Pie (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
PIE. The word pie derives from a related word piece, as expressed in medieval Latin petia or pecia. Both terms can be traced to Gaulish peth (Lambert 1997), which appears as pighe in Irish and Scottish. The core meaning of the word both in Celtic and in later medieval Latin was twofold: a morsel which could be eaten with the fingers and which also contained some type of fillingn short, a pastry envelope.
The Gaulish origin of our English word does not imply that the Celts invented the pie concept; it merely underscores the fact that this culinary idea is one of great age and wide distribution, with many counterparts in the Near East and Asia. It also reaffirms the growing realization among food historians that many modern concepts, such as bouillon-blanc (early medieval bugillo albo) derive from non-Roman European cultures, although they are transmitted to us through Medieval Latin.
In keeping with this, the original "pie" at least as it was known to continental Celts, consisted of a square, triangular, or more commonly a circular piece of dough folded over a filling and pressed together to form a half-moon or pocket. This concept was carried over into medieval cookery, and linguistic evidence suggests that these pies were large, since diminutive adjectives or endings were needed to describe small ones. In medieval everyday cookery such pies probably served as a substitute for roast meat since they could employ meat leftovers or such foraged poverty fillings as elderberries or sorrel. Furthermore, they could be baked down hearth in a kettle set on a tripod over hot coals, with some of the coals scattered over the kettle lid. The ease with which such fare could be prepared in very simple medieval kitchens may explain why the pie became so firmly integrated into the traditional cookery of the British Isles. However, in medieval court cookery, handheld pies formed an adjunct to other dishes brought to the table, and very often contained exotic ingredients or flavors intended to contrast with carefully orchestrated sauces, dips, and roasted meats.
The identifying pocket shape, which is highly convenient in societies where food is eaten with the fingers, may be found in many traditional grain-based cookeries where flour is compounded with oils or fats in a variety of ways. This age-old concept survives in the form of Spanish empanadas, in English turnovers, in Greek kolokotes, and in a vast number of other similarly shaped foods now prepared in both the Old and New worldsven in the modern pop tart invented for toasters.
One thread common to all forms of traditional pocket pies is that the crust was usually short (with a high fat content). Because of this, the pie was normally associated with festive or special occasion cookery, and thus forbidden by the Christian church for consumption on lean days or on days of fasting. This restriction varied regionally since ecclesiastical enforcement was at best uneven.
Restrictions were profoundly altered during the Protestant Reformation, which did away with fast days. Thus the pie became a status symbol, which in time assumed far more importance in English cookery than it did on the Continent. This cultural emphasis was transferred to North America through English colonization. Furthermore, by the time the pie reached American shores in the seventeenth century, it had already undergone several transformations in England, so that there was not one, but five types of pastry called pie: pocket pies, two-crusted pies, one-crusted pies, standing pies, and potpies. All these forms evolved distinctive English identities during the late Middle Ages and were slow to change, since they became tied up with concepts of English national identity.
Even into the nineteenth century, the pocket pie in its most ancient meaning lingered on alongside the newer forms in both demotic speech and literature, especially in cookery books of a highly colloquial nature. The unifying principle was that they were considered finger food during a period of English cookery predating the introduction of forksuite literally something broken or cut into pieces. Indeed, this idea of eating with the hands has persisted for a very long time and is still preserved in such American creations as the Pennsylvania Dutch shoofly pie, a breakfast cake baked in a pie shell and meant to be sliced, held in the hand, and dipped into strong coffee.
This marriage of very different types of pies under the umbrella of one term is further linguistic evidence that the turnover shape was indeed the oldest type and that the English language did not have a wide range of indigenous terminologies to accommodate the newer forms. It is also evidence that the transition from one form to the next was sometimes gradual, especially in the countryside. Food historians generally concur that there is a definite genealogical link between the ancient pie and its modern two-crust descendant, although there is no firm agreement as to how this transition took place. There are several possible avenues of evolution. The shallow dish or saucer pie and the deep dish or potpie offer two theoretical possibilities.
The Saucer Pie
A turnover or large pocket pie that is baked in a saucerlike dish were known colloquially as saucer pies (Coolidge, 1875; Weaver, 1990) and consisted of one, sometimes two, turnovers baked in a small redware saucer and served in it. Milk could be poured over the pie, which was mashed and thus eaten like porridge. The next stage in the evolutionary line is achieved when the pastry dough is spread over the saucer and the dish rim is used for sealing the upper crust. The pie then moves from half-moon or pocket shape to circular. It can still be lifted from the dish and eaten out of hand, but the new shape now requires the use of a knife to cut it.
An alternative form, which persisted into the nineteenth century (Leslie, 1857), was the saucer pie with only a thick upper crust. The baked pie was then turned out into a bowl with the top crust down so that it could be broken up and eaten with the fingers or so that milk could be poured over it for eating communally with a spoon. In either case, the underlying concept is one of expansion: the small handheld pie evolves into something of larger size for communal consumption.
