Like fruitcake, mincemeat pies have a bit of a bad reputation, although I think it's unwarranted. Last year's Christmas dinner culminated in a dense slice of mincemeat pie drizzled with hard sauce and this year at Thanksgiving, my aunt brought her version of my grandmother's mincemeat pie recipe.
Opinion differs on how and why exactly mincemeat was originally created. Some people claim that in the Middle ages, mincemeat was a way of preserving meat without the use of salt, using instead alcohol, fruit and spices. Others insist that it was more out of frugality that the fruits were added, in order to stretch a small amount of meat further. Either way, over the centuries, the meat became a less crucial element in favor of more fruits and the dish went from being a savory main course to a sweet dessert.
Today mincemeat is typically made from a combination of apples, nuts, dried fruits like cherries, currants, sultanas and raisins, citrus peel, and a blend of spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Some recipes include brandy and/or rum. Classically, mincemeat also includes beef suet. Suet, for those who don't know, is raw beef fat that is found around the loin area or the kidneys. Most jarred mincemeat that is available in grocery stores, however, does not use suet. Instead, they often use vegetable fat.
You can make mincemeat at home, although it's widely available at supermarkets around the holidays. In addition to the obvious pie, mincemeat can be used in cakes, little individual tartlets, muffins, and sticky buns. There are recipes out there for mincemeat soufflés and even mincemeat ice cream.