Purdy writes that “Immigrants from other countries brought their own native specialties to our shores. The earliest of these were the Pilgrims, who brought family pie recipes among their meager possessions. The colonists and their pies adapted simultaneously to the ingredients and techniques available to them in the New World.

At first, they baked pies with berries and fruits pointed out to them by the Indians. Besides baking fruit pies and tarts as they had in their homelands, sparse new foods were stretched by being encased in pastry shells; sometimes foods were stretched even further by placing them between two crusts of dough or topping them with mashed potatoes…” (Top the pie off with mashed potatoes and it becomes Shepherd’s Pie, an English pub classic which may have been introduced to the United States around 1912). Shepherd’s pie is so-named because it was originally made from lamb.

Of Shepherd’s Pie, Jane Garmey, author of “Great British Cooking” writes, “Shepherd’s Pie has always been a favorite standby for institutional cooks and has been forced unwillingly on successive generations of schoolchildren, prison inmates and paying guests in seaside establishments of dubious quality. Traditionally, an authentic shepherd’s pie is made with leftover roast lamb that has been put through a mincer….” Explains Garmey, “meat leftover from the Sunday joint would appear in a variety of ways throughout the rest of the week and this gave rise to the old ditty: “Hot on Sunday, Cold on Monday, Hashed on Tuesday, Minced on Wednesday, Curried on Thursday, Broth on Friday, Cottage pie Saturday”….

Every matron should know
In her pantry may lie,
The spirit of peace
In a savory pie

(From Kitchenology, the Principia Mothers’ Club, St. Louis, Mo., 1933)

James Beard, in “AMERICAN COOKERY” (first published in 1972 by Little, Brown and Company), notes that “Early English settlers in America brought a heritage of enclosing everything edible in a pie crust, and meat pies were a common way of using up leftover roasts, combined with vegetables. Frequently the pies were baked in large outdoor ovens or in ovens built alongside the fireplace. Sometimes, too, they were made in pottery bowls that were put into a large kettle, which in turn was buried in hot coals…” There were also pot pies, says Beard, and the Pennsylvania Dutch idea of pot pie was a well-greased kettle lined with strips of freshly rolled-out noodle dough and filled with meat, gravy, and vegetables…”

Pat Willard, author of “Pie Every Day” explains that people did not used to be so picky about how their crusts came out. “When the first European settlers came to America,” says Willard, “the pie recipes they brought with them called for crusts that acted as cooking pots.

As dense and tasty as baked clay, the pastry that surrounded the first American pies was broken apart to get at what was inside.

If it could be eaten at all, it was because the gravy and juices on the interior had softened it until it could be used like a biscuit to sop up the remains…” Willard relates that in 1758, Doctor Acrelius, a Swedish parson visiting America, wrote back to his family that he had been served an abundance of apple pie whose crust “is not broken if a wagon wheel goes over it.”

This was because the English settlers often used suet, or solidified rendered drippings from meat, for their crusts.

“When baked,” explains Willard, “this kind of dough turns a wonderful golden color but is as hard as plasterboard and has a strong animal taste…”

“Shoo-fly pie and apple pan dowdy, makes your eyes light up and your stomach say howdy!”

(Shoo-fly pie was made with molasses, which attracts er….pesky flies, which is supposedly how Shoo Fly pie got its name. Phyllis Pellman Good, author of “The Best of Amish Cooking” describes Shoo-Fly pie as a “hybrid cake within a pie shell”. She provides a recipe for Montgomery Pie, noting that “pies with cakey tops and a variety of syrupy flavored bottoms are remembered especially by older members of the Amish community”. Apple pan dowdy is similar to apple pie, but contains molasses or maple syrup).

The Pennsylvania Dutch are known to be famous for their pies, so I decided to see what William Woys Weaver had to say on the subject, in his book “PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH COUNTRY COOKING”

“Gumbis (GOOM-biss”)” writes Weaver, “is a dialect corruption of the Latin word compositum, the past particle of the verb componere, which has several root meanings. One of these is “to put together” as in the act of creating something out of small parts. Thus, in culinary terms, composita are ‘compositions’ assembled from layered ingredients. This is the meaning of GUMBIS as it is understood in most Swiss dialects and is also the meaning in Pennsylfaanish. ‘Any baked deep-dish casserole made with layered ingredients fits the definition of a Pennsylvania Dutch Gumbis.

Another species of GUMBIS is the type made by layering noodles. These are generally referred to by the Pennsylvania Dutch as potpies. The true potpie of colonial America actually belongs to a separate tribe of recipes based on the cauldron cookery of the British Isles, whereby an iron cookbook is lined with a disposable crust…”

Weaver goes on to say that this was doubtless the type of potpie prepared for Henrich Freitag, a well digger, who settled in Stark County Ohio about 1805. “Until his first planting of crops matured,” writes Weaver, “Henrich and his family were forced to live off game and wild berries.