The deep-dish or potpie form evolved parallel to this and appears to have very old antecedents in military and seafaring diets. It was a pragmatic adaptation imposed by limited equipment, in this case the employment of an iron kettle or cauldron over charcoal or over an open fire. The interior of the pot was lined with dough and the pot filled with ingredients including small pieces of dough often referred to as dumplings, then sealed on the top with a pastry lid. The pie was more or less stewed until thick inside its pastry cocoon, rather than baked, but like the onecrusted saucer pies, it too was turned out with its pastry parts and eaten communally with a spoon or piece of bread. The fish chowders of the North Sea Celts were prepared in this manner. Early American peach potpie conforms to this premedieval type, although the ingredients give it a thoroughly New World twist. If the potpie is taken one step further and prepared in a shallow dish, it is transformed into the sort of common two-crusted pie we know today. This is yet another possible line of evolution.
The potpie was especially popular on the American frontier, and the lore surrounding that historical role is rich. It continues to be a popular one-pot meal with many Americans even to this day, but it has evolved into a type of baked stew served with or without a largely ornamental top crust and has little resemblance to the rustic ancestral form once prepared in a large iron pot.
In the context of English cookery, both types of twocrusted pies appear to have gained in popularity during the Reformation. They gradually moved from Sunday fare in the eighteenth century, to almost daily fare for farmers during the nineteenth. In both England and America, lard was the universal shortening ingredient for the crust. Butter was only used by the well-to-do. One of the most common types of round, two-crusted pies was also the cheapest: pies made with apple fillings, either from fresh apples or from dried apples soaked in hot water or cider. The apple pie was such standard fare in British and American farmhouse cookery that it became a symbol for the cookery as a whole.
Pies Derived from Tarts
The two other types of pie in Anglo-American cookery derive from quite divergent origins. The first is the shallow pie without top crust (or ornamented with a latticework crust). These are often referred to as tarts in old English cookery books, and in fact derive from flat cakes covered with a filling. This category of pie includes fruit tarts and baked puddings, the most famous of the latter being American pumpkin pie (technically a custardlike pudding). It also appears in the blurring of distinctions inherent in such Americanisms as "pizza pie," a linguistic attempt to make a traditional Mediterranean flatbread conform to older Anglo-American notions of pielike things. The pizza is, after all, cut up into pieces and eaten out of hand.
The Raised Pie
The fifth type of pie is the raised or standing pie. This type of pie reached its zenith during the Middle Ages, when it served as an entremet or showpiece for banquet entertainments. In this case, emphasis was not so much on the taste as on the spectacle it created when brought to table, for there are many well-documented instances where pies were constructed to resemble castles, or built to encase whole roasted animals, or which popped open to reveal musicians, or served as a temporary prison for the four-and-twenty blackbirds mentioned in an old children's rhyme. The crust of such pies was incidental as food, and normally consisted of coarse flour mixed with hot water until it could be molded like clay. It baked hard and was given to the hounds or to the poor.
The game and fish pies of the Victorian era baked in copper or tin molds are lineal descendants of this old culinary tradition. In fact, several English china manufacturers created serving pieces imitating the color and shapes of elaborate game pies. These ceramic substitutes dispensed with the trouble and unpredictability of crusts assembled by poorly trained cooks, and of course they could be used over and over as needed. Like elaborately crusted pies made of real pastry, the expensive china ones also served as the focal point for festive occasions, such as Christmas, a hunt luncheon, or a wedding.
However, the standing pie of greatest importance in English cookery appears to have been mincemeat, and the elaborate construction of the crust was no less important than the spiciness of the filling inside. The Reformation did away with sumptuary restrictions; thus mincemeat could be consumed all through the winter. In fact, it became a fixture in winter cookery both in Britain and America. Diaries from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries often mention baking large numbers of mincemeat pies for storage in a cold pantry and then consuming them as breakfast, dinner and supper fare. Ground beef, suet, chopped apples, and dried fruit (commonly raisins) formed the core ingredients and doubtless provided high-energy food for hardworking farmers. This common man's mincemeat pie devolved from the elaborate standing crust of a manorial Christmas feast to the sort of old two-crusted affair tracing its origin back to the pocket pie. Indeed, pocket pies filled with mincemeat also served farmers as snacks in the field, their convenience and practicality ensuring the survival of the form into this century under the dialect name of pasty (also called fried pie), especially in eastern mining towns and in the American upper Midwest. Pasty is also a term used for the leek-and-potato pies of Cornwall in England.
