It's the weekend between Christmas and New Year's Day, and thoughts turn to food.
My father and grandfather always insisted on mincemeat pie for the holidays. They're no longer with us, but my sister continues to make these pies, which have become almost impossible to find in restaurants and bakeries.
My mother, meanwhile, always ordered a fruitcake from the Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. I still order a cake for my family and another one for my sister. And enough already with the fruitcake jokes. The recipe for this fine fruitcake was brought to Texas from Wiesbaden, Germany, by a baker named Gus Weidmann in the 1800s. Weidmann and a business partner, Tom McElwee, built a thriving bakery at Corsicana.
The Collin Street Bakery website tells their story: "The shy perfectionist Gus Weidmann ran his little kitchen in this newly formed Collin Street Bakery and made ready for the busy Christmas seasons. At the same time, Tom McElwee was sending out letters, making sales trips and lining up an ever-growing list of bakery customers. They made a nice team and enjoyed such success that their once anonymous fruitcakes became a delicacy to be sought after by folks from every corner of the globe.
"In 1906, after outgrowing the original Collin Street Bakery in its 10th year, Tom and Gus put up a structure of such ambitious size that Tom was able to make its whole second floor into an elite private hotel. Only a flamboyant patron of the Corsicana Opera House could have pulled it off; one like Tom, who was accustomed to attracting the nation's best performers to this oil and rail center, home of the first two oil strikes west of the Mississippi. ... Tom formed instant friendships with the visiting celebrities and made sure that every guest who boarded the outbound train had an extra cake in his travel trunk."
As far as the mincemeat pie, my wife had never heard of such a thing until she met me. She's a Mexican American from south Texas, and tamales were the food item in her family that told you Christmas was approaching. The first time I asked her to buy a mincemeat pie for the holidays, I was met with a blank stare. Maybe the English roots on my father's side of the family caused me to like mincemeat so much.
Translated to modern English, here's a recipe from the 16th century: "Pie filling of mutton or beef must be finely minced and seasoned with pepper and salt and a little saffron to color it. Add a good quantity of suet or marrow, a little vinegar, prunes, raisins and dates. Put in the fattest of the broth of salted beef. And if you want royal pastry, take butter and egg yolks and combine them with flour."
King Henry V of England served mincemeat pie at his coronation in 1413. Oliver Cromwell considered Christmas a pagan holiday, and traditional mincemeat pie was reportedly banned for a time. King Charles II restored Christmas as a holiday when he ascended the throne in 1660, and mincemeat pie returned to England. It remains popular in former parts of the British Empire such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. By the 20th century, apples, raisins and candied citrus had replaced the meat.
Though it's not a part of our family's holiday menu, December never approaches without me thinking about the Helena oyster loaf. That's because I was a fan of Richard Allin, the Helena native who wrote columns for the Arkansas Gazette and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Allin, who died in October 2007 at age 77, would extol the virtues of the oyster loaf in print each December. His oyster loaf recipe called for slicing the top from what he described as a "long Pullman loaf" of bread, hollowing it out, brushing it with melted butter, toasting it and then filling it with fried oysters, lemon wedges, olives, ketchup and mustard pickles. The recipe for mustard pickles consists of cucumbers and onion pickled in a mustard sauce along with turmeric and celery seed.
"The tradition of eating the oyster loaf on Christmas Eve got started, in my family at least, many years ago when my grandfather would stop by an old Helena restaurant-delicatessen and pick up a couple of these specialties," Allin wrote. "In those days, that particular restaurant made its own bread, a type of which was the long Pullman loaf, named, I suppose, because it had the same dimensions as the railroad car. By the time I was invited into the family, it had become the practice to make the oyster loaf at home, although still using the restaurant's singular bread. ... The tradition of the oyster loaf perhaps came up the river from New Orleans." I received a call one year from Carol Allin, Richard's widow, after writing about the oyster loaf. She confessed: "I never much cared for the oyster loaf, but some of the Allin family members over in Mississippi still prepare it each Christmas."
According to Richard Allin, the oyster loaf "was known [in New Orleans] as the mediatrice, so named because it was frequently brought home by wayward husbands who wanted to make peace with their angry wives. In Helena, it was simply a seasonal food item. Other methods were used to restore family tranquility. By the time the oyster loaf had arrived in Helena from New Orleans, there had been changes in its structure."
Other holiday traditions in our family are grapefruit shipped from Florida, oranges from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, pecans from Alabama and country ham from Virginia. Let's eat.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 12/28/2019