” What moistens the lip and what brightens the eye
What calls back the past, like the rich pumpkin pie?”

Ever Since I first clipped a poem about pies from a Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper over 40 years ago, and then began searching for rhymed recipes about food—and in particular, pie—pie has been ever on my mind. I discovered I was not alone in my quest.

Food editors throughout the country often feature pie; over the past few years I have managed to collect a small stack of articles about pie—from Marion Cunningham’s perfect pecan pie, to the Chicago Tribune’s “Easy as Pie? Well, not quite” by Kristin Eddy, from a Washington Times article creatively titled “Baking Pies can be a piece of Cake”, to a Los Angeles Times article by Russ Parsons, called “Fear of Pie-Ing” . The Los Angeles Times staff writer Charles Perry, whose work I greatly admire, wrote an article in November, 1993, titled “The Slice of History”, while the Times-Picayne newspaper, in November, 1998, provided an article called “Humble Pie”. The latter is the story of a bayou country family who have been making, and selling, melt in your mouth crawfish and chicken pies for over fifty years; it’s a wonderful success story of American ingenuity, about a woman widowed with six children more than 50 years ago, who didn’t know how she was going to make ends meet, who began making little pies to sell to the women of her town.

Elizabeth Craig, author of “COURT FAVOURITES” tells us that humble pie was originally made with venison. Patricia Bunning Stevens, author of a fascinating book titled “RARE BITS”, (Ohio University Press, 1998) subtitled unusual origins of popular recipes, takes Humble Pie a step further. Umbles, explains Stevens, were the internal organs of the deer, traditionally the servant’s portion. While the noble huntsman and his guests feasted on roast venison, the kitchen help made merry with an umble pie. She says that a play on words was inevitable. By the nineteenth century, some wit had coined the phrase ‘to eat humble pie’ and it became a part of the language.

My friend Sue Erwin and I discovered, in the Library of Congress Experimental Search System, over 400 listings with “pie” in the titles. Not all, of course, were cookbooks for expressions using the word “pie” have become commonplace. “Easy as Pie” might be considered an oxymoron, or perhaps more appropriate over one hundred years ago when women baked pies on a daily basis, even when trekking across the plains in covered wagons!

As anyone who actually makes a pie from scratch, today, knows—baking a pie really isn’t all that easy. (And in case you’re wondering, yes, I can make a pie from scratch. When my four sons were growing up, I often baked my own pies, usually fruit-filled. They all loved apple or cherry or peach pies). Their daddy wouldn’t eat a cream pie so neither would they. I mastered the art of pie crust but have discovered that, in recent years, I have lost “the touch”. I think pie-making is an art you have to keep up with.

Then there are expressions like getting “pie-eyed” (very drunk), “getting a piece of the pie”, “As American as apple pie” and “eating humble pie”. There is an old expression, “apple-pie order” but don’t overlook terms of endearment, such as “Sweetie-Pie”, “Sugar-Pie” or “Honey-Pie”. There is “Pie in the Sky” and my favorite ice-cream bar, “Eskimo Pie”. The origins of some of these expressions are in themselves interesting; some can be found in a book called “Lady Fingers and Nun’s Tummies” by Martha Barnette, published by Vintage Books in 1998.

Susan Purdy, in her booklet “As Easy as Pie” (published by Ballantine Books) notes that “pie quotations and cliches are as thick as berries in a homemade pie, and with good reason: They ring true.” Purdy says that if a vote were taken, pie would be (and in many places, has been) chosen hands down as the all-time great national dessert, with apple pie as the favorite flavor”. But, she adds that homemade pies of all flavors are on their way to becoming a lost art. Is she right? (And do you think the people at Bakers Square and Marie Calendar’s would agree?)

According to Charles Panati, author of “EXTRAORDINARY ORIGINS OF EVERYDAY THINGS”, “Although baking bread and confections began in ancient Egypt, there is no evidence that civilizations first bakers ever stumbled on the idea of stuffing a dough shell with meat, fish, or fruit. That culinary advance was made in ancient Greece, where the artocreas, a hash-meat pie with only a bottom crust, endured for centuries. Two features distinguished those early pies from today’s. They had no top crust and fillings were never fruit or custard, but meat or fish”.

Panati goes on to say that the first pies made with two layers of crust were baked by the Romans; Cato the Elder, a second century B.C., Roman statesman who wrote a treatise on farming, De Agricultura loved delacacies and recorded a recipe for his era’s most popular pie, placenta. Rye and wheat were used in the crust; the sweet, thick filling consisted of honey, spices, and cheese made from sheep’s milk, and the pie was coated with oil and baked atop aromatic bay leaves.

Jeffrey Steingarten, author of “THE MAN WHO ATE EVERYTHING” (Vintage Books, 1998), tells us that savory pies were invented by the ancient Greeks and imitated by the Romans, who brought pie to Gaul. The medieval French were great pie lovers–always meat pies, never fresh fruit—and the Normans took pie along when they conquered Britain in 1066.

