Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A History of Pie

One of the things we love here at the Diner is pie. My personal favorites are pecan, pumpkin, mincemeat and key lime.

A pie is a baked dish made of a pastry dough lining and sometimes a pastry or dough cover, that contains a filling of sweet or savoury ingredients. There are as many variations of this tasty treat as you'd like.

Pies are sometimes defined by their crusts. A filled pie is also called a single-crust or bottom-crust. It has pastry lining the baking dish, and the filling is placed on top of the pastry but left open. A top-crust pie, or cobbler, is made by placing the filling in the bottom of the dish. The filling is then covered with a pastry or other covering before baking. A two-crust pie has the filling completely enclosed in the pastry shell. Many things can be used for pie crust, including flaky pastry, baking powder biscuits, mashed potatoes, and crumbs.

As much as we think of pie as a modern invention, the first pies appeared around 9500 BC. These early pies were in the form of galettes wrapping honey as a treat inside a cover of ground oats, wheat, rye or barley. Galettes developed into a form of early sweet pastry or desserts. Evidence of this can be found on the tomb walls of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. Sometime before 2000 BC, a recipe for chicken pie was found written on a tablet in Sumer.

Historians believe that the Greeks originated what we know as pie pastry. At that time, pastry was a flour and water paste. If you add fat to it, it becomes pastry. This pastry was wrapped around meat, and served to cook the meat, seal in the juices, and provide a lightweight sealed holder for long sea journeys.

The Romans were far more adept at using salt and spices to preserve and flavor their meat, but a first century Roman cookbook makes mention of various recipes involving a pie case. By 160 BC, Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato notes the recipe for the most popular pie or cake of the day, placenta or libum. This treat was more like the cheesecake we're familiar with, only instead of a graham cracker base it was cooked on a pastry base. It was also often used as an offering to the gods.

With the development of the Roman Empire and their extensive roads, pie cooking spread throughout Europe. Pies remained among the core staples of diet or traveling for working peoples in the northern European countries. Regional variations were based on locally grown ingredients and cereal crop, as well as available meats.

During medieval times, cooking forms were often restricted due to costs of construction and the need for abundant fuel supplies. But since pies could be easily cooked over an open fire,  partnering with a baker allowed for cooking the filling inside the pie casing. The earliest pie-like recipes refer to coffyns. This word means a basket or box.  The recipes called for straight sealed sides and a top. During this time, open top pies were called traps. Early recipes also focused on the filling over the surrounding case, which led to the use of reusable earthenware pie cases. This helped reduce the use of expensive flour.

The first reference to pyes as food items appeared in England during the 12th century. "Four and twenty blackbirds backed in a pie" aren't just the words to a nursery rhyme. Song birds were a fine delicacy during medieval times, but were protected by royal law. At King Henry VI's coronation in 1429, partryche and pecock enhackyll pie was served. This consisted of cooked peacock mounted in its skin on a peacock filled pie. Cooked birds were frequently placed by European royal cooks on top of a large pie to identify its contents. It is believed this led to the later adapation in pre-Victorian times of using porcelain birds as an ornament to release steam and identify a good pie.

Early settlers brought their pie recipes with them to the New World, adapting the ingredients and techniques available to them. The first pies on this side of the Atlantic were filled with berries and fruits. Pies allowed colonial cooks to stretch scarce ingredients. Round shallow pans were used to literally cut corners, and thus create a regional variation of a shallow pie.

In the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, meat pies with fillings such as steak, cheese, steak and kidney, minced beef, or chicken and mushroom are popular. They are also served with chips as an alternative to fish and chips at British chip shops.

Pot pies with a flaky crust and bottom are also a popular American dish. These are typically filled with meat, particularly beef, chicken or turkey, gravy, and mixed vegetables, especially potatoes, carrots and peas. Frozen pot pies are often sold in individual serving size.

Fruit pies may be served with a scoop of ice cream, a style known in North America as pie à la mode. Apple pie a la mode is thought to have been popularized in the mid-1890s in the United States.

What are your favorites? Any recipes you'd care to share?


  1. I LOVE this! I've always been fascinated by pie and its place in civilization. I had some rhubarb pie this weekend, and had the hub stare at me as I explained how parts of rhubarb are poisonous! PIE as cultural commentary!


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