Start with light brown sugar, 36 pounds of it.
Add raisins, ground beef and apples.
Sprinkle in some cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg.
Bake it all into a pie, and you’ll have a holiday treat ready for the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables: mincemeat pie.
The pie bakers at Colemanville United Methodist Church make mincemeat in 15-gallon batches, large enough to make nearly 2,000 pies. That’s why they measure sugar by the pound.
They’re continuing a tradition that started at the Conestoga-area church in the 1930s. Making mincemeat began as a way to preserve meat and has become, for many, a holiday tradition. It can be served cold or warm, topped with ice cream or maybe a shot of bourbon poured over the top.
While it is most commonly made into a pie, bakers throughout Lancaster County add mincemeat to coffee cake, cookies and fruit cake, too. They stuff it into apples and even make it with green tomatoes. And it’s still a staple during the holidays.
“It’s not Christmas without mincemeat pie,” says Larry Snyder of Willow Street.
When the Colemanville church’s ladies aid group made mincemeat pies for the first time in 1934, the profits from its effort went to pay the pastors and maintain the church building.
“They had more time than they did money,” says Betty Johnson, who heads the church’s mincemeat pie bake.
They made a whopping $51 that first year.
These days, the pie bake brings in more than $10,000 for the church. Pie orders peaked a few years ago, and since then the numbers have gone down as mincemeat fans die, decide to cut the sugar-bomb meat pie out of their diets or simply can’t make it to the church to pick one up.
“And the young people don’t eat them,” says Johnson, who lives in Willow Street.
There are still enough mincemeat fans, however, who braved the snowy roads last week to pick up close to 2,000 pies over two days.
Fans say they like the flavor, the spices and how it reminds them of something grandma used to make for the holidays.
Before refrigeration, making mincemeat was a way to not waste leftover scraps of meat and preserve them through the winter. Beef and venison are the most common meats found, but
recipes from the 1400s call for hares, pheasants, pigeons and partridges.
“Nothing was wasted back then,” says Dennis Rankin, of Millersville. “They used everything. ‘We’ll throw it all into a pie.’ ”
The meat was minced and then mixed with spices, fruit (raisins and apples) and fat (usually suet).
Adding alcohol, as some do, adds flavor and helps preserve the mincemeat.
Mincemeat, like scrapple, used to be a common byproduct of home butchering. In Lancaster County, you can still find homemade mincemeat at commercial butchers such as Groff’s Meats in Elizabethtown.
Groff’s has made its own mincemeat for about 50 years. Before that, the butcher had bought the seasonal treat from a Harrisburg-area company, Mummau’s, for decades. When the owner of Mummau’s retired, Groff’s bought his recipe and equipment to keep the mincemeat in stock, says Nancy Groff, secretary/treasurer.
Why go through the trouble?
“It’s a good product, and we sold a lot of it,” Groff says.
Staff start mixing batches of mincemeat in October and continue through the end of the year, selling 28-and 36-ounce packages. They also sell 35-gallon buckets of it to bakeries across the country.
By the time the last batches are shipped in February, Groff’s will have gone through close to 30,000 pounds of mincemeat.
Groff’s mincemeat recipe is a secret, but the Colemanville pie bakers are quick to share their recipe.
They start in August by pickling more than 23 gallons of watermelon rind and even more spiced cantaloupe rind.
“It smells amazing,” says Heidi Bianco, of Martic Township, who helps with the pickling and at the pie bake.
In October, orders for pies trickle in, and the week before Thanksgiving dozens of volunteers show up to grind apples, cook raisins in the pickling juices and start mixing pie dough.
Thursday is the big day, and it starts in the early hours. Not even the November snowstorm stopped them this year.
There are mincemeat-makers, dough-rollers, pie-fillers, crust- crimpers and pie-bakers. There are people who roll the hot pies around the basement in tall carts with bike horns on the side. There are pie-counters, pie-baggers, car-loaders and money-takers.
Some are longtime church members, but for others the pie bake is their only connection to the church.
Sam McCleaf and Larry Snyder, both from Willow Street, ordered a few pies a few years ago. When they picked them up, they liked the camaraderie almost as much as the pies. They signed up to help, and now they understand just how grandmother made those pies at Christmastime.