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Illustration of six cookies on a drying rack sitting next to a jar of mincemeat and a photo of a man and little girl. Tilda Rose

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The Sweet Solace of Grief Baking

Mincemeat has a storied place on Black American holiday tables. It took losing my dad to make it to mine.

That holiday season, as my preschooler approached winter break, it dawned on me that we hadn’t yet made cookies for Christmas. I settled in on our apartment floor and sifted through my collection of cookbooks, dog-earing recipes: Cheryl Day’s double chocolate, peanut butter, and ginger cookies; Edna Lewis’s butter and cutout sugar cookies; and Freda DeKnight’s orange walnut cookies. We made them in double, sometimes triple batches, and by the end of my son’s first week of break, we’d baked hundreds of holiday cookies — a household record in both quantity and variety.

One night after putting my infant daughter down, I paused and asked my husband if he thought I was okay. “You’re doing good, my love,” he said while holding me. We both knew that I was grief-baking, coping in a holiday season that collided with the one-year anniversary of my dad’s passing. Baking was me making sweet in the bitter.

Those cookies did a lot of heavy lifting that year. My apologies to anyone who received an assortment under the guise of “holiday” cookies when in actuality they were “I need to keep my toddler entertained while my baby naps; I’m still trying to be a good mother even as I grieve the loss of my dad” cookies, drizzled with a layer of “year-two pandemic.”

By leaning on that small group of Black women, studying their cookbooks for recipes that could become traditions stitched into the fabric of my young family, I was guided by the wisdom of their instructions (chilling dough overnight really does make for a better cookie), and in communion with their stories. In her 1999 book B. Smith: Rituals & Celebrations, the author and restaurateur includes a series of vibrant vignettes that offer a glimpse of her family’s celebratory traditions. Smith’s chapter about Christmas describes her favorite cookie expertly made by her dad, who had been crowned the family’s holiday cookie maker. “My dad had a traditional repertoire for his Christmas bake-off: oatmeal cookies, sugar cookies, chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter cookies, and my absolute favorite — mincemeat cookies. I remember sitting near the oven, willing that first batch to come out.”

I’d never tasted or even considered the boozy, spiced mixture of mincemeat before, but Smith’s headnote conjured up a dad-and-daughter moment that soothed me even as I longed for it. And in a moment when every inch of kitchen countertop was already covered in cookies and the necessary accoutrements scattered about, Smith had sold me: I was craving mincemeat.

Pegged to Christmas by way of pies and tarts, mincemeat is a mainstay of British cuisine, though the classic combination is rooted in Western Asia and North African cookery and predates mince. Historically, key ingredients of mincemeat were finely chopped pieces of meat such as beef or lamb, layered with suet (the fat trimmed from around a cow’s kidney), along with fruit, liquor, cloves, and other spices indigenous to South Asia. Components were packed into vessels and preserved on a shelf in a larder. Later covered in pastry dough, the resulting dish was savory, turning sweeter over time and through travel. But while the meat in mince fell by the wayside in the U.K., likely sometime in the 19th century, it seems to have held on much longer in the U.S. and eventually became a fixture in Black American foodways.

Readied mincemeat heralds the autumn season in Langston Hughes’s 1921 poem: “When the pantry jars are full of mince-meat and the shelves are laden with sweet-spices for a cake…,” Hughes wrote, illustrating how mincemeat stateside had broken out of its Christmastime mold to become an anticipated fall and winter staple preserve in many homes.

Decades later in Chicago, at the storied Ebony magazine headquarters just blocks away from my cookie-filled apartment, the magazine’s first food editor, Freda DeKnight, proved central to illuminating and sustaining the tradition of mince in Black foodways, even as the dessert lost steam nationally. In 1946, she ran a Thanksgiving edition of her food column, “Date With a Dish,” and appealed directly to home cooks: “Though all of us have seen mince pie on November tables since childhood days, it is usually messy to serve. Individual mincemeat tarts taste just as good, and have more eye appeal to turkey-satiated folks sipping after-dinner coffee.” DeKnight’s work reached Black American families of the era, not only in the agriculturally rich Midwest but nationwide, through her Ebony column and the cookbook it later became, which featured “Ebony’s Special Mince Meat,” a decadent recipe that calls for ground beef and a hefty pound of suet in addition to one cup of honey and one cup of brown sugar.

In the mid-1970s, Edna Lewis shared her recipe for mincemeat and mince pie in The Taste of Country Cooking. She writes about preparing mincemeat with bottom round beef and veal suet, conserving it in stoneware as part of her seasonal food preservation system, or putting-up ritual, occurring about a month before Christmas. By the release of her third cookbook in 1988, Lewis had traded mincemeat pies for tarts doused with either rum or brandy butter (both are mentioned in Lewis’s recipe). In In Pursuit of Flavor she wrote, “The idea for adding rum butter to the tarts was given to me by an English lady who so liked the mincemeat in The Taste of Country Cooking she kindly wrote to me saying mine was the first recipe she had seen in a long time that actually used meat.”

