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Three Dozen Mince Pie Recipes Later — the Fallacy of Precision

Jonathan Townsend

Posted on December 06 2012

I recently completely a side-by-side comparison of a number of 18th and early 19th century recipes for mince pie — 36 recipes in all from 24 different sources. I have to admit that when I get involved in something like this, a certain compulsiveness to be thorough and precise takes over that likely exceeds the value of the outcome. The law of diminishing returns has something to do with that, I’m sure.

[As a side note, contrary to a common opinion, our modern super-sweet meatless mince pies are not necessarily an evolutionary destination of the original heartier mincemeat pies (which contained REAL meat like tongue and tripe). One third of the recipes I collected were for a meatless variety.]

Any way, while noting differences among these recipes, I couldn’t help but notice the distinctions not only in ingredients, but also in approaches by the authors.

I like precision in recipes. I believe I’ve mentioned in other posts that I’m a big fan of celebrity chef, Alton Brown. Confession time. Just like him, I have my little battery-powered kitchen scale out on the counter next to the Kitchenmaid stand mixer. I prefer to weigh my flour instead of scoop it. Precision helps accomplish consistency. I like consistency, especially when it’s a really delicious recipe at stake.

So I’m doing the research on 18th century mince pies for an upcoming Christmas video. I figure I’ll do the hearty version of the mince pie, consisting primarily of neat’s (ox) tongue, kidney suet, sweetmeats (various dried and candied fruits, e.g., raisins, currants, and candied citrus rind, and a mix of salt, nutmeg, cinnamon, mace, and cloves. But the moment I start reading the recipes, I hit a wall. I’m wanting to accurately replicate an original recipe, but none of the recipes are precise.

Take, for instance, how over half the recipes instruct the cook to “take one neat’s tongue…” There’s no indication of what the average neat’s tongue weighs. It’s my understanding that, depending on the breed of bovine, a modern “lingua” can weigh any where between 2-1/2 to 9 pounds. The tongues I purchased from my local Latino market each weighed around 3-1/2 pounds. By comparing the proportions of other ingredients listed in other recipes — especially those recipes that DID give precise weights, 3 to 4 pounds of neat’s tongue seems to be in the ball park.

Elizabeth Cleland’s method in “The New and Easy Method of Cookery” (1759, page 81) seems to address this concern. She prescribes using a proportion system. Weigh the neat’s tongue after it has been cooked and prepared, then add twice as much suet and twice as much sweetmeats. But beyond that, when it comes to seasonings and other adjuncts, even she resorts to “some of this” and “a little of that.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, you’ll find Mrs. MacIver and her book, “Cookery and Pastry” (1773, page 111). Her approach is to offer a mere suggestion.


Huh?

My O.C.D. is kickin’ in big time.

“So use another recipe,” you suggest.

But it’s not that simple! Let’s go back to Cleland. She suggests using a “Mutchkin” of brandy. The O.E.D. defines muntchkin as 1/4 part the old Scots pint, or 3/4 an imperial pint.

Huh?

Then I note some of the other measurement terms I ran across in my research: “a glass,” “spoonful,” “a large spoonful,” “a teacup,” and of course, “some” and “a little.” How can one be absolutely sure about what they were talking about? “A large spoon” could be referring to the large wood ladle that grandma always used to measure flour.  Come on! I need precision! People are going to ask if the recipe I use in the upcoming video is an accurate replication or if it’s a modern adaptation.

The problem, however, that makes accuracy impossible (and yes, I said IMPOSSIBLE), is that there were no standard measures in the 18th century. Sure, there was the old English unit system. Wikipedia has a good (albeit, by the nature of the beast, confusing) explanation.

A “mouthful” equals 1/2 fluid oz. A “pony” equals 1 oz. A “Jack” equals 2.5 oz. A “Gill” (pronounced “Jill”) equals two Jacks. A “cup” equals two gills, or 10 oz (as opposed to our 8 oz). A “quart” equals four 10-oz cups. A “pottle” equals two quarts. A “gallon” equals two pottles.

But hold on. A gallon? If you’re going to base your interpretation of measures on the gallon, is that a “Corn Gallon,” “Wine Gallon,” or “Ale Gallon”? They’re each different, and all three were used in the 18th century.

Can you see how quickly this is spinning out of control?

Believe me, I’m not hiding behind a smokescreen of fallacious confusion in order to create an excuse for mediocre research and lazy interpretation. The fact is, none of the recipes were precise.  Even the most precise 18th century recipes used obsolete measuring techniques and left much to the final say up to the cook. How can one be precise in his or her interpretation, when the original recipe wasn’t precise?

This presents a problem to the food archaeologist or historical foodie who desires to uncover the distinctions between the 18th palate and our own. I have yet to see an exception where an original 18th century recipe did not count on the personal taste of the intended cook. “Some of this” and “a little of that” is the same as Alton Brown saying “season to taste.” That is the true dilemma.

And when it comes to trying to be as accurate as possible in replicating original recipes, I haven’t even begun to address potential differences between period ingredients and their mutant descendants. Author and food historian Karen Hess had much to say on this topic in her annotations on “Martha Washington’s Book of Cookery.”

So it seems the challenge is not a matter of exact replication, but rather, how close can replication be practically achieved. I’d venture to say that a modern adaption of a recipe based on thorough comparative research may have a higher historical value than trying to replicate an old apple pie recipe using oranges.

Wow. I feel I have one foot on the soap box. I think I’ll step away now before a crowd begins to gather.

My thoughts here should be construed as neither criticism nor a personal defense. I have neither motive in mind. These are simply the thoughts and observations of a man who has just studied three dozen mince pie recipes…just in time for Christmas.

It could be worse, I suppose. They could have been recipes for fruitcake.

By the way, I’m sure there will be at least one more post pertaining to mince pies.

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