Expand your U.K. IQ: Keep an eye on the pies
Mince pies are traditionally eaten at Christmas. Since in practice they are standard fare at parties any time from mid-December, it is easy to be heartily sick of them by the new year, but in moderation they are delicious.
They are small (perhaps 3 inches in diameter) shortcrust-covered pies, filled with a sweet spiced fruit mixture.
The filling is confusingly called “mincemeat,” though now it does not contain meat. Usual ingredients are chopped apples, raisins, chopped almonds, peel, cinnamon, rum, sugar, etc., and animal suet (these days vegetarian suet may be used instead).
The ingredients are slowly baked together and the suet coats and preserves the chopped fruit. However, mincemeat is so named because it traditionally contained meat — in addition to the sweet fruit mixture. (It was a way of preserving the meat in the days before refrigeration.)
The word is first recorded in 1603, though the food is older; meat was normally used into the Victorian era, and was still not unheard of in 1930.
In Cockney rhyming slang, “mince pie” represents “eye.” “She gave me a butchers out of the corner of her mince.” (“Butchers,” for “butcher’s hook,” means “look.”)
Incidentally, the origin of “pie” itself, a 14th-century word, is not known for certain, but it is thought to be named from the older word “pie” denoting the magpie. The varied mixture of ingredients baked in a pie may have suggested either the piebald colouring of the magpie, or its habit of collecting miscellaneous assorted objects.
Mark Wainwright is a Ph.D. student in the linguistic department at Cambridge University.