The Pie as a Styled Centerpiece
There has been a noticeable evolution down through the centuries in the presentation of pies as culinary centerpieces to the formal dessert course. Part of this is due to the ever-changing role the pie has played as a symbol of wellbeing and status. In fact, the treatment of the pie probably mirrors larger shifts in social values about food, indeed even the philosophical aspirations of the beholders.
The medieval standing pie, with its elaborate detail, gilding, and highly artificial appearance doubtless reflected a sense of suppressing nature through art. The choice of ornamental themes definitely appealed to medieval idealism and a fascination with romantic anachronismsuch as the popular tale of the fish-woman Mélusine. This boisterous artificiality is certainly carried down into Renaissance and Baroque cookery, but by the same token, it is obvious from period paintings and prints that pie bakers were also masters of crust design. Even small pies were meant to be studied up close, and therefore they were covered with neat, tight patterns as crisply executed as sculpture. The farmhouse pie was never quite that elaborate, but it was a centerpiece and a measure of the housewife's cooking abilities. So her crusts were no less neat, even if only ornamented with a careful rim and the so-called "bird-track" patterns commonly seen in nineteenth-century prints. This preoccupation with fine detail was important to a world in which everything was made by hand: the more artificial, the more sculpted, the more it stood out as a thing of beauty.
Industrialization changed this attitude dramatically. The craftsmanship of pie baking was replaced by the industrial pie sold frozen in tin pans, the crusts pressed out by machine. Therefore, in the early twenty-first century, the rustic look is in. Large, crudely executed patterns, clumsy rims, crusts indeed much too thick for the pies they cover, nonetheless convey the immediate impression that they are handmade and therefore of greater intrinsic value than the commercial article. To the master pie baker of the past, these modern-day creations would appear as though flopped on the table by a child, but it is this very naïveté, this "country look" that modern food journals find so appealing as cover art subjects. That the pie is a perennial showpiece for the covers of magazines and cookbooks speaks volumes about its power as a food symbol.
The Pie as Symbol: Motherhood and Apple Pie
It is no exaggeration to suggest that the pie is perhaps one of the ultimate icons of American cookery. This idea is not new. In an 1874 issue of the Household the editor made this comment:
If we have a national dish . . . we suppose its name is Pie. The line between winter and spring is accurately defined in the minds of half the housewives in the country as the time when there is nothing to make pies of. Dried apples are used up, prunes are too expensive, and rhubarb has not yet made its appearance.
The pie became a symbol of American cookery because of its huge diversity and easy adaptability to seasonal dietary changes. There are pies for festive occasions: cranberry, mincemeat, and oyster pies for Christmas; pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving. There are pies for life cycle events, such as the funeral pie (otherwise known as raisin pie) among the Pennsylvania Dutch. And there are a great number of pies closely identified with regional cookeries, such as Boston cream pie in New England; pecan, sweet potato, and Key lime pies in the South; tuna pie (made with cactus pears) in the Southwest; and vinegar and molasses pies in the Midwest. Both of the latter pies were also known as harvest pies since they were served to field hands during haying and other harvest periods.
The harvest was one of the most evocative subjects for American art and literature in the preindustrial era, and images of pies are woven into that rich tapestry of food iconography. Industrialization did not destroy the pie's symbolic value, but rather transformed it into new images like pie à la mode (literally "pie in the latest style"), which married a scoop of vanilla ice cream to a slice of pie. This symbol of working class indulgence soon became an icon for diner and soda fountain fare. Likewise, the numerous meringue covered pies, originally referred to by the baking trade as pies in the "hotel style" (a
The voluptuousness of a well-made meringue pie was not lost on Hollywood, since the culinary perfection it stood for could be converted into high comedy by means of the outbursts of pie throwing which occur in many old black and white films. We do not see apple pie (a symbol of patriotism) or mincemeat pie (a symbol of Christmas) thrown into peoples' faces. But meringue clinging to the cheeks of a wide-eyed blonde-haired woman elicited laughter, real and perhaps also somewhat nervous, because in the context of those times the image was unquestionably lewd.
See also Baking; Cake and Pancake; Candy and Confections; Pastry; Pizza.
Armstrong, Sara, ed. Best Recipes: Crisco Pies for All Seasons. Lincolnwood, Ill.: Crisco, 1992.
Coolidge, Susan. "The Fortunes of a Saucer-Pie." St. Nicholas (November 1875): 424.
Lambert, Pierre-Yves. La langue gauloise [The Gaulish language]. Paris: Editions Errance, 1997.
Kirkland, John. The Bakers' ABC. London: Gresham, 1927.
Leslie, Eliza. Miss Leslie's New Cook Book. Philadelphia: T. B. Peterson, 1857.
Weaver, William Woys. The Christmas Cook. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990.
Wilson, C. Anne. Food and Drink in Britain. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1974.
Whitehead, Jessup. The Hotel Book of Fine Pastries. Chicago: National Hotel Reporter, 1881.
William Woys Weaver