Bites of History: Savory pies

Taking that first bite of steaming hot chicken pot pie is like wrapping your taste buds in a warm fuzzy blanket. And the same goes for that first mouthful of a Natchitoches meat pie, or of that tamale pie recipe that’s been in the family for years. When it’s cold outside or when we long to connect with our roots, few things say home like a savory pie.

Although we tend to associate the word “pie” with fruit and sweets, the first pies were actually filled with meats and cheese. Bread dough pies can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians, but it is the Romans who get kudos for sealing meat inside a flour and oil paste dough.

Medieval Europe had a special affection for meat pies. In a time before the invention of pie pans, feudal-era crusts were used as stew containers, and were therefore far from light and flaky. Pies were either double-crusted and dubbed “coffins,” (meaning a basket or box), or they were made without a top and known as a “trap.” In either case, these early crusts were so sturdy that we’re pretty sure that the lower classes recycled and used them several times. The upper class, who ate only pie fillings, likely gave their crusts to servants for their dinner.

An aristocratic European household would serve elaborate pies filled with poultry, lamb and, on religious fast days, fish, porpoise and eel. It was also common for nobility’s pies to be topped with a stuffed bird, which often identified the filling and was considered a sophisticated decoration.

And remember the nursery rhyme about four and 20 blackbirds baked in a pie? The song is derived from animated pies, which were all the rage among royalty. For special occasions, live birds, frogs, and even dwarfs, dancing girls, magicians and musicians could be encased inside a gigantic crust and wheeled out to wide-eyed guests.

The pies of Europe’s lower classes would have been filled with less august ingredients, such as kidneys, hearts, and tongue. Also known as “humbles,” animal innards used in pies gave rise to the term “Humble pie.”

Europeans also had an affinity for portable pies, as the rock-hard crusts made sturdy carrying vessels for cooked meat. Probably the most popular example is the Cornish pasty, the individual potato, onion, and meat-filled pie with the signature crimped-edged crust. This pie was a favorite of the miners of Cornwall, England, and it likely dates back to the 1100s.

Many food historians speculate that the word “pie” came in use around the 13th century, and is likely derived from the magpie, a bird notorious for collecting odds and ends. Medieval pies were filled with a staggering array of anatomical bits and pieces, along with fruit, wine, and spices, and just about anything else edible, including things past their prime. And so, in a nod to the bird that stockpiles in its nest, the medieval cook made a single dish out of a supply of horded ingredients.

Some time around the year 1500, the French and Italians used butter and more sophisticated kneading methods to make pie crusts flakier. And around the same period, someone in Europe invented the pie vent (pie bird, pie whistle, pie funnel, pie chimney).

This hollow ceramic device is shaped like a small bird and is placed in the center of a pie crust, allowing excess steam to escape and to prevent juices from boiling over. Today, pie vents are highly collectible.

Savory pies, including cottage pie (beef topped with potatoes) and shepherd’s pie (cottage pie made with lamb), came to America with the Pilgrims.

A look at Amelia Simmons’ 1796 “American Cookery” shows that other fashionable pies way back when included tongue and ox foot pie, as well as pigeon, veal and pork pies. Eventually, savory pies took on the complexion of their regions. Cream and cheese pies became popular in the dairy regions of the northern Midwest.

Folks in Massachusetts like their pork pies, while down here in Louisiana we made our crawfish and shrimp pies and, of course, Natchitoches meat pies.

In the U.S., the term “pot pie” also became the preferred reference to a meat pie enclosed in a crust. Crusts in America were originally made with suet or lard. The vegetable shortening Crisco was invented in 1911, and it soon replaced lard as the primary fat.

Like soup, just about every culture developed its own version of savory pie, most of which were based on whatever type of meat, fish, or cheese was lying around. Latin America, for example, is famous for empanadas, which originated in their colonizer Portugal.

India is famed for samosas. Britains crave steak and kidney pie. The Middle East has sfiha, Mexico churns out tons of tamales, and Italy has blessed us with calzones and pizza.

So next time you long to chow down on what your mama used to make with Sunday leftovers, resist the urge to buy frozen and consider making your own savory pie. Few things fill a kitchen with a more tantalizing aroma. And hardly any other dish takes you closer to home.

Sources: Stavely and Fitzgerald, America’s Founding Food (2004); http://www.sliceoflifesunday.wordpress.com; http://www.npr.org; http://www.foodtimeline.org; http://www.whatscookingamerica.net; http://www.civilwarcooking.blogspot.com

Cynthia LeJeune Nobles is a member of the Newcomb College Culinary History Writers Group and the author of LSU Press’s title “The Delta Queen Cookbook.” You can contact her at noblescynthia@gmail.com.