Step aside, pumpkins. Green mincemeat's here

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

By JEANETTE RUNDQUIST
STAR-LEDGER STAFF

Mincemeat pie has always been like the shy cousin at the Thanksgiving table: Everyone's happy he's there, but they pay more attention to another.

Mincemeat stacks up against pumpkin pie much the same way. Canned pumpkin outsold mincemeat more than 10-to-1 during the last Thanksgiving week, according to a study on holiday food sales by a national marketing research firm.

But a new mincemeat, cooked up in a carriage house in Hunterdon County and given recognition by a top gourmet organization, may make a dent in pumpkin pie's dominance.

"It's surprising how many people say, 'Oh, my mother used to make that.' It stirs up food memories," said Ed Simpson, owner of Muirhead of Ringoes, a specialty food company that began selling green tomato mincemeat this year. "We might resurrect the mincemeat approach."

Mincemeat pie wasn't served at the first Thanksgiving. The spicy-sweet mixture of fruit and meat dates back to medieval days, but the Pilgrims had no sugar and little fruit on hand in the New World, so they served pumpkin pudding instead.

Pumpkin pie is more popular nowadays, too. U.S. shoppers bought $10.3 million worth of canned pumpkin during Thanksgiving week last year, compared with $907,151 of mincemeat, according to ACNielsen U.S., a marketing research firm. Pumpkin sales rose the past few years, while mincemeat dropped.

But green tomato mincemeat may be poised to make a mark. Muirhead's was one of seven "best new product" finalists at the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade's Fancy Food Show in New York this year, sort of the Academy Awards of the gourmet world. "It adds new interest to an old item," Simpson said.

Muirhead's mincemeat is vegetarian, mixing green tomatoes, instead of meat, with apples, raisins and spices. And instead of being made in Grandma's kitchen, it's sold online, at $5.90 for a 14-ounce jar, plus shipping and handling.

Ed Simpson, shown with daughter Barbara, holds a jar of green tomato mincemeat. The mixture made by his company, Muirhead of Ringoes, was one of seven "best new product" finalists at the national Fancy Food Show in New York this year.
  Simpson and his wife, Doris, began making salad dressings and sauces when they opened a restaurant in an old farmhouse in Raritan Township in 1974. "Over the years, people would ask for something to go home," he said. They eventually closed the restaurant to focus on the sales business, based in a carriage house on the property. Green tomato mincemeat - theirs is not the only such recipe, but may be one of few sold in jars - grew from a conversation about tomatoes. "It's a natural, in that New Jersey is the tomato state," Simpson said. "It's kind of a classic for Thanksgiving season."

Temple University Associate Professor Thomas Shipley, who teaches courses on the psychology of food, said mincemeat could stir nostalgia. "Comfort foods are typically served during the holidays, and Thanksgiving is one example. The smell and flavors show strong emotional links," he said. "If somebody as a child ate mincemeat, they would be attracted to the opportunity to buy it now."

Nancy Lavin of Raritan Township last tried it as a child.

"I probably tasted it, and said I'd like pumpkin," she said. This year, she'll celebrate Thanksgiving with vegetarian friends, and said she'd like to bring green tomato mincemeat. "I would try it, just for fun," she said. Not unexpectedly, Thanksgiving week is boom time for pumpkin and mincemeat sales. Only about $85,000 in canned mincemeat was sold nationally in an average week last year, compared with the $907,000 Thanksgiving week, the study said. (For the record, Syracuse residents bought the most mincemeat per capita.)

Todd Hale, senior vice president of ACNielsen Consumer Insights, said the findings "highlight an opportunity for consumer packaged goods' marketers to extend consumers' use of such seasonal items to other times of year." Muirhead's Web site includes nine green tomato mincemeat recipes, from baking it in oatmeal cookies or cheesecake, to using it on pork chops. "We suggest taking sliced deli ham and putting mincemeat on it, then rolling it up and slicing off one-inch pieces, as a finger food for a cocktail party," Simpson said.

The company also has a tie-in with pumpkin. Muirhead also sells a pecan pumpkin butter - it's available through Williams-Sonoma - and has a recipe for a green-tomato mincemeat/pumpkin pie combo.

"For Thanksgiving, it's like two pies in one slice," Simpson said.

Copyright 2004 The Star-Ledger. Used by NJ.com with permission.