The History of Pies
My favorite three-letter word in the English language? P-I-E. But though it's one of the first words you learn as a child — and one of the simplest and shortest words in English — the pie has been around since before the existence of either the United States of America or the country of England. Pies are even older than the English language.
The origins of pie date back to the early Egyptian culture. Their pie had a honey filling encased in a crusty cake made from barley, oats, rye or wheat. One Egyptian tablet created before 2000 B.C. provided a recipe for chicken pie. Both sound pretty delicious, and it shows the nation liked both sweet and savory pies. The ancient Greeks got in on the pie business around the fifth century B.C. The pie pastry is mentioned in the plays of Aristophanes, and heeven suggests there was a vocation of pastry chef, totally separate from a baker.
It was the Roman Empire that expanded on the covering of pies. They made a pastry of flour, oil and water to cover up their meat of choice, but it initially was not meant to be consumed with the savory inside — it was strictly added to preserve the juices. “Apicius,” a Roman cookbook though to have been written anywhere from the first century A.D. to the fifth century A.D., has many recipes that include a pie casing. The clever Romans even developed a cheesecake called “placenta,” which had a pastry base. Because of their development of roadways, Roman concoctions traveled across Europe with a vibrant trade system. So the world of pies expanded across the continent.
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THE ENGLISH PERFECT PIE
However, it was Great Britain that vaulted pies to a higher level. Definitions of pie from the 1300s clearly stated it was either meat or fish covered in a pastry. Like the Romans, these coverings were meant to contain the savory food inside instead of being eaten with it. The pastry topping also served to preserve the meat or fish inside on long voyages abroad and as a space saver for ships with limited storage. This eliminated the need to bring along a cook and the live animals it would take to create the pies.
The only knock on British pies was the terminology associated with them. The word pie was spelled “pye,” which wasn’t so bad, but the pastry covering was called a “coffyn,” more frequently spelled today as “coffin.” Many pie coverings were actually a rectangular shape, thus justifying the moniker. Still, this was definitely a term you did not want to associate with such a delicious treat, but more on that later. One bad habit when serving fowl in a pastry was to leave the bird’s legs hanging outside of the covering to make it easier to pick up. This method was certainly a crude presentation not suitable for modern sensibilities.
During the era of knights in armor and damsels in England, pies became a focus at opulent banquets. It became vogue to remove the covering to showcase the inner delicacies. (Except for cases like Arya Stark’s revenge pie in “Game of Thrones”). The elaborate pies included in this period were sometimes outlandish. Imagine a huge pie that contained musicians or jesters. There were few limits to the lengths these medieval people would explore. But if you think about it, today’s stunts involve sometimes putting a person inside a large cake for birthdays and other events — even British nursery rhymes mentioned “Four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie.” Some thought this just a tall tale, but royalty and aristocracy really would attempt to impress their guests by creating pies with live animals inside.
Geoffrey Chaucer branched out to pastries with fruit contained within. He published a recipe for apple pie long before it became synonymous with moms showcasing the wholesomeness of traditional American values. In addition to the apples, ingredients included figs, pears and raisins but did not contain any sugar. (Sounds like a healthy version of pie today, using the natural sweeteners within the fruits.)
A letter exists from a baker to Jane Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII stating, “… hope this pasty reaches you in better condition to the last one …” showing royalty continued to indulge in the delicacies.
THE FIRST CHERRY PIE
In the middle of the 1500s, England created a new type of pie especially for Queen Elizabeth I. The very first documented cherry pie was made specifically for the queen. No mention of her reaction to the taste is recorded, but pastries continued to be a staple in England. When pie prices became too inflated for most commoners, King Richard II issued an ordinance limiting the ceiling on the cost within London’s city limits.
Over the years, Great Britain continued to develop many types of pies. In Scotland, they have a Scotch pie (or mutton pie). As with pies with steak or kidney fillings, mutton pie is often seasoned with copious amounts of pepper. Sometimes the inside of the pie will also include potatoes, eggs, baked beans or gravy to complement the meat.
Even the British miners developed their own version of pies that catered to their surroundings underground called Cornish pasties. These were filled with beef or venison, potatoes and rutabagas or sometimes just fruit. Like in earlier days, these pasties would last a whole week, being rolled up in a paste made of flour and lard. Once baked, the hardened crust created a seal for the food inside. They were also easily tucked into a miner’s pocket until needed.
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PIES IN THE US
So when did pie first travel to what would become the original 13 colonies? It may sound cliché but the first pies arrived on the Mayflower __ with the Pilgrims at Cape Cod in 1620. (Remember the pies made for long ship voyages?) Unfortunately, the first Thanksgiving did not mention any pie being consumed.