Then, when locusts appeared to ravage his new fields, Henrich, with a practical turn of mind, had his wife make potpie out of them. After eating the pie, Freitag remarked, ‘It’s the best pie you can make’. His descendants have not preserved the recipe….”

However, Weaver doesn’t agree with other food historians on the origin of the word pie. Says Weaver, “The term pie probably derives from the Celtic bih or bei, a word for something small, as in the Gaulish beic. The French words petit and piece both derive from beic. Thus, in its root culinary meaning, a pie was probably either a form of stuffed pasta as in Italian raviola, or a similarly shaped finger food such as a pastry….”

A glance in the kitchen window as I am passing by,
Reveals a pretty picture—fair Crissy making pie.
Sleeves to her dimpled elbows, flour on her arms and hands;
Beside the oaken table in graceful pose she stands.
(From Rio Bravo Farm Home Department Cookbook, undated)

In his book “America Eats”, published in 1989 by William Woys Weaver, he provides an explanation for Vinegar pie, (which seems to have been popular sometime in the 1800s), which I confess, had me greatly baffled. However, it seems that the invention of Vinegar pie was the result of some inventive housewife’s answer to lemon meringue pie. Weaver says that it might also be called a Poor man’s lemon meringue pie. The creation of the original lemon meringue pie called for a lot of fresh eggs, sweet cream butter and fresh lemons. Says Weaver, the vinegar pie recipe reduces the lemons to a mere hint of grated zest and replaces them with vinegar. The result looks like lemon meringue pie but the taste is not the same. However, vinegar pie became a feature of hotel and boarding house cookery in the upper midwest, doubtless, says Weaver, because this part of the country was far enough away from coastal ports to make the cost of lemons prohibitive. Although the Browns, in their book “AMERICA COOKS” included the recipe in their chapter on North Dakota and called it “Pioneer Vinegar Pie”, Weaver believes it should have been included under Michigan, where he believes it originated.
Meat pies, in any case, both large and small, have been around for centuries and eventually evolved into today’s potpie (on a trip to Michigan with my sister, one year, I was addicted to sampling chicken pot pies almost everywhere we ate, usually restaurants proclaiming “home-style food”). Believe me, a real cooked from scratch potpie bears little resemblance to its frozen cousin. I still swoon remembering the huge chunks of chicken, golden gravy and flaky crust…There are different versions of meat pies to be found in many different parts of the world. There are Cornish Pasties and Scottish Bridies, South American Empanadas and Mexican Tamales, The Asian Samosas and the English Shepherd’s Pie, Jamaican Beef pies, Polish pirogi, the Russian Pirozhky which is similar to pirogi, the French Quiche,* as well as turnovers and potpies and tamale pies. And what is today’s enormously popular taco but a modern day version of a meat pie that can be eaten out of hand?
(Says Charles Perry, the American idea of pie is still colored by the large medieval European “standing pie”, which is why we still make plate-size pies in a world in which the handful or the mouthful is the usual pie-size). (It seems to me that food manufacturers are still working hard to sell little meat pies to the public. Note the microwavable Lean Pockets, Hot Pockets and Croissant Pockets in your supermarket freezer case!).

In pointing out various counterparts to French and British dishes, Jane Garmey notes that since “cooks are notorious borrowers and thieves, all that this really proves is that no cuisine belongs exclusively to one country. What each country does is to lend food a national character”. And, although pie wasn’t on Garmey’s mind when she wrote this statement, it can be no truer than with pies.

*Interestingly—quiche actually has Austrian ancestry; the word is derived from the German word kuche – and although it’s supposed that real men don’t eat quiche, according to “The Cook’s Tales”, by Lee Edwards Benning, it was the real men fighting in World War II who brought quiche to America in the 1940s
(There is a most interesting explanation of Quiche in this book, which goes into far more detail).
“Pastry rolled out like a plate,
Pile with turmut, tates and mate,
Doubled up and baked like fate,
That’s a Cornish Pasty”

(From Jane Garmey’s “Great British Cooking/A Well Kept Secret”, published by Harper Perennial , 1981). (Ms. Garmey doesn’t translate the meaning of turmut, tates and mate for us but perhaps the tates are potatoes and the mate, meat? And might the turmut be turnips?)

“In the nineteenth century,” explains Garmey, “Cornish Pasties were eaten at home and taken to work by the tin miners, who kept them in their pockets and ate them for lunch. When the pasties were being made, it was the custom for each family member to place his initials on one corner of a pasty so that no one else would steal a bite…” (At the risk of digressing too much, I have to add that putting one’s initial on a pie dates back centuries, to a time when women made their pies and then took them to a communal oven to be baked.

