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Pie•ology: A Full Filling Story

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

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

Illustration from Kate Greenaway’s A apple pie (1900)

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.

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.

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) .

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 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.

 

5 Comments

  1. Sharon M.
    November 19, 2011 at 11:07 am

    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. Gulya
    November 21, 2011 at 10:18 am

    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. Emily
    December 21, 2012 at 7:44 pm

    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. Larry Cole
    November 22, 2014 at 11:46 am

    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.

  5. Jennifer Harbster
    November 25, 2014 at 10:49 am

    @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.” http://www.bl.uk/learning/langlit/texts/cook/1600s2/birdh/birds.html 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 http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/texts/cooks/transcript852.html

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