The purpose of a pastry shell was mainly to serve as a baking dish, storage container, and serving vessel, and these are often too hard to actually eat. For hundreds of years, it was the only form of baking container used, meaning everything was a pie.
The first pies, called “coffins” or “coffyns” (the word actually meant a basket or box) were savory meat pies with the crusts or pastry being tall, straight-sided with sealed-on floors and lids. Open-crust pastry (not tops or lids) were known as “traps.” These pies held assorted meats and sauce components and were baked more like a modern casserole with no pan (the crust itself was the pan, its pastry tough and inedible). These crust were often made several inches thick to withstand many hours of baking. According to Janet Clarkson in her book, Pie: A Global History:
“It is surely not likely that such a hard-won resource was simply discarded after the contents were eaten even in the great houses. The crust may not have been intended for lords and ladies, but the well-to-do were obliged to feed their servants and were also expected to feed the local poor. Would not this largesse of sauce-soaked crust be distributed to the scullery boys and the hungry clamoring at the gate?”
A small pie was known as a tartlet and a tart was a large, shallow open pie (this is still the definition in England). Since pastry was a staple ingredient in medieval menus, pastry making was taken for granted by the majority of early cookbooks, and recipes are not usually included. It was not until the 16th century that cookbooks with pastry ingredients began appearing. Historian believe this was because cookbooks started appearing for the general household and not just for professional cooks.
6000 B.C. – Historians have recorded that the roots of pie can loosely be traced back to the ancient Egyptians during the Neolithic Period or New Stone Age beginning around 6000 BC. The Neolithic Period is characterized by the use of stone tools shaped by polishing or grinding, the domestication of plants or animals, the establishment of permanent villages, and the practice of such crafts as pottery and weaving. These early forms of pies are known as galettes, which are essentially rustic free-form pies. Our ancestors made these pie-like treats with oat, wheat, rye, and barley, then filled them with honey and baked the dish over hot coals.
1304 to 1237 B.C. – 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 the tomb walls of Ramses II, located in the Valley of the Kings. King Ramses II was the third pharaoh in the 19th dynasty. He ruled from 1304 to 1237 B.C.
The tradition of galettes was carried on by the Greeks. Historians believe that the Greeks actually originated pie pastry. The pies during this period were made by a flour-water paste wrapped around meat; this served to cook the meat and seal in the juices.
The Romans, sampling the delicacy, carried home recipes for making it (a prize of victory when they conquered Greece). The wealthy and educated Romans used various types of meat in every course of the meal, including the dessert course (secundae mensea). According to historical records, oysters, mussels, lampreys, and other meats and fish were normal in Roman puddings. It is thought that the puddings were a lot like pies..
160 B.C. – The Roman statesman, Marcus Porcius Cato (234-149 B.C.), also know as Cato the Elder, wrote a treatise on agriculture called De Agricultura. He loved delicacies and recorded a recipe for his era’s most popular pie/cake called Placenta. They were also called libum by the Romans, and were primarily used as an offering to their gods. Placenta was more like a cheesecake, baked on a pastry base, or sometimes inside a pastry case.
The delights of the pie spread throughout Europe, via the Roman roads, where every country adapted the recipes to their customs and foods.
1545 – A cookbook from the mid 16th century that also includes some account of domestic life, cookery and feasts in Tudor days, called A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye, declarynge what maner of meates be beste in season, for al times in the yere, and how they ought to be dressed, and serued at the table, bothe for fleshe dayes, and fyshe dayes, has a recipe for a short paest for tarte:
“To Make Short Paest for Tarte – Take fyne floure and a cursey of fayre water and a dysche of swete butter and a lyttel saffron, and the yolckes of two egges and make it thynne and as tender as ye maye.”