Elizabeth Craig writes that “During the reigns of Charles the Second, James the Second, William and Mary, and Queen Anne, pies were seasonal.

In the spring, skerret (?) and oyster pies were among those most frequently served. In the summer, humbler (venison) pie was most popular at court. During the winteer season, it gave place to artichoke and steak pies…”

Steingarten is amazed that no one thought to put fresh fruit into a piecrust until the English and French did it in the early 16th century.

However, Charles Perry notes that pie recipes nearly always included meat or fish until the 15th century, when recipes for pies filled with custard or fruit—nearly always dried fruit such as raisins and dates—began to appear. Perry writes that fresh fruit pies didn’t become common until the 16th century, possibly because sugar was slowly becoming less expensive. (Dried fruit, such as dates and raisins are, as you know, naturally sweet).

According to “The Dictionary of American Food and Drink” by John F. Mariani (published by Hearst Books in 1994), the word “Pie” is from middle English and dates in print to the early thirteenth century.

Newspaper columnist Charles Perry who writes an interesting column titled “Forklore” (sic) says that the very word “pie” is thought to refer to the magpie, a bird famous for its higgledy-piggledy nest. Mincemeat, notes Perry, “that peculiar mixture of meat, suet, nuts and dried fruits, is a perfectly typical medieval pie filling. Medieval pies often contained a vast variety of ingredients, reminiscent of the magpie’s nest.

Barnette, in “Lady Fingers & Nun’s Tummies” agrees with Perry, noting that, “the pie’s miscellaneous innards recall the bird’s (i.e., magpie’s) notorious habit of collecting various and sundry items and hoarding them in its nest. Such an explanation may sound far-fetched,” adds Barnette, “but it’s strengthened by the fact that the name of the Scottish specialty haggis—a boiled sheep’s stomach stuffed with the minced organs of a sheep or calf mixed with onions, oatmeal and seasonings—is quite similar to the obsolete English haggess or haggiss, which, as it happens, means ‘magpie’”

Mark Morton, author of “CUPBOARD LOVE/A DICTIONARY OF CULINARY CURIOSITIES”, published in 1963 by Bain & Cox, appears to agree with the above definitions, providing much the same explanation for the origin of these words.

Morton says that from the mid-thirteenth to the early seventeenth century, the bird now known as the magpie was simply called the pie. Morton explains that the English borrowed this ornithological name, pie, from the French, who derived it from the Latin name for the bird, pica, which in turn developed from an Indo-European source meaning pointed, as is the bird’s beak.
“In a 1507 book by the Venetian chef Christofaro di Messisbugo,” writes Charles Perry, “there are recipes for pies made from pureed fava beans, asparagus, artichokes and other vegetables, all flavored with sugar, ginger and cinnamon (and, this being Italy, grated cheese). Sweetened artichoke pie was still being made in England 200 years later, for that matter, Messisbugo gave a spinach pie recipe flavored with figs, walnuts and raisins that’s reminiscent of tarte de blettes, the chard and raisin pie still made in Provence…”

In an article Charles Perry wrote for the Los Angeles Times in November, 1993, he observes “It has often been pointed out that apple pie goes back a long way in England and mince pie is straight out of medieval France…” and though this is true, here in America we have made pie something of our own creation. France and England, says Perry, don’t know our kind of pie.

Charles Perry agrees with John Mariana that pie originated in medieval Europe, but Perry says that the old word for pie crust, coffyn, (meaning a case or box) suggests just how substantial it could be.

“Some pies,” writes Perry, “were baked in pie plates, but the grandest variety was the ‘raised’ pie, baked in a free-standing coffyn, whose edges rose in a thick wall of dough a couple of inches high. It could even be crenelated-—adorned with square notches like the top of a castle wall”.

“For centuries,” says Perry, “pie was largely a way of preserving food, a sort of medieval equivalent of canning, except that the contents were nearly always meat. Often the crust itself was not even meant to be eaten, particularly in the case of game pies.

Red Deer Venison, Wild-Boar, Gammons of Bacon, Swans, Elkes, Porpus and such like standing dishes, which must be kept long,’ wrote the Elizabethan cookery writer Gervase Markham, “would be bak’d in a moyst, thick, tough, course and long-lasting crust, and therefore, of all other your Rye paste is best for that purpose…”

And before you say ew, ew, keep in mind that medieval households didn’t have refrigerators and freezers like we do today. Standing pies, Perry says, were huge and might be eaten from for up to three months. You’d cut a hole in the crust and take out what you wanted and then plug up the hole. When a standing pie came out of the oven, it was common to pour melted butter through a hole in the crust to hermetically seal in the contents. (I don’t suppose there are any statistics at all on how many people in medieval times died of food poisoning).

On the other hand, potted meats—finely ground or minced, cooked and flavored meat, packed into a crock and sealed with melted butter–are known to keep for months if stored in a cool place, so I can see the sense in pouring melted butter over the pie.

