Where does pie come from, and why do we eat it on Thanksgiving? The answer involves a certain bird known for collecting miscellaneous objects, Queen Elizabeth I, and elaborate dinnertime entertainment.
Tracing the origins of pie takes us back to the ancient Egyptians, who ate a crusty cake (similar to a modern galette) made from oats and barley with a honey filling. These early pies may have also included fruit or nuts. Drawings on the tomb walls of Ramses II and III depict spiral-shaped pastries that resemble galettes. A tablet from before 2,000 BCE included a recipe for a chicken pot pie as well.
In the fifth century BCE, the Greeks invented pie pastry that was used as the crust, as mentioned in the plays of Aristophenes. People began to work as pastry chefs as well, a separate occupation from bakers. Greek pies had mainly meat fillings.
Roman pies were likely adopted from the Greeks. Romans made pastry crust out of flour, oil, and water, but it was more of a carrying and storage container. As the pie cooked, the crust held in the juices of the pie filling, which typically included meat or vegetables but could also be sweet. A recipe for placenta (it may seem like an interesting name, but it literally means “flat cake”) in the second-century BCE cookbook De Agri Cultura by Cato the Elder may be one of the earliest recipes for a closed pie as well as an early recipe for cheesecake. It was made by encasing a sweet, thick filling of goat cheese, honey, and layers of pastry dough in crust.
From Egypt to Greece and then to Rome, the early pie had already been adapted in various ways. From there, Roman roads spread pies through Europe. As a greatly flexible format for baking any number of ingredients found in different environments, pies found expression in all parts of Europe.
Four and Twenty Blackbirds
By 1300 CE, pie had entered the English language—but through a rather interesting route. The word piehus (pie + house, meaning a pie bakery) is attested from the late 1100s, meaning that pie was likely used earlier but not written down in any surviving texts. Pies were also known as bake-metes (bake + meat).
The word pie or pye came to Middle English via Middle French from the Medieval Latin word pia, meaning “meat or fish enclosed in pastry.” It’s likely that this word is connected to pica, meaning “magpie”—the reason being that magpies have a habit of collecting miscellaneous objects, and a pie is a collection of various ingredients baked together in a pastry crust “nest.”
Pies became very common in England by the mid-1300s, and in 1378, King Richard II found it necessary to issue a law controlling pie prices in London. Pie is even mentioned in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as a specialty of the disreputable cook who traveled with the pilgrims to Canterbury:
And he could roast and seethe and broil and fry
And make a good thick soup, and bake a pie
A pie in this era had many ingredients, including meat and vegetables seasoned with pepper, currants, or dates, whereas a pastry had only one filling. Similar to Roman pies, the crust of a pie was not necessarily for eating, since it was hard and several inches thick, but rather for preserving the filling on long journeys and sea voyages. The crust was called a “coffyn” (coffin), which at that time typically referred to a container or chest where valuables were kept. When the filling of a pie was fowl, the bird came with legs still attached, dangling over the sides as handles to make the pie easier to eat. Other fillings included tortoise, beef, mutton, offal, and fish with spices like cinnamon, pepper, and orange peel.
Besides being a convenient and durable food at sea, pies soon became the centerpiece of exquisite banquets. Cooks baked increasingly elaborate pies with creative fillings to impress royalty as the pastry lid was removed to reveal what was inside.
Sometimes, cooked and redressed birds were placed on top of the pie to identify their contents.
You’ve probably heard the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence”:
Sing a song of sixpence
A pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing
Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king
This is not just a silly rhyme—it literally happened. Royal cooks baked pies and then carefully concealed live birds in the crust just before serving. When the pie was cut open, the birds flew out. Recipes from Italian and English cookbooks in the 1500–1600s contain recipes for “to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and fly out when it is cut up” and “Live Birds in a Pie” (which also contained live frogs).
Some (very, very large) pies were even said to contain an actor reciting poetry or a whole band of musicians! A banquet thrown for the Duke of Burgundy in the 1500s featured a large pie with a young woman inside, which was the beginning of the “surprise pie” and “girl in the pie” tropes.
