P*I*E* - The Universal Constant
"I don't know. Let me think. Do I want pie? Am I even hungry? Oh, this is a hard decision. Maybe I should call the DUH, YES, I LOVE PIE ASSOCIATION!" — Cindy Callaghan, Lost in London
A piece of the pie, pie in the sky, sweetie pie, humble pie and yes - American as apple pie! Have you ever wondered how pie attained its rock star status in the culinary firmament?
The chefs at the Pot Pie Bar knew the broad strokes of the saga but were intrigued by what our subsequent deep dive unearthed. We hope you'll find it as interesting and fun as we did!
The Pies That Bind
It is comforting to know that no matter our superficial differences, pie is foundational - a universal constant. Its origins are so ancient as to be debated by food historians and Neolithic scholars. Pie, in one form or another, can be found in virtually every culture. From the savory to the sweet, pies serve as a catchment, inspiring cooks to use local foods and spices to create comfort foods that reflect the spirit of their regions. As delicious as the Szechuan Xian Bing, Tibet's Sha Balep or Kyrgyzstan's Oromo pies may be, we'll focus on the evolution of pies in the west and leave such worthy fare for another day
Bon Appetit's Cooking Nerdery explains:
"Pie" was the word for a magpie before it was a word for pastry, from the Latin word for the bird, "Pica" (Whence, the name of the disorder that makes you eat weird things). "Pica" morphed into "pie" in Old French, following the proud French tradition of actually pronouncing as few consonants as possible".
(Note: The Oxford English dictionary generally agrees but with far less flair).
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
It is believed that the first pies were created by Neolithic farmers in Egypt. They were formed from ground barley, rye or oats, filled with honey and baked over hot coals. The dough was crimped around the filling and cooked freeform - much like the Galette of today, except that the dough bowl was a container and not edible. The BBC reports that there are drawings of honey pies in Ramses ll's tomb. Nuts and fruits were gradually added over millennia.
The Greeks introduced meat fillings, creating the first savory pies in the west. Romans enthusiastically expanded on the theme, serving a variety of flaky-crusted savories and sweets at one meal. The Romans may have been the first to include a top crust. An interesting sampling of Roman fillings includes: eels, mussels, pork, cheese, prunes, olives and figs. As the Romans spread throughout Europe, it is probable that they brought their love of pies with them.
Medieval Europe: 1300-1600 AD
The first English pies were baked in "Cofyns" which were thick, inedible dough boxes. The tops were cracked on serving to access the steaming center. The contents were stewed - thickened by the flour leached from the dough. (They may not have called it a roux, but there you go). "Pyes" were a practical and simple way of preserving multiple foods in sturdy containers. These savories made ample use of crow, eel, pilchards, rabbit, venison, pigeon, duck, lamb, raisins, prunes, root vegetables and suet. Songbirds were considered a particular delicacy. The expression "eating crow", heralds from this time.
In the late medieval period "animated pies" were all the rage - a must have at every European court. This weird fad dictated that the crust be baked in advance and cooled so that live "surprise" fillings could burst forth to delight all present. The larger and more ornate the pie, the better. Some of these fanciful pastries hid coveys of doves, a dwarf dressed as a knight and a band of musicians! So, it turns out that: "Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" is a recipe set to rhyme!
Home Sweet Home: 1700's 1900's
From the first, American colonists brought their pie know-how with them. They tweaked the old standards with the rich local game, seafood and new vegetables they found in abundance. They breathed new life into: steak and kidney, shepherds', cottage and chicken pot pie. (We'd like to give a nod to the Pennsylvania Dutch in particular for the first American pot pie!).
It's interesting that at just about the time we declared our independence from England, the history of American pies diverges from mother Europe's. In a word, we went sweet. In the medieval period, sugar was so expensive, that only the rich could afford it. (Legend has it that the first cherry pie was created for queen Elizabeth I ). By the late 1700's sugar was a lucrative New World export. This abundance gradually allowed the average citizen to incorporate the new staple into their household. The first American cookbook published in 1796 mentions several sweet pies, cakes and puddings. This trend would prove vertical over the next hundred years.
By the turn of the 20th century, the meaning of the word pie had morphed. American pie had turned its back on the savory and embraced the sweet. Today in the US, if it's savory, you'll have to specify, while in the UK they maintain that the word "pie" refers to a savory and "tart" is the proper term for a sweet. The French will most likely side with the British and offer exceptions and nuances on both. Vive la difference!
Today, the rich tradition of pies continues with our delicious offerings at The Pot Pie Bar. From traditional Chicken Pot Pies to the more unique recipes like Lobster Pot Pie or Bratwurst Beer & Cheddar, it's never been easier to enjoy a pie at home. Order today on our website for shipment to your doorstep!