SING A SONG OF SIXPENCE
The old English nursery rhyme, in addition to “a pocketful of rye,” describes “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie.” Apparently that was not a far-fetched account in the days of the Roman Empire, when pies served at banquets sometimes featured live birds under the crust that would fly from the shell when the pies were served. A traveler named Abd el-Latif’s (born 1162) report on Medieval Arab cookery told of a massive pie that contained three lambs and ninety birds (not live, I assume!) among its many ingredients.
By the 16th century in England, pies were more likely to provide “a dainty dish to set before the king.” Elizabethan royals demonstrated the skills of their culinary staffs by serving savory pastries decorated with flowers, heraldic symbols or other appropriate designs. Among the lower classes, potpies were popular because the presence of a crust stretched the dish to serve more mouths, and because hand pies offered practical, portable meals that could be sold by street vendors.
But the British also are capable of setting a massive pie before the king. According to Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, “The magnificent lamprey pies sent by the city of Gloucester to the reigning monarch were of unimaginable girth. And all were outdone by the famous Denby Dale pie, a giant version of the meat and potato pie made by housewives in the industrial areas of Yorkshire and East Lancashire. The giant is made only for special occasions, such as the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 and the Bicentenary Pie in 1988. This last example weighed 9.03 tonnes.”
Pies came to America with immigrants (although indigenous Americans may have had their own versions of potpies — see Diana Kennedy’s recipe for Budin Azteca below). The Smithsonian Institution reports in its magazine that “the cookbook American Cookery, published in 1796 (this is not James Beards modern volume of the same title), included recipes for chicken pot pie, beef pot pie, and something called ‘Sea Pie,’ which called for pigeons, turkey, veal and mutton. True to its name, the recipe was originally developed aboard ships, which used whatever preserved meats were available.”
The trick to making pot pies has long been persuading all of the ingredients to complete cooking at the same time; the vegetables must not be undercooked, the meat must not disintegrate waiting for the vegetables to finish, and the crust must be beautifully browned before the entire filling becomes mush. This problem drove generations of Americans to the frozen foods sections of their supermarkets where commercially prepared pies were in abundance. It became the meal of choice to feed children on parent’s night out – all food groups encased, and easily heated, in a flaky crust.
While the dense (and possibly inedible) pastry crust of earlier centuries completely encased the filling, today’s more toothsome crust may cover only the top of the pie or, tart-like, only provide the bottom. They also, as in shepherd’s pie, may have no pastry crust at all. And the availability of frozen puff pastry dough can render making a homemade pie much simpler.