This was a form of entremet, a term that once referred to a set of small dishes served in between courses of a banquet or as dessert. But by the Middle Ages, entremet had become a form of entertainment through edible or nonedible ornaments and live performances. The four-and-twenty blackbird pie was a dish meant not just to be eaten but also to entertain and dazzle the royal taste.
She’s My Cherry Pie
Fruit pies entered the scene in the 1500s. English tradition attributes the first cherry pies to Queen Elizabeth I, who was known for her fondness for fruit pie. Forget the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the relative political stability during her reign, and a golden age of English literature and drama—the reign of Queen Elizabeth brought sweet, sweet dessert pies to the world.
Speaking of English literature, Shakespeare used pie as a dramatic device (as if it weren’t already dramatic enough) in Titus Andronicus. Titus has two villains baked into a pie because they attacked his daughter, and then serves the pie to the victims’ mother.
As American as Apple Pie
Though pie was featured in other European cuisines, the pie was an English specialty that was unmatched in any other country.But asEnglish settlers brought their beloved pies with them as they colonized North America, recipes diverged somewhat, and pie became as American as—well, apple pie. (Apple pie actually came from our friend Geoffrey Chaucer, who printed a recipe in the fourteenth century that included figs, raisins, and pears along with apples—but no sugar, as this would not have been widely available until the seventeenth century.)
In the 1600s and 1700s in America, pie was served at every meal and became a staple at social gatherings and celebrations. New England was even known as the “pie belt” due to the popularity of the pastry. The early colonists used long, narrow coffins to encase a variety of fillings. They eventually switched to a round shape, and during the Revolutionary Era, people finally began to eat the pie crust.
Shepherd’s pie and cottage pie were most popular at first, in true British fashion. Soon, though, colonists began to bake pies with fruits, berries, and other ingredients that grew in the New World. As colonists moved west, they continued to adapt their pies to use local ingredients. Over time, both America and Great Britain had increasingly greater access to sweeteners like maple syrup, molasses, and honey, as well as cane sugar due to the exploitation of enslaved people on sugar plantations in the Caribbean islands. It took a couple of centuries, but sweet pies eventually won over in America, while savory pies retained their hold in Great Britain.
Pie may have been served at early “thanksgiving” celebrations in 1618–1621, but pumpkin pie was most definitely not on the menu. The earliest recipe for pumpkin pie comes from a 1675 English cookbook and used a British preparation of spiced and boiled squash as a pie filling. This pie was savory rather than sweet and did not make its way to the United States until the 1800s. Squash was an import from the New World to the Old World, but pumpkin pie was an export from Great Britain to America.
Our national mythology surrounding Thanksgiving comes mainly from much later in our country’s history. Sarah Josepha Hale, who advocated to celebrate Thanksgiving as a unifying national holiday after the Civil War, described the perfect Thanksgiving dinner as including fried turkey with gravy, ham, wheat bread, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie.
In the South, sweet potato pie typically took the place of pumpkin pie due to greater availability, and pecan and walnut trees lent themselves to nut pies as well. Sweet potatoes came to America on ships that brought slaves from Africa. The sweet potato dishes that became a regional favorite in the southern United States thus have roots in the slave trade. In the North, pumpkin pie remained popular along with apple. The Midwest developed a liking for cream and cheese pies, while the plains inherited Swedish tart berry pies.
Pie has a long and storied past, much of it fascinating from the perspective of history, linguistics, and literature. But like many aspects of European history, pie was influenced by extravagant and indulgent displays of wealth in service of royalty. Like many aspects of American history, pie was influenced by colonialism and slavery. Going forward, may our celebrations and traditions and the food we associate with them connect us to the past while reaching toward a more equitable future.
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Mayer, Laura. “A Brief History of Pie.” Time, November 26, 2008. https://time.com/3958057/history-of-pie/.
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