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Oxford Companion to Food
Pie in the Sky

If you are anything like us you ate enough pie at Thanksgiving dinner to sink the Pinta, the Niña, and the Santa María. Sadly, for our waistlines not our palates, the season of eating has just begun. To set you off on the right foot we have excerpted the entry from the Oxford Companion To Food about pie.

pie, a word whose meaning has evolved in the course of many centuries and which varies to some extent according to the country or even to region. Many languages lack a truly equivalent word, since pies, in the Anglo-American sense of the word, are indigenous to Europe, especially C. and N. Europe, and occur elsewhere only as introduced dishes. It is in N. America that their introduction has been most extensive.

The derivation of the word may be from magpie, shortened to ‘pie’. The explanation offered in favor of this is that the magpie collects a variety of things, and that it was an essential feature of early pies that they contained a variety of ingredients. So they did. But this aspect of the meaning has been lost, and nowadays one can have pies with only one important ingredient, e.g. the Scotch pie which contains just minced meat; a chicken pie; an apple pie, etc.

Early pies were large; but one can now apply the name to something small, as with small pork pies or mutton pies. However, shape governs usage, and terms like ‘pasty‘ remain in use to distinguish things which do not have what is regarded as the correct pie shape.

Early pies had Pastry tops; but modern pies may have a topping of something else (e.g. the mashed potato topping of Shepherd‘s Pie or cottage pie) or even be topless (as in the USA).

If the basic concept of ‘a pie’ is taken to mean a mixture of ingredients encased and cooked in pastry, then proto-pies were made in the classical world and pies certainly figured in early Arab cookery. But these were flat affairs, since olive oil was used as the fat in the pastry and will not produce upstanding pies; pastry made with olive oil is ‘weak’ and readily slumps.

The Egyptians have some claim to the greatest pie of all time. Emerson (1908) remarks they have always been proud of their ability to prepare very large dishes, and goes on to quote the following description by Abdallatef (or Abd el-Latif), a physician and traveler who was born at Baghdad in 1162, of a pie which he saw while traveling and studying in Egypt towards the end of the 12th century. This enormous pie was made thus:

Thirty pounds of fine flour, being kneaded with five pounds and a half of oil of sesame, and divided into two equal portions, one of these was spread upon a round tray of copper about four cubits in diameter. Upon this were placed three lambs stuffed with pounded meat fried with the oil of sesame and ground pistachio nuts and various hot aromatics, such as pepper, ginger, cinnamon, mastic, coriander-seed, cumin-seed, cardamom, and nutmeg, etc. These were then sprinkled with rose-water infused with musk; and upon the lambs, and in the remaining space, were placed twenty fowls, twenty chickens, and fifty smaller birds, some of which were baked and stuffed with eggs; some stuffed with meat, and some fried in the juice of sour grapes, or that of limes or some similar acid. To the above were added a number of small pies, some filled with meat and others with sugar and sweetmeats; and sometimes the meat of another lamb, cut into small pieces, and some filled with cheese. The whole being piled up in the form of a dome, some rose-water infused with musk and aloes-wood was sprinkled upon it and the other half of the paste first mentioned was spread over so as to close the whole; it was then baked, wiped with a sponge, and again sprinkled with rose-water infused with musk.

However, although the calculations are difficult, it seems that this pie was outdone in size by at least two examples of the famous Denby Dale pie, a giant version of the meat and potato pie made by housewives in the industrial areas of W. Yorkshire and E. Lancashire. The giant is made only for special occasions (e.g. the Repeal of the Corn Laws Pie (1846) and the Bicentenary Pie (1988)). This last example weighted 9.03 tonnes.

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Recent Comments

  1. Thomas Cannito

    Recipes for mutton pies call for 150 m/l of gravy. However there is no reference to making the gravy.

    Please comment.

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