The Evolution of Pie

Sandy Neil samples some pies.
Sandy Neil samples some pies.

This month we explore the story of the beloved pie, and what better place to start our journey than the origin of this small word with the big history. So, why ‘pie’?

Gazing at the menu as you sat down for a medieval banquet, you might be a little disturbed to read a dish called ‘coffins’. While there were plenty of things around in those days to put you in a box, such as the Black Death or leprosy, ‘coffins’ certainly weren’t going to (unless they were poisoned).

For a ‘coffyn’ was a pie, not round as typical today, but, as their name meaning a box or basket suggests, shaped with straight sealed sides, floor and lid. Until you cracked the code, medieval dining must have been an unsettling affair: reading further down the menu, you might have become more disconcerted to see an open top pie called a ‘trap’.

The OED traces the first use of the word ‘pie’ to 1303, but it soon become popular enough for an English poem written later in the 14th century, Piers Plowman, to mention eating “hote [meat] pies”. The Oxford Companion to Food tentatively posits an explanation for the name: “The derivation of the word may be from magpie, shortened to pie. The explanation offered in favour or this is that the magpie collects a variety of things, and that it was an essential feature of early pies that they contained a variety of ingredients.”

While our English name ‘pie’ traces back as early as the 1300s, the dish itself dates even earlier – for pie-making is an ancient art. Think of the pie’s many advantages: the pastry crust serves as a baking dish to cook the meat and seal in the juices, as packaging to carry and store the meal on long journeys, and finally as a serving vessel when it’s time to tuck in. What could be more useful than a pie? Certainly our ancestors thought so.

A recipe for chicken pie was written on a tablet in Sumer around 2000 BC, and a pie depicted in the Valley of Kings on the tomb wall of Pharaoh Ramesses II, ruler of ancient Egypt from 1304 to 1237 BC, is believed to be a sweet pie of honey wrapped in ground oats, wheat, rye or barley. Later the Ancient Greeks baked a meat pie called ‘artocreas’: a simple pastry crust onto which cooked meat was spooned. In his treatise on agriculture, De Agricultura, written around 160BC, the Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.), known as Cato the Elder, recorded a recipe for a kind of cheesecake, baked on a pastry base, called ‘placenta’. This is the origin of today’s medical term for the flattened, circular organ nourishing the foetus, although the Latin word derives from earlier Greek name for the dish ‘plakous’, also meaning ‘flat cake’.

Munched along trade routes over the centuries, pies spread across the world, evolving into the cornucopia of regional and cultural varieties we can guzzle today: pizza pie, shepherds pie, quiche, apple pie, scotch pie, calzone, to name only a few. Nearly every country on the globe has its own pie: South America has empanadas, for example, while Cyprus claims bourekias, and Poland pierogiz.

You can stuff endless combinations of fillings, whether sweet fruits and nuts or savoury meat, fish, eggs and cheese, into a myriad of pastries – short crust, milles feuilles, puff pastry and water crusts. You can individualise your pie further by enclosing the filling totally in pastry, or putting pastry just on the bottom to make a tart or flan, or only on top to make a cobbler.

While we’re on the subject of names, I hope you’ll join me in resurrecting a now sadly rare word for a small pie: a ‘pielet’.

In the USA, it’s a complement to be ‘as American as apple pie’, and I challenge you not to start singing the chorus from Don Mclean’s 1972 lament to the death of Buddy Holly: “So, bye, bye, Miss American Pie, …”.

South Australia boasts an abomination, or a ‘Heritage Icon’ according to the National Trust of Australia, called a ‘floater’: a meat pie inverted in a bowl of thick green pea soup, topped with tomato sauce, malt vinegar, mint sauce, salt and pepper. Apparently Billy Connolly is a fan.

In Britain alone there are numberless classics: pork pie, game pie, veal and ham pie, stargazy pie, fish pie, chicken and mushroom pie, beefsteak and kidney pie (sometimes with a few oysters thrown in) … and that doesn’t include the pies most of you will probably chomp before the month is out.

Shepherd’s pie, a thrifty invention mincing leftover lamb under a layer of mashed potato, probably originated in Scotland and the north of England where sheep are in profusion. Similarly cottage pie was the frugal housewives’ creative way of serving leftover beef to their families. The Cornish pasty is a pie excellently adapted to the working man’s daily food needs, originally filled with meat in one end and jam in the other, making both lunch and dessert for Cornish tin miners.

Pies have crept into every kitchen, but also into every corner of our culture too.

Easy as pie we can list many phrases used every day: on his way to the fair, Simple Simon could have met a pie-faced, piebald pieman, who kept ‘a finger in many pies’, composed ‘pie charts’, dreamt ‘pie in the sky’, told ‘porky pies’, ate ‘humble pie’, and tottered home ‘pie-eyed’ to his ‘sweet as pie’ wifey. If there’d been a bit of the rogue about the pieman, he could have quoted a 17th-century proverb: ‘promises, like a pie-crust, are made to be broken’.

Pies have also played their part in history. Under his reign in 1657, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell banned mince pies, and other Christmas traditions, in England.

Lying on his deathbed in 1806, Prime Minister William Pitt uttered what seemed a sign of a rallying recovery: ‘I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies’, but these were, in fact, his last words. A far grander, more dignified dying gasp is also attributed to the statesman: ‘Oh my country! How I leave my country!’ but you can decide which is the most believable.

Where would clowns be without a custard pie in their toolkit, or indeed film comedy where they’ve been a slapstick staple since Ben Turpin received one in the face in Mr Flip in 1909?

The gag’s glory days peaked in the films of ‘the Custard Pie King’ Mack Sennatt, and in the 1927 Laurel and Hardy film Battle of the Century, which culminates in the flinging of some 4,000 pies – which Stan Laurel insisted were “real pies (filling and all)”. But more recently ‘pieing’ has enjoyed a resurgence as a political act, with pies blasted into the kissers of Bill Gates (four cream tarts), Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling (a white-chocolate-tofu-cream pie) and lately Rupert Murdoch (shaving cream). At this point I should add a health warning for fear of inciting a breach of the peace: a pie is a dangerous weapon, so when you buy one I advise you to eat it, quickly.

But I’ll finish by saying it’s even more taboo to go pieless in Scotland. Pie and Bovril is the staple diet of Scottish football, and any butcher displays in his counter mutton pies, steak pies, scotch pies, pork pies, lasagna pies, macaroni pies for your lunch or tea.

I hope, once you’ve seen just how far the pie has come to sit nicely in your hand, you’ll marvel at it for just one moment, and enjoy devouring it all the more.