Pie/Pye: English Tradition, American Icon

Pie is the American synonym of prosperity, and its varying contents the calendar of the changing seasons. Pie is the food of the heroic. No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished… In our own glad and fortunate country the seasons are known by their respective dominant pie – for each there is an appropriate pie, with apple pie for all the year ’round.
 The New York Times, May 3, 1902

“As American as apple pie.” Well, no. It should be as English as apple pie.  Or just plain pie.

The story of pie is an ancient one, for some believe that the ancient Egyptians knew a thing or two about pastry.

It’s no surprise that English pies began as meat-filled “coffyns” (another word for box or container), a thick dough (“huff paste”) surrounding the meat, allowing it to cook for long hours, keeping the meat moist and delectable, much as baking a fish or hunk of meat wrapped in clay. One of the modern holdovers of this practice could be Beef Wellington. Yet, wheat flour, or rye, mixed with water hardly makes for a true pastry experience, at least not as we know it today.

The first written recipes in English for true pastry appeared in the sixteenth century, with fat – lard or butter – mixed into flour just so, to create an increasingly desired flakiness.

Sweet pies tend to be associated with American kitchens, particularly Southern kitchens. But English cooks did produce sweet pies, as witness recipes in Gervase Markham’s The English Housewife (1615), a known cookery text in colonial Jamestown by 1620. Just as the Pilgrims were getting started in their cold Massachusetts settlement, cooks in Jamestown could be making cherry, pippin, apple, codling, pudding (custard), yellow (cream), or prune pies/tarts, using Markham’s recipes, most of which called for sugar. Given the fear of eating fresh fruit so common in English culinary circles – based on the old ideas of humoral theory – not until the eighteenth century did fresh fruit become more welcome in the English diet, it should not be surprising that a typical way of incorporating fresh fruit into the menu resulted in prolong baking with sugar and spices in crusts. Or by using dried fruit, as in mince pie, an interesting combination that started out as meat pie combined with sweet ingredients, evolving into today’s version with suet and no meat.

By 1629, according to John Parkinson, an herbalist, England boasted of fifty-seven kinds of apples, sixty-two different pears, sixty-one varieties of plums, thirty-five different cherries, and twenty-two peaches.” Not to mention “gooseberries, grapes, whortleberries, strawberries, quinces, apricots, raspberries, currants, barberries, and melon.” (Trudy Eden, The Early American Table, 2008, p. 28)

C. Ann Wilson even suggests that pumpkin pie, a perennial American favorite, graced upper-class English tables during the seventeenth century. But perhaps one of Ms. Wilson’s more surprising comments concerns the sweet potato, “imported from Spain during the late summer.” She refers to Thomas Dawson’s recipe (The Good Housewife’s Jewell, 1596), meant to impart courage to a man or a woman, the sweet potato being considered an aphrodisiac at the time:

A Tarte to prouoke courage either in man or Woman.
TAKE a quart of good wine, and boyle therein two Burre rootes scraped cleane, two good Quinces, and a Potaton roote well pared and an ounce of Dates, and when all these are boyled verie tender, let them be drawne throgh a strainer wine and al, and then put in the yolks of eight Egs, and the braines of three or foure cocke Sparrowes, and straine them into the other, and a litle Rosewater, and seeth them all with Sugar, Sinamon and Ginger, and cloues and Mace, and put in a litle sweet Butter, and set it vpon a chafingdish of coales betweene two platters, and so let it boyle till it be something big.

Sweet potatoes, of course, were a New World food, and for a long while enjoyed popularity at the tables of the English elite, including the colonists of Virginia. Only later did sweet potatoes transform into food for slaves, given their resemblance to some of the root vegetables native to Africa.

And let’s not forget the impact of Edward Kidder’s pie shops in Cheapside, the first of which opened in 1660. Kidder later started what some might consider to be the first cooking school, where he taught upper-class English women how to make pastry, claiming toward the end of his life that he’d taught over 6000 the art of pastry. His cookbook, The Receipts of Pastry and Cookery (1739), no doubt went home with his students.

The association between pastry and upper class aspirations is an intriguing one, suggesting that perhaps eating pie, especially sweet pies, conveyed a certain social aplomb on a person. The term “humble pie” refers to the use by the poor of umbles or innards instead of choice bits of the animal in question.

Possible explanations for seeming dichotomy between English and American pie lore lie in 1) the eighteenth-century tendency of the English elite to emulate the French in the kitchen, and that meant less sugar and 2) the increasing availability and cheapness of sugar as the plantations in Barbados churned out sugar for the world market, including the English settlers living along the Eastern seaboard.

Pie, an immensely complicated symbol of cultural contact, a topic that requires more examination.

But for now, I’m going to eat some peach pie, peaches being a fascinating codicil to the story of pie as well.


*Robert S. Cox’s book, New England Pie: History Under a Crust (October 2015), attempts to tell the story of America’s favorite dessert, or at least one of them.

© 2015 C. Bertelsen
Peach pie 2


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