by Jennifer Scerra
Have you ever tried mint jelly? I hadn’t until this week. I asked around and no one in my random sample of people had ever tasted it either, though most had at least heard of it, seen it, or read about it.
The recipe is not itself terribly exciting. It’s basically apple jelly, dyed an unnatural emerald color, with mint flavoring added. It’s translucent. It’s green. It sounds weird. Does it taste weird? Like mint Jell-O? That sounds weird.
And what do you even do with mint jelly? Put it on lamb? We don’t cook a lot of that in Southern California anymore. And if you are not putting it on lamb, is there another option? Can you eat it with peanut butter? Does it go on toast? Can you make fingerprint cookies or jelly donuts with it?
Mint jelly is the most mundane sort of enigma. So why even think about it?
The short answer is: the Homestead is hosting a virtual program next week featuring a historic Thanksgiving menu and mint jelly showed up in one of the recipes.
The slightly longer answer is: mint jelly, for all that it is forgotten now, was once a very popular and fancy condiment, with a long history tied to an industry that hardly exists anymore in the United States.
And that’s worth digging into, right?
Lamb with Mint Jelly
The history of mint jelly is tied intimately with the history of lamb consumption. There have been a number of different mint sauces historically popular throughout the world and one version, a mint and vinegar sauce, was commonly eaten on lamb and mutton in England at least since the 19th century. Some European settlers who were familiar with mutton and mint sauce brought the recipe to North America, along with the domesticated sheep and the spearmint necessary to make it. And as the sheep industry grew, the custom of eating it with mint sauce established itself in American culture.
Though no one seems to know exactly why or when, at some point Americans traded their mint sauce for a mint jelly. When doing research on historic foods, it can be very helpful to look at old newspapers for clues about when, how often, and in what way foods were written about. The oldest example of a mint jelly that I found in a Southern California newspaper came in 1905. Before that, all lamb and mint recipes I saw were for the older British style vinegar mint sauce.
Though standard mint jellies today are sweet and have a jammy spreadable consistency, the oldest mint jellies were quirkier and more varied. Many were made with gelatin, and they often called for lamb broth as the liquid or vinegar for flavoring. Some had lemon added. A few had “a little sugar.” They were sometimes referred to as aspics or savory gelatin. And the recipes often described setting the gelatin in a mold and then displaying it, or cutting flat sheets of the jelly into small attractive cubes that could be spooned on top of something.
Within a decade of their first appearance, however, the recipes standardized, and mint jelly settled into its place as a sweet fruit spread that was flavored with steeped mint or mint extract. By the 1920s references to mint jelly in printed newspapers peaked for the first time (references peak a second time in the late 1960s before plummeting). The condiment had an aura of fanciness and was included on menus for hotel restaurants, and suggested for parties, Sundays, and holidays. Canning and preserving food was increasingly popular in the early 1900s and home cooks took up the challenge with recipes in food columns and cookbooks. It was a wonderful time to be mint jelly.
So, what happened then to this food which used to be so beloved? The answer to its fall is the same as its rise—the consumption of lamb.
Though we eat a great deal of meat per capita in the United States, lamb is a decreasing percentage of it. Surprisingly, given how the human population has grown, the number of sheep in the United States peaked way back in the 1880s with a total of around 51 million sheep. Today that number is at 5.2 million sheep and not all of those are used for meat. This means that the average American eats less than a pound of lamb a year (it was around 5 pounds as recently as the 1960s) and half of all people in the United States have never eaten lamb at all. Most of the lamb that is eaten is consumed by a small percentage of immigrants from countries with strong lamb/mutton eating culture.
And where does that leave mint jelly? Out cold.
Which is a shame really, because once I got over my squeamishness, mint jelly really quite lovely.
The recipe listed here is from Ola Powell Malcolm’s 1930 edition of Successful Canning and Preserving. It is always a delight to cook out of this book and this recipe was no exception.
1 cup mint leaves (chopped finely and packed tightly)
1 cup apple juice
¾ cup sugar
1 cup boiling water
Pour boiling water over the clean mint leaves, cover, and allow to steep for one hour. Press the juice from the leaves and add two tablespoons of this extract to the sugar and apple juice. Boil until the jelly test is obtained, or about 222° Fahrenheit, and then add green coloring. If fresh mint is not convenient to use, add two drops of oil of peppermint just before removing the finished jelly from the fire. Pour into hot glasses.
I wasn’t sure if modern, pasteurized apple juice would set properly, so I ended up making my own from fresh apples. This involved boiling three pounds of chopped apples in five cups of water and draining the resulting liquid. Further research says store bought bottled apple juice probably would have worked just fine, but I give myself extra points for authenticity.
About setting the jelly: I used a cooking thermometer rather than attempting a jelly test. But if you do not have a thermometer or just feel like giving it a try, a quick google search will let you know how to test if your jelly is ready using the back of a spoon.
And what did my family think?
Kid 1: “Mmm. I want more, I want more!” *gives thumbs up sign*
Kid 2: “I like it. It’s kinda sweet.”
Adult 1: “Mmm, that’s tasty. Its better (than I thought it would be). I normally eat jelly on pancakes or peanut butter and jelly and I feel like it would be delicious on both. Its super sweet. Has a nice after taste. It tastes real. It doesn’t taste fake.”
Adult 2: “Ooh. Stronger than I was expecting…Minty…Appley…Delicious.”
Adult 3: “Not what I expected. The mint is really lovely and floral with the apple.”
Adult 4: “Its very minty. It’s very sweet. Like candy.”
We didn’t have any lamb handy to try it on, but pork would probably be yummy. Or a fruit salad like the one that I am making to accompany it for Sunday, November 15, 2020’s Everything but the Turkey program. You can join us then on Zoom as the Homestead staff tests an authentic 1920s Thanksgiving menu sans turkey.
So, what do you think? Is lamb and mint jelly poised for a comeback? Just the lamb? Just the mint jelly? Let us know. And we hope to see you on Sunday!
I was brought up in England eating lamb and mint sauce and I didn’t come across mint jelly until I came to the US in the early 60’s, so I was interested in your information on the history of mint jelly. In the US in the 60’s we often served an easy appetizer of cream cheese covered with jelly and served with crackers. I think that was usually a jalapeño jelly rather than mint jelly though.
I haven’t eaten a lot of lamb, but I suspect I would prefer the English style mint sauce–vinegar and mint sounds pretty lovely on meat. Jalapeno jelly though, is great!