1553 – From the English translation by Valoise Armstrong of the 1553 German cookbook Kochbunch der Sabina Welserine, includes a recipe for pastry dough:
“61 – To make a pastry dough for all shaped pies – Take flour, the best that you can get, about two handfuls, depending on how large or small you would have the pie. Put it on the table and with a knife stir in two eggs and a little salt. Put water in a small pan and a piece of fat the size of two good eggs, let it all dissolve together and boil. Afterwards pour it on the flour on the table and make a strong dough and work it well, however you feel is right. If it is summer, one must take meat broth instead of water and in the place of the fat the skimmings from the broth. When the dough is kneaded, then make of it a round ball and draw it out well on the sides with the fingers or with a rolling pin, so that in the middle a raised area remains, then let it chill in the cold. Afterwards shape the dough as I have pointed out to you. Also reserve dough for the cover and roll it out into a cover and take water and spread it over the top of the cover and the top of the formed pastry shell and join it together well with the fingers. Leave a small hole. And see that it is pressed together well, so that it does not come open. Blow in the small hole which you have left, then the cover will lift itself up. Then quickly press the hole closed. Afterwards put it in the oven. Sprinkle flour in the dish beforehand. Take care that the oven is properly heated, then it will be a pretty pastry. The dough for all shaped pastries is made in this manner.”
Animated pies or pyes were the most popular banquet entertainment. The nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence . . . 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. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King.” In all likelihood, those birds not only sang, but flew briskly out at the assembled guests. Rabbits, frogs, turtles, other small animals, and even small people (dwarfs) 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.
13th Century – A Tortoise or Mullet Pie was in the 13th century cookbook called An Anonymous Andalusian Cookbook of the Thirteenth Century, translated by Charles Perry:
“Tortoise or Mullet Pie – Simmer the tortoises lightly in water with salt, then remove from the water and take a little murri, pepper, cinnamon, a little oil, onion juice, cilantro and a little saffron; beat it all with eggs and arrange the tortoises and the mullets in the pie and throw over it the filling. The pastry for the pie should be kneaded strongly, and kneaded with some pepper and oil, and greased, when it is done, with the eggs and saffron.”
14th Century – During Charles V (1364-1380), King of France, reign, the important event at banquets was not dishes of food but acts such as minstrels, magicians, jugglers, and dancers.
The chefs entered into the fun by producing elaborate “soteltie” or “subtilty.” Sotelties were food disguised in an ornamental way (sculptures made from edible ingredients but not always intended to be eaten or even safe to eat). In the 14th to 17th centuries, the sotelty was not always a food, but any kind of entertainment to include minstrels, troubadours, acrobats, dancers and other performers. The sotelty was used to alleviate the boredom of waiting for the next course to appear and to entertain the guest. If possible, the sotelty was supposed to make the guests gasp with delight and to be amazed at the ingenuity of the sotelty maker.
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. Out of the pie came a captive girl representing the “captive” Church in the Middle East.
15th Century – At the coronation of eight-year old English King Henry VI (1422-1461) in 1429, a partridge pie, called “Partryche and Pecock enhackyll,” was served. This dish consisted of a cooked peacock mounted in its skin, placed on top of a large pie. Other birds like partridges, swans, bitterns and herons were frequently placed on top of pies for ornament and as a means of identifying the contents.
1626 – Jeffrey Hudson (1619-1682), famous 17th century dwarf, was served up in a cold pie as a child. England’s King Charles I (1600-1649) and 15-year old Queen Henrietta Maria (1609–1669) passed through Rutland and were being entertained at a banquet being given in their honor by the Duke and Duckess of Buckingha. 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 man, perfectly proportioned boy, but only 18 inches tall named Jeffrey Hudson. Hudson, seven years old and the smallest human being that anyone had ever seen, was dressed in a suit of miniature armor climbed out of a gilded pastry pie stood shyly on the table in front of the Queen and bowed low. Hudson was later dubbed Lord Minimus.
Hudson would remain with the queen for the next 18 years, serving as the Queen’s Dwarf, where he became a trusted companion and court favorite. His life after being a court favorite were just as interesting. He was kidnapped by pirates twice. In 1633, his portrait, along with Queen Henrietta Maria, was painted by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), the famous 17th century painter. He spent the next quarter-century as a slave in North Africa.
16th Century – In the English translated version of Epulario (The Italian Banquet), published in 1598, the following is written on making pies:
“To Make Pie That the Birds May Be Alive In them and Flie Out When It Is Cut Up – Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somwhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid. And this is to be at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company. And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a tart.”
17th, 18th and 19th Century
English and American Pies:
English women were baking pies long before the settlers came to America. The pie was an English specialty that was unrivaled in other European cuisines. Two early examples of the English meat pies were shepherd’s pie and cottage pie. Shepherd’s pie was made with lamb and vegetables, and the cottage pie was made with beef and vegetable. Both are topped with potatoes.