From this we got the nursery rhyme, “patty cake, patty cake, baker’s man, bake me a cake as fast as you can, roll it and pat it and mark with it B, then put it in the oven for baby and me…”

Garmey explains that a pasty is a turnover usually filled with meat, but it could have other fillings. When times were hard, the pasties were filled with potatoes and called Tiddy Oggies (tiddy being the local name for a potato), not, she adds, to be confused with Priddy Oggies which came from the town of Priddy…and were filled with pork and cheddar cheese. In the north of England, says Garmey, pasties were made in the shape of a foot and called Lancashire Foot.

“Whereever there were miners in America,” explains James Beard in “American Cookery”, “the miners of Cornwall and Wales could be found. They introduced their famous ‘lunch’ Cornish pasties (pronounced past-ees). Pasties were large rounds of pastry filled with cooked or uncooked cubed or chopped meat, onions, potatoes and sometimes carrots, turnips and other root vegetables. The pastry crust was usually ‘tough’ or not very fat pastry so that the miners could wrap the pasties in cloth or newspaper and tuck them into a pocket before they went down into the mines to work.
If we are to believe Raymond Sokolov, author of “Why We Eat What We Eat”, the expression “As American as Apple Pie” is really a misnomer. Sokolov points out that before Columbus, there were no apple trees in America. Settlers brought seeds and grafts to the New World, hoping to re-create their old way of life. What they found is that the seedlings did much better than pure European strains. Seedlings, like human children, are all unique products of sexual reproduction. Each one is, technically speaking, a new variety. And so, almost immediately, farmers were in possession of new apple varieties sprung from New World soil under New World conditions. By 1741, says Sokolov, American apples were exported on a regular basis to the West Indies.
(I thought the statement—there were no apple trees in North America—to be challenging. However, at least one of my cookbooks, “Cooking With Apples” by Shirley Munson & Jo Nelson, with the Food Editors of Farm Journal, states that crabapples were growing wild in North America but the fruits were bitter, sour and very small.

What is uniquely American is what we were able to do with apples and apple pie.

In 1896, the American poet, Eugene Field wrote:


Henry Ward Beecher (the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe) took the time to explain how and when to serve apple pie, writing, “While it is yet florescent, white or creamy yellow, with the merest drip of candied juice along the edges, (as if the flavor were so good to itself that its own lips watered!) of a mild and modest warmth, the sugar suggesting jelly, yet not jellied, the morsels of apple neither dissolved nor yet in original substance, but hanging as it were in a trance between the spirit and the flesh of applehood…then O blessed man, flavored by all the divinities! Eat, give thanks, and go forth, in ‘apple-pie order!”

“The apple”, writes Phillip Stephen Schulz, in “As American As Apple Pie”, (published 1990 by Random House), “was an important staple in eighteenth and nineteenth century New England. It could be served in one form or another at every meal…by the end of the nineteenth century eight thousand apple varieties were listed by the Department of Agriculture; today there are probably tens of thousands…”

Schulz also gives John Chapman, alias “Johnny Appleseed” credit for being the man responsible for America’s love of apple pie, because he alone planted thousands of apple trees in this country. Apples had long been established in New England by the time Chapman was born in 1774 and as previously noted, apples had been a part of British cuisine since Elizabethan times. Pilgrim women brought pie recipes along with their rolling pins to the New World, along with apple cuttings from England.

(On the subject of apple pies, and particularly dried apple, called schnitz by the Pennsylvania Dutch, William Woys Weaver says that Pennsylvania Germans knew about apple pies of the English sort long before they settled in America. “Covered pies,” writes Weaver, “or Pasteten, were popular in Germany during the Baroque period…” Schnitz are slices of dried apple. According to Weaver, in his book “SAUERKRAUT YANKEE”, apple schnitz have been found among the remains of Stone Age lake dwellings in Switzerland, providing a bit of a clue to the role dried apples have played in the diet of Europeans over the centuries.

–William Henry Venable, “Johnny Appleseed”

Thinking about pie-making in the 1800s reminded me of something I had read a while back about Abraham Lincoln and his love of fruit pies. A quick search turned up the reference in “THE PRESIDENTS COOKBOOK” by Poppy Cannon, published in 1968 by Funk & Wagnalis.

“Although indifferent to many foods,” writes Cannon, “Lincoln did have one culinary obsession; he was inordinately fond of all kinds of fruit.

He wrote to a friend, Miss Mary Speed of Louisville, Kentucky: “I am literally subsisting on savoury remembrances—that is, being unable to eat, I am living upon the remembrance of the delicious dishes of peaches and cream we used to have at your house.” Peaches and cream, or peach pie was all the same to Lincoln as long as it contained fresh fruit.


–Sandra Lee Smith


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