“A boy doesn't have to go to war to be a hero; he can say he doesn't like pie when he sees there isn't enough to go around.”
Edgar Watson Howe
“As American as apple pie.” Although pie has evolved over time into the all-American dish we're so familiar with, pie was not invented in America.
The roots of pie can loosely be traced way back to the ancient Egyptians, as far back as 2000 BC. The bakers to the pharaohs incorporated nuts, honey, and fruits in bread dough, a primitive form of pastry. Drawings of this can be found etched on tomb walls.
Pie passed to the Greeks sometime between 1400 and 600 BC. Historians believe that the Greeks actually originated pie pastry. With no refrigeration, they needed a way to preserve meats. So pies were made by a flour-water paste wrapped around meat; this served to cook the meat and seal in the juices. This was passed to the Romans a few hundred years later. The Romans, sampling the delicacy, carried home recipes for making it (a prize of victory when they conquered Greece).
Early pies were not the sweet fruit confections we associate with today, but were predominantly meat-filled. Historically, pies were fairly large (more of a large casserole), and consisted of more crust than filling. The pie crust was referred to as "coffyn" (coffeen). Coffyn was very thick and hard and impossible to eat –because it was not meant to be eaten, they didn’t use a separate dish or pan so the crust (coffyn) merely acted as a bowl to hold the filling. Pie fillings were often made of fowl, and the legs were left dangling over the sides to use as handles. So, you’d have a thick bowl made of hard bread, a whole bird inside, with feet dangling out to grab onto. Appetizing!
The Romans used various types of meat in every course of the meal, including what we would call dessert. Oysters, mussels, lampreys, and other meats, birds, and fish were customary. Anything they could throw in, really.
As the Romans built roads and spread across Europe the delights of the pie spread with them, where every country adapted the recipes to their customs and foods.
During the 14th Century, the important event at banquets (especially in France) was not the massive dishes of food, but the entertainment acts such as minstrels, magicians, jugglers, and dancers.
The chefs entered into the fun by producing foods disguised in an ornamental way, or sculptures made from edible ingredients but not always intended to be eaten or even safe to eat. A common trend was to place a large ornamental bird (such as peacocks, swans, herons) on top of the pie, as ornament and also to indentify the contents of the pie. These were used to alleviate the boredom of waiting for the next course to appear and to entertain the guest. The goal was to make the guests gasp with delight and to be amazed at the ingenuity of the chef (and more importantly, the host).
Of course, hosts had to one-up each other, so the foods and entertainment became more and more elaborate.
Animated pies became the most popular banquet entertainment. The nursery rhyme " four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie," refers to such a pie. According to the rhyme, "When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing." In all likelihood, those birds not only sang when the pie was opened, but flew out at the guests and soared around the room. But it wasn’t only birds - 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. The dwarf would emerge and walk down the length of the table, reciting poetry, sketching the guests, or doing tricks.
During this time period, the Duke of Burgundy's chef made an immense pie which opened to the strains of 28 musicians playing from within the pie.
King Charles I and his Queen were entertained at a banquet being given in their honor. At the dinner, an enormous crust-covered pie was brought before the royal couple. Before the Queen could cut into the pie, the crust began to rise and from the pie emerged a tiny, boy, only 18 inches tall, named Jeffrey Hudson. Hudson, seven years old, the smallest human being that anyone had ever seen, was dressed in a suit of miniature armor climbed out of a pie stood on the table in front of the Queen and bowed. The Queen became absolutely enamored and took him with her. Hudson was later dubbed Lord Minimus, and he travelled with the Queen for the rest of his life.
Over time the animated pies fell out of popularity, but unanimated pies lived on.
Obviously, English women were baking pies long before the settlers came to America – and the English really latched on to it more than the other European cultures did, and much of our pie lore comes from the English. The pie was an English specialty that was unrivaled in other European cuisines. They were particularly known for shepherd's pie (made with lamb and vegetables) and cottage pie (beef and vegetables). Fruit pies probably didn't exist until the 1500s. The first written mention of fruit pie is from a poem written in 1590. Queen Elizabeth I is credited with making the first cherry pie, perhaps one of her greatest contributions to the world.
In 1644, Oliver Cromwell banned the eating of mince pie on Christmas, declaring it a pagan form of pleasure. The ban remained in effect for 16 years.
One popular pie in Shakespearean England ("courage pie") contained all the ingredients commonly thought to have aphrodisiac properties - sweet potatoes, wine and, of course, sparrow brains.
So how did we get from THAT to the simple little dessert pies we’re all familiar with?
The Pilgrims brought their favorite family pie recipes with them to America. This was not simply due to preference - pies were very practical in the harsh conditions the early settlers faced. Pie crust used less flour than bread, did not require complicated ovens to bake, and could stretch the meager provisions to feed many. Colonial women used round pans literally to cut corners and stretch the ingredients (also the same reason they baked shallow pies). The colonist and their pies adapted simultaneously to the ingredients and techniques available to them in the New World. At first, they baked pie with berries and fruits pointed out to them by the Native Americans. Pioneer women often served pies with every meal, thus firmly cementing this pastry into a unique form of American culture.
It wasn’t until the American Revolution when the term "crust" was used instead of coffyn, and was actually intended to be eaten. This was mainly due to the German and French settlers, who brought their pastry techniques with them. Pie evolved again sometime around the mid-18th century, when they discovered that butter was delicious in the crust. Fortuitously, this coincided with the drop in the price of sugar cane that allowed Americans to make sugar a baking staple. With food at the heart of gatherings and celebrations, pie quickly moved to the forefront of contests at county fairs, picnics, and other social events. Over the ensuing years, pie evolved into the traditional American delight we all know and love. As settlers moved westward, American regional pies developed, constantly adapted to changing conditions and ingredients, which is why in America, pie is as regional as dialects, a culinary landmark of place and history. Shoofly in Pennsylvania, cherry in Michigan, key lime in Florida, buttermilk and pecan in the south. But none are as popular as the all-American apple.
Americans may not have invented pie, but as with most things, we like to take credit for it. And we certainly do it very well!