Tastier pies were on the horizon, as colonial America contained such sweeteners as maple syrup, cane syrup, molasses and honey collected from imported English bees. The very first American cookbook, dated 1796, contained a recipe for “Pompkin Pudding,” which was baked in a crust. Varieties of the principal ingredients included pumpkins, blueberries, pear, apple and quince. The popularity of pies along the East Coast grew, and as the country expanded west, pies went along for the ride. The fillings of the pies grew, as well, on the westward trek with cream, custard, lemons, coconuts, blackberries, strawberries and many more.
PIES AS WEAPONS IN THE CIVIL WAR
When the American Civil War erupted in 1861, pies were consumed across both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. And some citizens used people’s universal love of pie to wage the war.
On Sept. 12, 1861, a “free colored woman” named Mrs. Welton was arrested for selling poisoned pies to Union soldiers on the streets of St. Louis, Missouri. Pittsburgh was a hotbed of poison pie incidents, as well. A resident, Mrs. Nevins, managed to dispatch her husband, a retuning soldier, via a poisoned pie. She joined another Pittsburgh woman named Grinder in garnering a sentence of death.
Arsenic and strychnine were the principle culprits put into deadly pies. However, women in the South branched out with such death-dealing pie ingredients as ground glass and diamond dust gathered from a jeweler’s floor.
Members of the 52nd Massachusetts Infantry stationed in Louisiana were particular targets of female Southerners. After the reoccupation of Baton Rouge in late December 1862, this Yankee unit accidentally burned down the state capitol building. That, combined with the haughty attitudes of the Northerners, compelled the local ladies to gain a bit of revenge on the invaders. One Bay State soldier had earlier been writing home about how much he missed his mother’s custard pie. By February, 1863, he wrote home that his “captain had forbidden them to buy any pies from these Rebel women.” A comrade had “bought one yesterday but was dead today.”
Even the elderly got in on the pie action. A grandmother in Plaquemine, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge, had come home to find her 12-year-old grandson murdered by the occupying Federals for making rifle cartridges at home. She set about to fight back the only way she knew how, which was to include some ground glass into pies she sold to soldiers on the streets in Baton Rouge.
Not all deadly pies were intentional: Accidents caused some of the people to pass away from eating pies. On Dec. 1, 1864, a Minnesota newspaper lamented the poisoning of seven enlisted men from eating a cracker pie. Fortunately, no one died, and it was discovered “arsenic had been used by mistake for tartaric acid.” Saleratus, the precursor to baking powder, contained some dangerous properties and when not mixed right was fatal.
THE BOSTON CREAM PIE QUESTION
A less stomach-churning controversy over pies arose back in Boston in the mid-1800s. Today, there are not many people in the United States who have not heard of the famous Boston cream pie. But each time someone thinks they have proof of its true origin, another record is found to refute the actual year the popular pie was first made.
Local legend has the pie being created in 1856. Claims have it being served for the grand opening of Boston’s Parker House. However, many cannot or will not explain the existence of the Dedham Cream Pie. Published recipes of the tasty Dedham, Massachusetts, pie come out around the same time, and one recipe for it was published in the city of Boston. The person documenting the Dedham dessert was a female physician and nurse.
EMPANADAS AND CALZONES
Eventually, the pie made its way to the Americas via different European cultures. For instance, the Spanish brought over their version of the pie, the empanada. The name literally translates into “enbreaded” or “wrapped in bread.” These treats were variously filled with meat, cheese, tomatoes or corn, among other foods. Once they crossed the sea to North and South America, many empanadas were baked but subject to being fried as well.
Like a pastry, the dough is simply folded over the ingredients inside. The contents and shapes may vary dependent on where they are located, but the principle is the same. One city in Louisiana embraced these savory treats, dubbing them “Natchitoches meat pies.” They are served in restaurants or even at convenience stores right off the I-49 exit and come mild or spicy beef or filled with crawfish. Don’t despair if you live far away, as they are even frozen and sent across the United States boxed up.
The Italians followed suit with a wonderful rendition of a savory pie called a calzone. It is almost like a pizza folded over, and is popular across the U.S.
THE WAR AGAINST PIES
In the early 1900s, pies went from being used in warfare to being the focus of a war against them. As the country embarked on a nationwide health movement, pie became the focus of a smear campaign. Ladies Home Journal published two articles condemning the popular dessert, with the author, Sarah Tyson Rorer, stating: “The inside of a pie is injurious [and] pies and cakes ae indigestible.”
Since the 1950s, though, pie has returned to being the phenomenon it deserves to be treated as. The range of fillings has only increased over the years, including Key lime, potato chips and Oreos. So the next time you dig into a pie of any flavor, think about the long journey it took over centuries, oceans and continents to get to you.
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