“With the introduction of household ovens,” writes Susan Purdy in “EASY AS PIE”, “pastry chefs dreamed up ever more outrageous pastries. Holidays were their showcases. A Christmas banquet, for example, would not fail to provide a swan pie, as well as a Grete Pye, consisting of a pastry shell encasing chicken, capon, peacock, game, and small songirds, all roasted, then inserted one into the other like Chinese boxes. Other pies contained stews or cooked mixtures of meats and fruits combined, such as beef with pears, dates, and nuts, or fruit, wine, eggs, and herbs.

Some combinations were more imaginative, such as beef, mutton, mallards, woodcocks, marrow, eggs, raisins, prunes, cloves, cinnamon and saffron..” (I get indigestion just thinking about some of these mixtures).

Purdy says that, in addition to creative variety, medieval banquets stressed appearance and illusion in foods. Not only were trenchers (the “dish” from which one ate—in medieval times, trenchers were made from bread dough) painted, but all sorts of edibles were gilded and decorated to create picturesque “subleties” for the guests’ amusement. “Unlikely combinations of creatures such as baked pigs and chickens had their carcasses stitched together to create mythological animals. Peacocks were carefully plucked, roasted, boned, then reassembled and re-feathered to look as if they were alive when presented at table. In addition, illusion foods were created for spectacles between courses. Pastry chefs strained their ingenuity to devise outrageous pies for this purpose. From the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries, ‘animated pyes’ were the most popular banquet entertainments. The nursery rhyme ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence…four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’ refers to such a pie”. Purdy notes that in all likelihood, those birds not only sang, but flew briskly out at the assembled guests, as they were live birds tethered inside a prebaked pastry shell. “Rabbits, frogs, turtles, other small animals and even small people were also set into pies, either alone or with birds, to be released when the crust was cut”, writes Purdy.

She relates that at the coronation banquet of Henry VII in 1485, a “goodlie Custard Pye” was served. Four strong men costumed in red and gold liveries carried this enormous pie to the king, who cut the first slice as fifteen pigeons and one hunchbacked dwarf flew out. (maybe the pigeons flew out, but the dwarf too?)

This story is told also by Elizabeth Craig, author of “COURT FAVOURITES/Recipes from Royal Kitchens”, which was published in London in 1953. This is one of the most treasured cookbooks in my collection. The notes on “Animated Pies” were copied by Queen Victoria from “an Ancient book” and tells how no coronation or great feast was complete in the old days without an “Animated Pye”.

Craig also tells the tale of how it was the custom in the days of Henry the First for the City of Gloucester to send a lamprey pie to the King at Christmas. As the story goes, Henry died from “a surfeit of lampreys” (i.e., he overindulged). However, the death of the king had no effect on the custom of sending the King a lamprey pie—it continued until 1836, when the custom died on account of a shortage of funds.

Queen Elizabeth the First was also fond of lamprey pie, and in Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Year, a lamprey pie weighing 20 lbs was prepared for the event.


Like so many other nursery rhymes, there is a story behind this one as well and is explained in “THE CORNUCOPIA” by Judith Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman, published by Harper & Row in 1973.

The authors explain, “Behind the nursery rhyme of ‘Little Jack Horner” is a story of intrigue. It concerns 3 people; King Henry VIII, Richard Whiting, abbot of Glastonbury Cathedral; and Jack Horner, steward to the wealthy abbot.
King Henry, according to the story, felt that the churchmen were abusing their power, living like noblemen, dressing in silks and other finery, dining too well at their banquet feasts…the King was said to have been particularly angered when he heard that the abbot had built a kitchen that could not be burned down. To appease the King, the abbot sent his steward, Jack Horner, with a gift for the king. The gift was a favorite pie, a Christmas mince pie. And, as the story goes, Jack opened the pie on his way to London. He saw that it was not filled with the usual minced meat and fruit, but rather with quite different ‘plums’; it contained 12 deeds to 12 different manors, or estates. Jack took the deed to the manor of Mells for himself, and left the rest of the pie for the king. The manor of Mells remained in the Horner family…”

The Elizabethans prepared pork and mutton pies, which were sold by street hawkers throughout the countryside. The filling was supposed to be sealed with an aspic or clarified butter to prevent air from spoiling the contents. “Disreputable or lazy piemen who neglected this sealer often poisoned their customers,” explains Susan Purdy.

“Travelers were warned to be cautious about tasting pies. This led to the implied astonishment in the eighteenth century poem we know as ‘Simple Simon met a pieman/Going to the Fair;/Says Simple Simon to the Pieman/’Let me taste your wares.’”

Other favorite British meat pies include pork pie, veal and ham pie and steak and kidney pie. Many of these recipes date back from medieval times.

This is pretty much how things stood when the American colonies were established, says Perry. He observes that Amelia Simmons’s “American Cookery”, published in 1796, gave recipes for mince pie, chicken pie, stew pie and something called ‘sea pie’ (meat with salt pork), as well as two apple pies.

End of Part One

Sandra Lee Smith


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