Pie in the Sky: A Review of Janet Clarkson’s “Pie: A Global History”

pie-global-history-clarksonYou will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

~~ Joe Hill*, “The Preacher and the Slave” chorus, 1911

Everybody knows what pie is, right? Wrong, and Janet Clarkson (The Old Foodie) tells us why in her dazzling new book, Pie: A Global History (Reaktion Books, London, 2009). Clarkson brings pie history all together under one crust, as it were, sort of like the dubious Scrap Pies she introduces in this tale of pies and their genealogy.

Trying to describe what it is to be reading Pie: A Global History is no easy task. An enormous amount of information appears in this small, no, tiny, book (136 pages, 5 X 8 inches).

Very few books — actually none — concern themselves with the copious range of details that Clarkson mentions and examines. Louis P. De Gouy’s The Pie Book suggests that pastry began in ancient Greek, an idea that Clarkson debunks in her erudite dissection of fats and flour, lard and wheat. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Pie and Pastry Bible reveals not one word about the history of pie, nor that of the 300 recipes in that book.

Pie: A Global History starts out with an introduction to the nature of pies.  A discussion of the history of pies follows, so insightful that the reader keeps whispering to herself, “Yes, of course! How clever! How true!”  Then come treatises on the appeal of pies, fillings, special-occasion pies (including the 24 blackbirds), pies across the globe and in different cultures, and imaginary pies such as those associated with nursery rhymes, films, and cartoons.

In regard to cartoons, Clarkson brings up a character named Desperate Dan, shown in an illustration tucking into a cow-pie, shown as a pie replete with a whole cow, tail, horns, and hooves. Now I don’t know about you, but I think of one thing when I think of “cow-pie.” In American slang, “cow-pie” means — to be as polite here as possible — a pile of cow turds. Apparently the British think the same. So the fact that Clarkson does not mention this seems rather odd, considering that a definite aura of humor pervades the book as a whole.

Clarkson reminds the reader that so often food history passes through the lens of today’s vision, even in cartoons and popular culture.

melton-mowbray-pie-1Probably the most interesting, at least to this American reader, is the rendering of lard into the history of pie and pastry. And especially the Melton Mowbray Pie, which sounds like it could substitute in a pinch for a cannonball should the need arise. This pie, with its thick crust, evolved from pies designed to store food.

The concept that pie crusts formed storage containers seems so logical, yet incomprehensible. As Clarkson says, “Keeping a meat pie for a year for a whole year without refrigeration is a terrifying thought today, but it was such a common practice that we have to assume that most of the time consumers survived the experience.”  To support her arguments and theories, Clarkson provides numerous telling and appropriate examples taken from original texts.

The book ends with a number of period recipes (in addition to similar historical recipes interspersed throughout the book), a select bibliography, suggested Web sites including The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association, and a fairly serviceable index. A plethora of delightful illustrations, as well as witty discourse, keeps the reader turning the pages of this invaluable study outlining the history of pie.

As Clarkson says, in her discussion of pies in literature, “there is an entire Ph.D in the use and significance of the pie in Charles Dickens’s works alone.” Actually, Pie: A Global History contains kernel after kernel of information that could be turned into dissertations, theses, full books, and then some. For example, one topic — the difference between the prevalence of savory versus sweet pies in the U.S. and Australia — bears greater study.

While the last two chapters don’t contain the same strong analysis found in the beginning of the book, nonetheless Pie represents scholarship and storytelling of an incredibly high caliber.

Truly pie is one of the West’s most significant foods. And one of the tastiest, be it savory or sweet.

[A confession: once I started reading this book, I couldn't stop until I finished it. My only major complaint about the book stems from the lack of a prominent chocolate overtone. For that reason, I'm including a recipe below for Chocolate Cream Pie, even if it is unusual for a reviewer's recipe to show up in a book review.]

Chocolate Pie (Photo credit: Paul Moody)

Chocolate Pie (Photo credit: Paul Moody)

Chocolate Cream Pie
Makes 1 9-inch pie

1 9-inch pie crust, baked
1/3 cup sugar
3 T. cornstarch
2 cups whole milk
3 large eggs, beaten, in a bowl large enough to hold 1/3 of the pudding mixture
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, cut into small pieces
Pinch of fine sea salt
2 t. pure vanilla extract
3 T. butter

2 cups heavy whipping cream, whipped

Mix sugar and cornstarch in a heavy stainless steel pot. Stir in the milk until the sugar and cornstarch dissolve. Be sure to scrape the corner edges of the pot to get all the dry ingredients moistened. Over low heat, bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. It will begin to thicken early on; be sure to whisk well and use a wooden spoon to get at the edges.

Pour about 1/3 of the hot pudding into the eggs, stir well, and then add to the remaining pudding. Replace pot on the heat, stirring constantly, and bring back to a boil. When the mixture comes to a boil, take pot off the heat. Stir in the chocolate, vanilla, and butter. Keep stirring until chocolate and butter melt completely.

Let filling cool to room temperature, covered with plastic wrap pressed on the surface to avoid a “skin” forming. Spread filling in baked pie shell, cover with fresh plastic wrap, and refrigerate until serving time. At serving time, cover the chocolate area with whipped cream. Serve cut into wedges.

  • Joe Hill was a Swedish-American labor organizer, imprisoned for murder and executed on November 19, 1915 by firing squad. His guilt was, and is, moot. “Pie in the sky” comes from his parody of a hymn sung by the Salvation Army.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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