1620 – The Pilgrims brought their favorite family pie recipes with them to America. 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. Colonial women used round pans literally to cut corners and stretch the ingredients (for the same reason they baked shallow pies).
1700s – Pioneer women often served pies with every meal, thus firmly cementing this pastry into a unique form of American culture. 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. As settlers moved westward, American regional pies developed. Pies are continually being adapted to changing conditions and ingredients.
Rev. George Acrelius published in Stockhold in 1796, A Description of the Present and Former State at the Swedish Congregations in New Sweden, where he describes the eating of apple pie all the year:
“Apple-pie was used all the year, the evening meal of children. House-pie, in country places is make of apples neither peeled nor freed from the cores, and its crust is not broken if a agon-wheel goes over it!”
A Pie of Sweetbreads was one of George Washington’s, the first President of the United States, favorite pie recipes, which are taken from Martha’s Historic Cook Book, a possessions of the Pennsylvania Historical Society. Martha Washington (1731-1802) was an excellent cook and the book features some of the dishes that were prepared by the original First Lady in her colonial kitchen at Mount Vernon. Following is the modern-day version of the recipe:
“Pie of Sweetbreads – Drop a sweetbread into acidulated, salted boiling water and cook slowly for 20 minutes. Plunge into cold water. Drain and cut into cubes. Stew a pint of oysters until the edges curl. Add two tablespoons of butter creamed with one tablespoon of flour, one cup cream and the yolks of three eggs well beaten. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Line a deep baking dish with puff paste (dough). Put in a layer of oysters, then a layer of sweetbreads until the dish is nearly full. Pour the sauce over all and put a crust on top. Bake until the paste is a delicate brown. This is one of the most delicate pies that can be made.”
1800s – Whenever Emperor William I of Germany visited Queen Victoria (1819-1901) of England, his favorite pie was served. It contained a whole turkey stuffed with a chicken, the chicken stuffed with a pheasant, the pheasant stuffed with a woodcock.
1880-1910 – Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), a.k.a. Mark Twain, was a big fan of eating pies. His life-long housekeeper and friend (she was with the family for 30 years), Katy Leary, often baked Huckleberry pie to lure her master into breaking his habit of going without lunch. According to The American Heritage Cookbook, Katy Leary said in her book on Mark Twain:
“She ordered a pie every morning, she said, recalling a period in which Twain was depressed. Then I’d get a quart of milk and put it on the ice, and have it all ready – the huckleberry pie and the cold milk – about one o’clock. He eat half the huckleberry pie, anyway, and drink all the milk.”
During a trip to Europe in 1878, he felt nothing but disdain for the European food he encountered. He composed a list of foods that he looked forward to eating on his return to the United States. In his 1880 book, A Tramp Abroad, he wrote:
“It has now been many months, at the present writing, since I have had a nourishing meal, but I shall soon have one–a modest, private affair, all to myself. I have selected a few dishes, and made out a little bill of fare, which will go home in the steamer that precedes me, and be hot when I arrive. . .” On his long list of foods was apple pie, peach pie, American mince pie, pumpkin pie, and squash pie.”
Samual Clemens also had a recipe for English Pie:
“RECIPE FOR NEW ENGLISH PIE – To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows:
Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour, and construct a bullet-proof dough. Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three-fourths of an inch. Toughen and kiln-dry in a couple days in a mild but unvarying temperature. Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material. Fill with stewed dried apples; aggravate with cloves, lemon-peel, and slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugars, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies. Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.”
1900s – The appetite of James Buchanan Brady (1856-1917), known as Diamond Jim Brady, a legendary glutton and ladies’ man, was awesome. One dinner that Brady particularly liked to recall was arranged by architect Stanford White (1853-1906). A huge pie was wheeled in, a dancer emerged, unclothed, and walked the length of the banquet table, stopping at Brady’s seat and falling into his lap. As she spoon-fed the millionaire, more dancers appeared and attended to the feeding needs of the other guests.
Brady was known to finish lunch with an array of pies (not slices of different pies, but several pies). It was said that would begin his meal by sitting six inches from the table and would quit only when his stomach rubbed uncomfortably against the edge. Charles Rector, owner of ” Rector’s Restaurant” on Broadway in New York said he was “the best twenty-five customers I ever had.”
For a detailed history of the following individual types of pies, click on the underlined:
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