Top of page

Illustration from the cover of A apple pie by Kate Greenaway (1900)
From the cover of A apple pie by Kate Greenaway (1900)

Pie•ology: A Full Filling Story

Share this post:

Pie season is upon us and I predict that you will be making or buying a pie sometime in the near future. There is something about this delectable dish that provokes childhood memories and many of us have no qualms about stating our opinion on what constitutes the best pie. When I think of pie, I remember my mother making me my very own chocolate cream pie every Thanksgiving because I do not like pumpkin pie ( I know this is sacrilegious).

The A-Z of Food and Drink (2002) suggests that the word pie (pye) first appeared in English in the early fourteenth century, and by the middle of the century it became commonplace.  In 1378, Richard II issued an ordinance controlling pie prices in London. Even Geoffrey Chaucer mentions pie in the Cook’s Tale of his Canterbury Tales:

And he could roast and seethe and broil and fry
And make a good thick soup, and bake a pie

There have been debates on the definition of pie, especially between the United Kingdom and the United States. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2008) defines pie simply as “a baked dish of savory or sweet ingredients encased in or topped with pastry.” The Oxford American Dictionary of Current English (1999) defines pie as a baked dish of fruit, meat, custard, etc., usu. with a top and base of pastry or anything resembling a pie in form (a mud pie).”  Those of us in the United States use the word ‘pie’ rather loosely to describe an open or closed (crust on top) baked dish. However, the British distinguish an open faced pie (typically filled with fruit, preserves or custard) as a tart.

Illustration of the letter E for Eat It  from Kate Greenaway's A apple pie (1900)
Illustration from Kate Greenaway’s A apple pie (1900)

The variety and types of pies available for our eating pleasure is overwhelming.  Not only do we have the traditional savory meat pies and the sweet dessert pies, but we also have pocket pies. These handheld pies are made by folding the dough over a filling and baking. We commonly know these pocket pies as pasties, turnovers, empanadas, and calzones.

The history of the pie has its roots in ancient Egypt and Greece. The ancient Greeks ate pie (artocreas), though it was of the savory type with meat in an open pastry shell. The Romans may have been the first to create a pie that included a top and bottom crust. The 2nd Century (BCE) recipe for placenta (flat cake) in De Agri Cultura by Marcus Porcius Cato (Cato the Elder) may be one of the earliest recipes for a closed pie. According to various translations, it was made by encasing a sweet thick filling of goat cheese, honey, and layers of pastry dough (tracta) with a bottom and top crust.

The increased popularity of the sweet fruit pie or tart is often credited to the folks of 16th century England. Elizabeth I was known to be fond of cherry pie. You can find recipes for fruit pies (tarts) containing cheryes (cherries) and strawberyes (strawberries) in a  Proper Newe Booke of Cokerye (1575). The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570) also contains numerous recipes for both meat and fruit crostate (pie/tart) in a chapter devoted to pastry.

Drawing features two jesters one holding a knife the other a fork while blackbirds fly out of pie
From The Song of Sixpence Picture Book (1909)

Many of you might be familiar with the nursery rhyme:

Sing a Song of Sixpence

A Pocket Full of Rye

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

Baked in a Pie

When the Pie was opened the Birds Began to Sing

Wasn’t that a Dainty Dish to set before the King

I thought this was simply a  nursery rhyme:  how could one bake living birds in a pie? I discovered that royalty and the upper class, as a way to impress guests, would order their cooks to create elaborate pies which contained living animals. The recipe for Live Birds in a Pie from the Accomplisht Cook (1671) is a later example of such a recipe that contained both live birds and frogs.

By the 17th century, sweet pie and tarts had become commonplace. Browsing the cookbooks of the day you will find entire chapters dedicated to these dishes. For example, the 1694 edition of The Compleat Cook: or, the Whole Art of Cookery contains a chapter devoted to “Tarts of all lozts.” Likewise,  a chapter on “All manners of tarts” appears in William Rabisha’s The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected (1682) .

Photo of a sideboard table with pies while the reflection of a family eating is reflected on the mirror above
Pumpkin pies and Thanksgiving dinner (FSA/OWI Collection, 1940)

Colonial America was no stranger to making pies. As the country grew, so did the cook’s access to sweeteners such as maple syrup, cane sugar, molasses and honey (the Dutch and English imported honey bees to the U.S.). Early settlers made pumpkin, apple, pear, quince, and blueberry pie. Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery (1796), the first American cookbook, contains a recipe for “Pompkin Pudding,” that is baked in a crust. This is one of the first recipes for the classic American pumpkin pie.

New England became known as the “pie belt” and rightfully so.  Pies were a staple in New England households and it was not uncommon to serve pie for breakfast. As the country moved west, new ingredients surfaced and regional specialties appeared.

The Northern states became known for pumpkin pies, the Midwest for its cream and cheese pies, the Upper Plains were inspired by Swedish tart berry pies, the Southwest produced nut pies from the native pecan and walnut trees, the Pennsylvania Dutch gave us the shoofly pie, Florida’s claim to fame became the key-lime pie, Kentucky celebrated the chess pie and below the Mason-Dixon line the sweet potato pie reigned king.