Smith’s cookie recipe calls for “two cups of mincemeat,” and that’s it. No details on her mince preferences are provided. And there’s no subrecipe either. Smith entirely lets us take the wheel. So I made a quick mincemeat that year using whatever dried fruit I had on hand and not a single speck of meat. The cookies, soft with jewels of fruit strewn throughout like a panettone, were delicious. But the “real” stuff still crossed my mind.

Last year I waffled about making old-school mincemeat long enough that I missed my window for it to fully preserve as indicated in recipes. This year, around the end of summer, I was compelled by a declaration that felt more like a call to action. “If I have felt one great, sorrowful loss in the evolution of Midwestern foodways, it is undoubtedly mince pie,” wrote Paul Fehribach in his book Midwestern Food. The longtime mince-pie devotee, chef-owner of Big Jones in Chicago favors “A Very Good Mince” from The Kentucky Housewife, which calls for beef heart, veal, and suet. The recipe was first published in 1839 and is attributed to Lettice Bryan, though many scholars believe much of the cookbook was developed by enslaved and/or formerly enslaved Africans. In his book, Fehribach recounts his mince journey, from repugnance at his first bite of mincemeat pie as a young man in the Midwest to a deep appreciation years later that culminated in serving the pie at his 2016 James Beard House dinner.

Seeing mincemeat through the lens of my Black and Midwestern identity brought it close to home. Over the summer, my family and I planted and nurtured a vegetable garden that I fully engaged with — hand-pollinating globe eggplant, infusing and garnishing made-from-scratch layer cakes with lavender and other freshly picked botanicals. I made entire meals from our harvest. And as we dried herbs, turned cucumbers into garlicky turmeric pickles, and grated tomatoes to store in the freezer, I developed a deeper appreciation for preservation as a purposeful commemoration that holds gratitude for an ephemeral season. Mincemeat cookies were the natural next step.

Meat cookies?!” screeched my son, now a kindergartener, upon learning what I was making. His reaction would have been my dad’s exact response. My dad enjoyed a good meal, but he happily stayed in his lane. He’d respond to any jestering by me or my brother about things like his affinity for, ahem, French dressing, in all its gloppy orange glory, with a warm smize and a resolute “I like what I like.” It’s been three years, and a brush past the salad dressing aisle still triggers me to tears.

Lewis was my compass yet again as I prepared mincemeat using her recipe from Taste. Sourcing suet can be a challenge, but I was able to acquire it from my local butcher, who was curious about my antiquated request and gave me a very succinct “ah” after I told him that it was for mincemeat. Before letting the mixture cure, I boiled the beef, amusing myself by thinking how only SNL’s Lisa from Temecula would like this meat. After the necessary mincing, I covered everything with enough brandy, rum, and Madeira to keep the mince shelf-stable for two lifetimes. When I lifted the lid weeks later, meat and fruit bobbled in booze (it’s best not to stare at it too long). I scooped out the necessary amount of mince and plopped it into Smith’s cookie dough, along with the called-for walnuts.

A cookie is an ingenious vehicle for mincemeat. There’s less commitment than with a pie and a nice amount of cookie buffer for all the mincemeat chunks — the ratio is ideal. Honestly, the beef added only texture to the cookie; they weren’t savory or beefy at all. My kids tried the “meat cookies” and wanted more. This is how I would have attempted to convince my dad, who would have listened to my spiel then absolutely not tried the cookie. But he would have been proud of my efforts.

Smith’s recipe is a launchpad of ideas for mince — I’m already thinking of making mince pancakes over the holidays, or maybe swirling a dollop of mince into my weekday oatmeal. Mincemeat has always been in motion, evolving with every maker’s interpretation and preference. It no longer requires any animal bits, nor does it need to be preserved for weeks; mince can be cooked and placed briefly in the fridge (perhaps alongside cookie dough) or even the freezer. Maybe the most inspiring mince recipe that I’ve seen comes from the 1978 cookbook Spoonbread and Strawberry Wine, where its authors, sisters Norma Jean and Carole Darden, offer “Lucy’s Mincemeat Pie Filling,” a vegan and nonalcoholic variation that has equal parts green apple and green tomato.

I decided to make a second batch of mince, my own recipe, downloading Christmas nostalgia with dashes of cardamom and other warming spices, minced Midwestern apples and pears, a mix of dried fruits like cherries and dates, and maple syrup. The rush of holiday goodness drew my family into the kitchen, where we devoured the still-warm first batch together. He would have liked that one.

Recipe: A Mincemeat Recipe for My Father >>

Angela Burke is a freelance food writer based in Chicago.
Tilda Rose is a Finnish American artist and illustrator working in editorial and children’s books.
Copy edited by CB Owens