Livin’ the Pie Life: a primer for the year of the pie

Whether they’re full of sliced apples or shaving cream, pies have been a piece of the American culture since, literally, the Pilgrims’ second Thanksgiving dinner.

National Pie Day is next week, Jan. 23, and on a larger scale, the Food Channel, market researchers and Nation’s Restaurant News magazine have declared pies a top food trend, with 2011 as the Year of the Pie.

But the pie has been part of nearly every culture after the New Stone Age. Since grinding tools were created out of stones, humans have been wrapping things in mixtures of flour and water. There is evidence that in 9500 BC in Egypt that, as the first villages were being formed, so were the first “pies” of honey in various ground grains.

Ancient Greeks are credited with creating actual pastry dough and using it for wrapping meats. The Romans took it from the Greeks, and the concept spread throughout Europe. Every culture put its own spin on the pie based on available grains and fillings. Pies were found to be handy for seafarers, hearty and pre-made, taking up much less space than full provisions for ships.

Pie as a British food item had been around for 300 years by the time the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

They relied on their new Native American neighbors to identify berries, nuts, fruits and game that could be baked into pies. As settlers spread across the developing United States, pies were a staple on the frontier.

The crust used less flour than bread, and pies could be cooked over a fire rather than baked in an oven. Small portions of meat and vegetables could be combined and stretched in a pie to make a family meal.

Precursors from England include the mashed potato-topped shepherd’s pie made with lamb and vegetables and cottage pie made with beef and vegetables, still popular today.

The word “pie” may have been coined from magpie, a bird known to collect bits and pieces of things for its nest. Pastry shells (crusts) were for a long while known as “cofyns,” yes, for boxes or baskets. Those crusts were thick and tough, and the gentry ate the fillings only. Remaining table scraps were often left for the servants and lower classes.

Stranger than pies called coffins, however, is the fact that for more than three centuries bakers presented pies at royal dinners containing live birds, small animals and people. During the 13th through 16th centuries, banquet guests would be surprised, entertained and possibly frightened by “four and twenty blackbirds,” frogs, musicians and poetry-reciting dwarfs leaping out of pastry while they chatted between courses.

Continuing in the strange-but-true vein, apple pie isn’t really American, and the apple is not even native to North America. The apple’s origins are in the Middle East where the Romans found it and proceeded to plant it all over Europe. One of the first apple pies mentioned in England was in the 14th century. The Pilgrims and subsequent immigrants brought apple seeds with them to plant here, and recipes began appearing in this country in the 18th century. However, many of the first apples weren’t eaten as much as pressed to produce cider.

Pumpkin pie, the second favorite of Americans, is actually more American than apple and was served at the second Thanksgiving dinner in 1623 and mentioned in a book about New England in 1654.

Today, however, the American Pie Council says there are at least 231 apple pie recipes out there, and it is the favorite of 36 million Americans. Bakers in the Ohio Valley agree that apple is the top seller. A couple of the many variations include the Dutch apple pie with cinnamon and a lattice top and Swedish style where a dough mixture is poured over the apples in lieu of a crust, creating a cake-like dessert.

Types of pies include filled, tart, top crust and two-crust. A filled pie is a bottom pastry crust with filling on top, for example a pumpkin pie. A tart is a filled pie with a shorter crust, usually topped with custard and/or fruit. Top crust pies put a topping of mashed potatoes or crust on top of a dish of filling, usually meat and vegetables. Two-crust pies place the filling between a bottom crust and a top crust, like most fruit pies.

Pastry dough or crust is always a combination of flour, water and shortening. Though advice varies on whether to use tin or glass pie plates, bakers do agree on the following pointers for making crust. Butter makes a richer pastry; vegetable shortening or lard makes a flakier crust. Less water is better; use only enough to hold the flour together. Handle the dough as little and as quickly as possible; the more it’s handled, the tougher it will bake. Keep the dough and your hands cool, even rubbing down the surface with an ice bag before rolling out the dough. If the weather is hot or humid, refrigerate the dough for half an hour before rolling it out.

For National Pie Day, the Pie Council suggests bringing your favorite pie to a local police station or fire department to show your appreciation. For more information on pies, recipes and National Pie Day, visit

Finally, the slapstick, shaving cream pie in the face IS American. It began with a 1909 movie, Mr. Flip, starring silent film actor Ben Turpin. The sight gag became a comedy icon in the following decades, used by Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny and Monty Python.

Glynis Valenti can be reached at