by Doctor Science
Mister Doctor Science has been re-reading rip-roarin' yarns of the public domain at Project Gutenberg, and just got to Skylark Three, one of E.E. "Doc" Smith's early and defining space operas. Sample paragraph, as hero Dick Seaton watches a man from an advanced, alien civilization build a complex control device:
"Whew! That looks like the combined mince-pie nightmares of a whole flock of linotype operators, pipe-organists, and hard-boiled radio hams!" exclaimed Seaton when the installation was complete. "Now that you've got it, what are you going to do with it?""Mince-pie nightmares?" said Mister Doctor. "What are those?" -- and I will now share with you the results of his research, and my scientific speculation.
It starts with the research of Chicago journalist Cliff Doerksen, who sadly passed away in 2010, not long after he won a James Beard Award for his article about The Real American Pie. And that pie was mince:
to its 19th- and early-20th-century admirers, mince pie was "unquestionably the monarch of pies," "the great American viand," "an American institution" and "as American as the Red Indians." It was the food expatriates longed for while sojourning abroad. Acquiring an appreciation for it was proof that an immigrant was becoming assimilated. It was the indispensable comfort dish dispatched to American expeditionary forces in World War I to reinforce their morale with the taste of home.
This "real, American" mince pie wasn't what's currently served under that name, highly-spiced dried fruits spiked with brandy. The original mincemeat was actual meat (beef or venison), mixed with beef fat and sugar, then spiced and spiked. As Wikipedia says,
In the mid to late eighteenth century, mincemeat in Europe had become associated with old fashioned, rural, or homely foods.But in America it continued to be broadly popular, not just a holiday treat, until around World War II.
Most remarkably, mince pie achieved and maintained its hegemony despite the fact that everyone—including those who loved it—agreed that it reliably caused indigestion, provoked nightmares, and commonly afflicted the overindulgent with disordered thinking, hallucinations, and sometimes death.From indigestion (quite believable, given the ingredients) to nightmares is a short, logical trip, so it's easy to see why "mince-pie nightmare" was a widely-understood phrase.
But "disordered thinking, hallucinations, and death"!?!? Where did *that* come from? Partly from mince-pie nightmares, leading to the "mince pie defense":
Consider the case of Albert Allen of Chicago, arrested in 1907 for shooting his wife in the head. "It was this way," Allen was quoted as saying by the Trenton Times, "I ate three pieces of mince pie at 11 o'clock and got to dreaming that I was shaking dice. The other fellow was cheating and I tried to shoot his fingers off. When I awoke, I was holding the pistol in my hand and my wife was shot."There's also the question of the alcohol. Doerksen found that the "culinary exemption" from Prohibition was successfully argued because of the need for alcohol in mincemeat -- or vice versa:
in 1919 the Chicago Tribune reported that the average alcohol content of canned mince samples on display at a trade show for the hotel business had spiked to 14.12 percentBut there's another factor, mentioned by commenter "bmy" to Doerksen's article. Traditional mincemeat contains a lot of nutmeg, which can be a hallucinogen (causing nightmares, for instance) -- and which would be extracted by hot oil or fat. Normally, you'd have to take a larger-than-culinary dose to see an effect, but I know someone who got nutmeg poisoning (delirium, horrible headaches) from a quiche -- because it hadn't been properly blended, so all the nutmeg from the batch ended up in her slice.
In addition to the possibility of similar mistakes, I just realized something. Nutmeg's active ingredient, myristicin, is a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor, or MAOI. As medications, MAOIs are used as anti-depressants, but very cautiously -- because they have dangerous interactions with certain foods, drinks, and other drugs.
I happen to know this because at one point, around 20 years ago, I was taking an MAOI for depression, and had to be really scrupulous about a lot of things -- and still had a trip to the ER, when I was mistakenly prescribed an antihistamine. Fortunately, I was a lot younger then, and the MAOI had lowered my blood pressure to 110/70 -- so when it suddenly doubled to 220/140 I didn't die. I do not recommend the experience. But a milder reaction might have just been a slight rise in blood pressure, causing a feeling of energy -- or agitation and anxiety, depending.
Among the foods MAOIs interact with are "colored" alcohols -- red wine, whiskey, dark rum, etc. -- and fermented or cured meat products. Traditional mince was basically a way to preserve meat without refrigeration, and it was supposed to sit and "cure" for a couple of weeks, at least, before serving.
I now wonder if mince pie's dicey reputation was due to nutmeg extract, both on its own and also interacting with the cured meat and alcohol in the mincemeat. An extremely variable set of possible psychoactive substances might be produced, depending on the quality and quantity of the nutmeg (or mace -- which is cheaper, sometimes stronger-tasting, and has more active compounds), the way the meat was handled, what kind of alcohol was used, and the storage conditions.
No wonder the San Francisco Chronicle recipe Doerksen tested was headlined, "Harmless Mince Pies: They Are Said to Be Hygienic and Safe to Eat." A person could use some reassurance, with a foodstuff like that.