Three Dozen Mince Pie Recipes Later — the Fallacy of Precision

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.


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.


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.

This entry was posted in Baking, Pies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Three Dozen Mince Pie Recipes Later — the Fallacy of Precision

  1. Lefty says:

    Thanks Kevin — I was just thinking about mincemeat and found myself wishing you’d do a segment on it. Looking forward to your upcoming installment! 36 recipes, wow, that’s a lot of taste-testing!! Especially since these are not small-scale projects!

  2. Kevin Carter says:

    I would misrepresent myself if I neglect to explain that I did not try all 36 recipes. The research I mentioned was analytic, comparing ingredients, proportions, etc. The trial bakes include a much smaller sampling of recipes that are more typical…closer to “quintessential” mince pie. I suspect we’ll release the video in a couple of weeks. I’ll include an accompanying post here.

  3. penelopemew says:

    We will look forward to the video! You certainly have done much wonderful work on this. I love reading the posts.
    Thank you!

  4. Lefty says:

    Gotcha! You did state that you compared 36 recipes, not that you baked 36 recipes. Still looking forward to the conclusion!

  5. Dan. H says:

    I feel your pain. I discovered copies of some of my Grandma Katie’s recipes for baking, cooking, and canning. All attempts failed. No childhood memories, just garbage disposal fodder. I found out later she NEVER OWNED a measuring cup or spoons. Best of luck. We will be watching!

  6. I find this same problem with so many historical things. When you get down to the nitty gritty it is really hard to say how something was done unless someone did write a play by play but then you have to interpret what they are saying. Oh the fun of trying to decipher our past!

  7. Anthony says:

    We are not butchers, millers, brewers or gathers, we shop, a whole different perspective. I’ve struggled with these same issues so, I get period equipment and take a stab at the recipe, tasting as I go. The second time I make it I measure and weight everything, (the trained scientist in me). Recipes are guides to a final product. We interpret what is given. Sometimes it turns out like grandma used to make and sometimes not, that’s the fun of it.

  8. Paleotool says:

    Great stuff. Your level of research is amazing. Thank you.

  9. susanhillside says:

    Love this and I love mincemeat. I have been making mid 19th century style mincemeat for almost 10 years. I have settled on the Kentucky Housewife’s recipe from 1839. ‘My’ recipe was recently published if you care to take a look I made 8 wonderful gallons of mincemeat. should last at least till February. I serve it to my guests at my historic farmstay inn, Hillside Homestead.

  10. Shannon says:

    I feel the folks of the 18th century looked at the dishes as a whole. They saw the ingredients as nothing but necessaries to get to the product. I feel during conversations about a dish they asked how was this or that made, they replied with, “a little of this and a little of that.” Just as a stone mason built beautiful buildings. He made his own mortar, but in the end all saw only the product. You guys do a great job at making 18th century products and when I see you make a dish of food, I only see an 18th century dish of food.

  11. Diana Williamson says:

    I have a recipe from a newspaper c. 1900 with the only item without a weight being the tongue which should be simmered slowly until very tender, skinned and chopped fine..
    1 lb kidney suet finely chopped, 5 lb tart apples chopped, 2lb raisins, 2 lb sultanas, 2 lb currants, three-quarters of a pound of shredded citron, two tbs mace, 1 tbs each of cinnamon, allspice and cloves and one nutmeg, 1 heaping tsp salt, three pounds and a half of brown sugar and three pints of sweet cider. Mix well and stand overnight. Put into an agate of porcelain lined kettle, heat and boil for five minutes then put in preserve jars and use as required

    No idea what it tastes like as the volume is so large!

  12. Pingback: The Christmas Pie | Savoring the Past

  13. I tasted a wonderful mincemeat pie cooked in the hearth over at Historic Deerfield (Deerfield, MA) on my visit there over the weekend of Dec 8-9. It was so fabulous that I took the recipe – it was actually an 18th century recipe (like yours, translated to 21st century) from the Old Sturbridge Village collection. I arranged for mutton suet from a local butcher, and will be making this recipe for a Christmas Eve dinner! (Full disclosure – I’ll be using almond flour because I’m allergic to wheat). I will be comparing that recipe to your suggestions, possibly playing with the ingredients. I also shared your video on Facebook.

  14. paltoane says:

    You can certainly see your skills within the article you write.
    The sector hopes for even more passionate writers like
    you who are not afraid to mention how they believe.
    Always follow your heart.

  15. Alex Grover says:

    I am usually ok with ambiguity with most early foods. I gave up on expecting exactness from either the recipes or myself. Except for when It calls for a spoon of something. Given the vast difference in spoon sizes, this one puts me in a panic.

    But I also realize that at the time there were very few spoons that were the same size. It is not like the government was out checking for standardized spoons when most spoons were locally made. I figure I will get the recipes right when I go out and hand make my own spoon. ‘Til then I will have to continue to guess.

  16. My Aunt made a wonderful Slovak pastry called “cheregi” (sp unsure…that’s how it sounds). I wanted the recipe to make for my own family so I called her. The recipe began: ” fill the blue bowl with flour; not THAT blue bowl, the one with the crack where Uncle Buck hit his head…” And so it went using teacups and soup spoons and handfuls and a certain hen’s eggs – “cause hers were bigger”. Today, I wish I had cornered her and watched her side by side so that I could measure the ingredients as we went along. I fear that so many good old-timey recipes have been lost because they were passed down orally and by cook-alongs between mothers and daughters.

  17. Red Dragon Hawk says:

    the size you want your pie v. a large ox tongue…second recipe seems clearer to me…forensically speaking it all seems a matter of working back from your desired product.
    you want all the flavors to meld…and depending on the size of the pie…it could be one glass of wine for the meat and one for the cook…lol

  18. Kevin, I know what you mean. There are some cooks and recipe writers today who don’t do much better. I always try to write my recipes in such a way that even an inexperienced cook can have success with it.

Leave a Reply to paltoane Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s