs, some with cheery wishes for “a merry New Year” and others with less charming lyrics that promised “if you don’t open up your door/We will lay you flat upon the floor.”  Indulgence of all kind, disorder, indiscipline.  These were what the Puritans – with their quest for an orderly, godly society – disliked and what Christmas represented to them.  And therefore in the Massachusetts Bay colony, the holiday was, from 1659 to 1681, illegal.  (Much the same was true in Dutch New Amsterdam.  The Quakers, once one of the largest denominations in America, also opposed Christmas.)

And what of the mincemeat pie?  Made with minced meat, dried fruits such as raisins and currants, scant sugar (until the 1700s), and spices such as ginger, mace, and cinnamon, the pies were long eaten at Christmastime, though not as a dessert.  Puritans, however, associated the spices in the pie with the lavish gifts given by the three wise men to baby Jesus and therefore with the Catholic Church they saw as opulent and superstitious.  No mincemeat pie for them.  Later, though, when the Puritans’ descendants embraced Christmas, the pie found its rightful place on the holiday table, with Sarah Hale suggesting a version made with Madeira for either Christmas or Thanksgiving.

A true mincemeat pie sound intriguing to you?  Our foodie friends at the Washington Post featured a recipe adapted from an early American recipe a couple years ago.  Enjoy!






Ice Cream, The Original American Hanukkah Dessert

One thing I like about Hanukkah is that it lasts for eight days. It’s hard to miss. That’s nice if you want to explore the surprising dessert history of the holiday in the United States in a timely manner but don’t want to get caught up in the hoopla around this year’s Thanksgivukkah. (Future cultural historians, may I note, are going to have a field day dissecting the historic holiday hullabaloo.)

Now when you think about Hanukkah food, dessert probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. My bet, whether you’re Jewish or not, is that you would be most familiar with latkes — potato pancakes fried in oil and served with applesauce, sour cream, or, preferably, both. If, like the earliest American Jews, you or your friends have Sephardic ancestry – with forebears whose roots lay in Iberia or other parts of the Mediterranean world – you may think of other fried foods including the Italian Jewish dessert of sweet squash fritters dusted with powdered sugar. And doughnuts might also come to mind. You would not think of ice cream. Hanukkah celebrations feature fried foods and ice cream is not (usually) fried.

Why fried foods? The holiday marks the Jewish people’s re-dedication of their sacred temple in Jerusalem in 164 B.C.E. Enemies had taken and violated the temple and they had prohibited Jews from worshipping their God. After several years, a group of Jewish rebels, known as Maccabees, fought back and retook the temple. To purify and re-dedicate the temple, the Maccabees wanted to burn oil in a menorah – the temple candelabra – for eight days, but had only enough oil for one night. Miraculously, however, the oil lasted for the full eight days. Fried foods eaten during Hanukkah commemorate the miracle.

So where does ice cream come into the story? The answer has to do with how Hanukkah became a major American Jewish holiday. In religious terms, Hanukkah is a minor holiday, and in most Jewish communities around the world, it is not especially important. In the United States, however, it has become a big holiday, as historian Dianne Ashton explains in a new book, Hanukkah in America.

In the mid to late nineteenth century, a time when there were no rabbinical schools in the country, American Jews were concerned about the fate of Judaism in the United States. Some looked to the Maccabees as role models for Jewish leaders. Meanwhile, American Christians were increasingly celebrating Christmas (a holiday not widely observed in America before the mid-1800s – more on that in the next few weeks). Reform Jewish leaders in Cincinnati, a center of German Jewish life, pushed for American Jews to celebrate Hanukkah and to do so in a way that put children at the heart of the holiday. Like their Christian peers, Jewish children would have a special winter celebration and one, the rabbis hoped, that would help them feel good about their heritage in the face of the anti-Semitism they too often encountered.

And the ice cream? The Cincinnati rabbis proposed that Hanukkah festivals feature, not only songs and candles, but also oranges and ice cream. Now that is inspirational leadership in my book.

Folks, Hanukkah ends when evening falls later today. That means there’s still time, whatever your beliefs, to observe this Jewish, but also deeply American holiday of both cultural continuity and adaptation, with a scoop of cold creamy goodness.

Happy Hanukkah!