By the mid 19th century we see the use of rhubarb, also known as pie plant. There are three recipes for pie plant in the Good Cheer Cook Book (Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, 1899). The 76: A Cook Book, ed. by the ladies of Plymouth church, Des Moines, Iowa (1876) showcases the variety of pie recipes available, such as coconut, cream, custard, lemon, and even a vinegar pie.

Illustration of the letter L for Longed for it from Kate Greenaway's A apple pie (1900)
Illustration from Kate Greenaway’s A apple pie (1900)

A halt came to pie’s popularity in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century due to the health movement. In fact pie was condemned. Articles written by Sarah Tyson Rorer, such as “Why I have no cakes and pies on my table” (1905) and “Why I oppose pies” (1900), appeared in Ladies Home Journal.  In these articles Mrs. Rorer wrote that “the inside of a pie is injurious” and “pies and cakes are indigestible.”

By the mid 20th century instant pudding mixes, canned fruit, frozen and ready pie crusts simplified pie making. Also with the use of home refrigerators, chilled pie recipes, such as Black Bottom Pie, became increasingly popular. The rapidly growing  food industry contributed recipes for pies, incorporating products such as Coca-Cola, Oreos, potato chips and Ritz crackers.  Today we are rediscovering our pie heritage and getting back to the basics of pie making. Many of us are seeking old family recipes so we can make pie just like grandma used to make.

Everyone has a pie story and we would love it if you shared yours with us.

This blog post would not be possible without the assistance of our culinary specialist Allison Kelly, who found me wonderful recipes to use in this post. I also wish to thank my brilliant boyfriend for suggesting the title, Pie·ology: A Full Filling Story, for this post.


Comments (8)

  1. What a hoot! Of COURSE they didn’t bake the birds! But now we all know how they did it.
    A delightful post. Keep ’em coming!

  2. A very enlightening post. I had no idea there was some truth to the nursery rhyme I’ve been singing to my kids! Thoroughly enjoyed the pie history. Thank you, Jennifer and Allison.

  3. Pies are my favorite dessert. Enjoyed learning more about their origin and uses. The excesses the rich and powerful will do to prove they are just so silly and useless to those of us who have real work to do.

  4. I would like to see a complete recipe for 4 and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie (alive). That would be worse than herding cats. How would they get that many blackbirds or even 4 live blackbirds in a pie without using something to at least put them to sleep first.

    • @Larry. @ Larry. The word ostentatious comes to mind when imagining pies that contain live animals. According to the British Library, the Accomplisht Cook (1671) “describes a number of spectacular dishes designed to be served at grand banquets. They include an exploding pastry ship with flags, streamers and guns; a bleeding pastry stag filled with claret; and a pie containing live frogs and birds. In the latter, May describes how the live animals will hop and fly from the pie, thus putting out the candles, and causing the ladies to skip and shriek.” To accomplish this theatrical display you add the live animals (frogs and birds) after the pie is baked and, I imagine, ready to serve. Holes are made in the bottom of the pie to add the frogs and birds, the holes are then closed up with paste

  5. Hey… never thought much one way or another about pies. Loved them, but was raised pretty much on store-bought varieties. Diagnosed with diabetes (type 2) and thought that was the end of my pie days (while raging and screaming internally) until I entered this health and wellness program… and decided to take up the challenge of finding and making a pie I could eat!

    I knew no one else was going to provide me with dessert at Thanksgiving dinner that wouldn’t shoot my blood sugars through the roof… and guess what?? Practice run a success! Everyone that tried it loved it, and it being the first time I’d made anything pie-related.

    It has an almond flour crust (less carbs, more protein) and a sweetener called Erythritol which acts and tastes like regular sugar in any baking instance. Also, I used the Libby’s recipe that uses evaporated milk, not sweetened condensed milk. On the plus side? I was able to share with my friend who’s gluten intolerant as well 😀

  6. My mom had a pie pan the she told me came with the store bought pie (the pan could be reused, it was a real pie pan made of metal). When were these available (years) and by what companies?

    • I have seen that Mrs. Smith’s Mellow Rich Pie definitely came in a pie tin but it is harder to track down the manufacturer if that particular pie tin since is wasn’t likely Mrs. Smiths. I do know that Jacob Bromwell has been making them for 200 years but theirs may have been purchased directly by from a store. Ovenex was another they made the Starburst as well as other things but theirs also look like they were what you would deliberately go out and purchase. I also saw others with the embossing but it was for the pie company not the manufacturer itself; it could be that they just outsourced it to a local tinsmith. Below are a few examples.
      Geo RB&P
      Mrs. Robbinson’s Fine Restaurant pies
      New England Flakey Crust Pie
      Case Moody Pies
      Pauls Pies
      Pies by Fasano
      Pittsburg Purity Pie Co
      Crusty Pie Co
      Mrs. Wagner’s

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.

Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.