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A History of the Humble Pie

I feel like I should introduce myself: Hello, I’m Georgette, blogger for Sweetist, eater of sugar, and lover of pie (though doughnuts are a very tight second). I’m taking down the fourth wall today to talk to you about something important, something that affects all of us Americans and eaters, something that we should talk more about to be honest, and that is pie. March 14th— also known as 3.14 or as our friendly mathematician William Jones might say— is Pi (Pie) Day and it is coming upon us. If there are two dates out of the year that I look forward to most, then they have to be Thanksgiving and Pi (Pie) Day. Yes, the former because of mashed potatoes, green beans and the ethereal bliss  that is pie. The second, because it’s a whole day where people surprise you with pie. If you know the right people that is. 

I love Pi Day so much that I even wrote a very astute, well-thought out argument that it should be the new Valentine’s Day, and hopefully somewhere there’s an underground movement making it so. But, in the meantime, while I wait for that day to come, I’ll content myself with researching and laying some knowledge on the one, the only, the delicious pie.

Ancient History

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According to the very important and very real Pie Council, the first pies were made by the early Romans. But unlike the traditional pies we eat, pray, love today these pies weren’t made in crusts but in “reeds” which were more about holding the filling than eating. As a crust aficionado, I personally did not understand that a pie was more about the filling and mobility, so I was surprised to learn that pie crusts weren’t that big of a deal. I trust the almighty Pie Council, however, to dictate that these reed pies were, in fact, pies.

The first pie recipe was published by the Romans, and it was a rye-crusted goat cheese and honey pie, which really isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when thinking old fashioned slice.

Like other cool things like the alarm clock, democracy, and the beginnings of modern medicine, the ancient Greeks brought us the pie pastry. In the plays of Aristophanes during the 5th century, you’ll see mentions of sweetmeats and small pastries filled with fruit. Also Greeks recognized trade of pastry-cook separate from a baker, which is pretty big deal.

Renaissance 14th-17th Centuries

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The Oxford English Dictionary says the word “pie” became popular around the 14th century—1362 to be exact—and was first used in 1303 relating to food. Come to think of it, this begs the questions how exactly were people using the word “pie” in 1362 if not describing flaky crusts.

Around the 12th century, early pyes in England were made of meat and the crusts were known as a “coffyn” to sort of protect the fillings. At this time there were more crust than filling (ratio wise), and were used to preserve the meat and good stuff inside. The legs of the fowl were often hung over the side to use as a handle for the pie too. Pies were mostly used for the working men and the crust (in my mind) acted as an edible tupperware. Think of the Cornish Pastry but a little tougher. Fruit pies (pasties) were finally made in the early 1500s, and according to English tradition the  first cherry pie was made for Queen Elizabeth I.

The first recorded apple pie recipe was written in 1381 in England— as much as we consider it true Americana, apples weren’t indigenous to America until later— and the recipe used figs, raisins, pears, and saffron with the apples. Early apple pie recipes didn’t use sugar, which was expensive and hard to get at the time. More reason to cherish it now.

If you know the rhyme that goes “Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie…” that most likely is a reference to that fascinating 16th century amusement to place live birds in a pie, documented in an Italian cookbook from 1549. It sounds rather frigthening to the bird, but also keep in mind that the crust took up more room in the pie making and they made space for the birds to hang out until the big show.

At the coronation of eight-year-old English King Henry VI (1422-1461) in 1429 Partrych and Peacock enhackyll pie was served— a cooked peacock mounted on a peacock-filled pie. Similar practice where cooked birds were place on top of pies to identfy the contents.

New World

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Pie came to America with the first English settlers, and the pilgrims used dried fruits, cinnamon, pepper, and nutmeg to season the fowl or venison. In reality, there were only crab apple trees when the pilgrims first came, which would make for a terrible apple pie.

The original apple pie comes from England and was made with unsweetened apples. In 1589 in Menaphon by poet R Greene, we have the first reference of apple pie, “Thy breath is like the steeme of apple pies.” I also consider this to be the best, most romantic compliment ever written in poetry. Nay! History.

Since I’m busting bubbles, I should probably also tell you that pumpkin pie didn’t originate at the first Thanksgiving, but it did originate from a recipe from British spiced and boiled squash. Nom. But the first pies by the settlers were made with berries and fruits with the help of the Native Americans and pies allowed the settlers to stretch ingredients and cut corners by using shallow, round pans— the shape we know today!

Fun fact! Pie crusts were still called coffins until the American Revolution.

World War II + Americana

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So how exactly did apple pie become Americana? In 1902 an American newspaper article famously claimed that “No pie-eating people can be permanently vanquished,” to which I agree wholeheartedly as pie makes anyone stronger like Popeye and spinach.

And it was perpetuated during World War II with “For mom and apple pie” being the common refrain of why soldiers went to war. Following that it became “As American as Motherhood and Apple Pie,” and by the 1960s the familiar “As American as apple pie” was popularized.

Recently...

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Some fun facts that lead up to today:

Pie in the face became a slapstick routine first appearing in 1909 in the silent film Mr. Flip with Ben Turpin.

In 1992 McDonald’s stops serving their fried apple pies and switches to baked versions. Slowly an underground tracking system happens. As a side note: my sister argued for years that they were different, and I can now see that she was right.

By 1985 the Little Pie Company opened its doors in NYC. To which I am eternally grateful.

In 2003, Pie Face was founded as a pie and coffee chain founded in Sydney before coming to New York. (They sadly closed their doors in 2014.)

In 2010 Four and Twenty Blackbirds opens in Gowanus.

I laid a lot of knowledge on you just now. What you do with it is, certainly up to you, but I would be remiss if I didn’t advise you to get thee to a bakery or make it easy and order from Sweetist to get a pie for Monday. We got you, New York. You don’t want to be caught empty handed on Pi (Pie) Day. That would be embarrassing.