A Brief History of Pie

In light of Pi Day 2018, I was inspired to do a little research on the history of what we now consider ‘pie’. 

Pies of old were far from the pleasing lattice apples and rhubarb streusels of modern pie making.


From Middle English pye, probably from Latin pīca (pike-uh, meaning magpie, jay, woodpecker) from the idea of the many ingredients put into pies likened to the tendency of magpies to bring a variety of objects back to their nests.

From the etymology described above, we can make a loose connection between the root words referring to the habit of magpies and jays to collect colorful or shiny objects, which they hoard in their large nests, and the idea that at its most basic, a pie is any assortment of ingredients tossed into some sort of container – either edible or not.  If we look at other applications of the word pie in middle and modern English, we come to piebald, a reference to a bold black and white color pattern used to classify animal patterning, particularly horses and birds.  Magpies inspired the word for the pattern, while in turn, the word magpie means ‘chattering bird’.  So it seems that the pie root word most directly goes directly back to this family of birds and their entertaining behaviors.

Art by Brian Lies, from the book ‘More’ by I.C. Springman


At its most basic, a pie can be considered any fillings added to a pastry of some kind, which is little more than ground seeds such as grains or nuts mixed with water.  Thus one can assume that technically, any number of very ancient combinations of foraged items could be called pies, such as the galettes of Neolithic times – little more than a wild grain and water paste cooked on a flat stone over fire, topped with whatever other foodstuffs were available.  The galette has survived largely unchanged to this day, the only differences being a richer, finer pastry and a tendency toward fruit based fillings.

In 160 B.C., Marcus Porcius Cato completed his masterwork, De Agricultura.  In this treatise on Roman foodways and production are several recipes typical of the era, including one for a cheese pie called libum:

“Make libum by this method. Break up two pounds of cheese well in a mortar. When they will have been well broken up, put in a pound of wheat flour or, if you wish it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine flour and mix it well together with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. Then make into bread, places leaves beneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthen pot.”

Another savory pie-like dish was placenta, though it luckily lacked afterbirth of any kind:

“Make placenta in this way. Two pounds of wheat flour, from which you make the base, four pounds of flour and two pounds of best spelt for the tracta (note — these appear to be drawn-out strips of pastry). Soak the spelt in water.

When it is well-softened, place in a clean mortar and drain well. Then knead with your hands. When it will have been well kneaded, add four pounds of flour gradually. Make both into tracta. Arrange them in a wicker basket, where they may dry.

When they will dry, arrange them equally. With each side, touch the tracta with a cloth anointed with oil, when they will have been kneaded, and wipe them all over and anoint them with oil. When the tracta will have been made, warm well the hearth where you will cook, and the earthen pot. Afterwards, moisten the two pounds of wheat flour and knead together.

From this make a thin base. Soak fourteen pounds of sheep’s cheese, not sour and very fresh, in water. Then soften it, and change the water three times. From this, take it out and dry it very gradually with the hands; place it, well dried, in a mortar. When all the cheese will have been well-dried, knead it together with your hands in a clean mortar, and break it down as much as possible. Then take a clean flour sieve and make the cheese pass through the sieve into the mortar.

Afterwards, put in four and a half pounds of good honey. Mix this together well with the cheese. Afterwards place the balteus (base) on a clean board, which extends for one foot, add oiled laurel leaves, and form the placenta.

First place single tracta over the whole base, then smear the tracta with the mixture from the mortar, add the tracta one by one; in the same way smear continuously for as long as until all the cheese with the honey will have been used up. On the top place single tracta, afterwards wrap over the base and prepare, sweep out and control the hearth, then put in the placenta, cover with a hot crock, cover over at the top and sides with hot coal.

See that it cooks through well and at leisure. Uncover while you inspect it two or three times. When it will have been cooked, take it out and spread it with honey. This will be a half-modius cake.”

Ancient Greek cheese pie, plakous, similar to the Roman recipe above.

In Medieval times, when pie finally took on a form we may today recognize as such, the dish was called coffin or coffynsimply meaning ‘container’.  This referred to the thick, hard, bland pastry that held a filling, meat based and savory or savory-sweet per the tastes of the day.  The casing was not meant to be eaten, at least not by those who ate the fillings; indeed, the supper of servants and the begging poor was of this hard, gravy soaked paste.  Instead it was utilized as a cheap way to evenly slow cook the filling over many hours in a warm hearth.  Indeed, a coffyn simply looked like a large pot made of crust.  If the coffyn was open at the top, it was known as a ‘trap’.

The first consistently recorded recipes for ‘modern’ pies came along in 15th century Europe, specifically in England.  In 1545, the domestic guidebook  ‘A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye, declarynge what maner of  meates be beste in season, for al times in the yere, and how they ought to be dressed, and  serued at the table, bothe for fleshe dayes, and fyshe dayes’ – quite possibly one of the most unnecessarily lengthy cookbook titles ever – presents a recipe for short paest for tarte:

“To Make Short Paest for Tarte – Take fyne floure and a cursey of fayre water and a dysche of swete butter and a lyttel saffron, and the yolckes of two egges and make it thynne and as tender as ye maye.”

Ingredients such as saffron, egg yolks and fine flour wouldn’t have been sacrificed for the coffyn crusts of a few hundred years prior.  This pastry was certainly meant to be eaten, though the fillings were still commonly meaty and savory, with spices such as nutmeg and black pepper, rather than sweet.

From here, the familiar style of modern pie remained largely unchanged.  Purely sweet fruit pies with a buttery short crust were a more American invention, even giving rise to the term “to cut corners”: Pilgrims would bake the pies in small, shallow pans, filling them with native berries and tree fruits introduced to them by local Native Americans.  This switch to fruit from savory meat and vegetables was based more on necessity than desire, but the recipes stuck, giving us distinctly American classics such as rhubarb, blackberry and of course, apple.

The Favorite Pies of Famous Individuals
  • George Washington:  “Delicate” pie of sweetbreads, cream and stewed oysters.
  • Mark Twain: Huckleberry pie with a side of ice cold milk.
  • Emperor William I of Germany: A pie consisting of a whole turkey, stuffed with a chicken, the chicken stuffed with a pheasant, the pheasant stuffed with a woodcock, all encased in a short crust.
  • Elvis Presley: Banana icebox and lemon meringue.
A pie crust in the likeness of Betty White, created by artist Jessica Clark-Bojin

For a touch of humor, here is a lovely recipe for New English Pie, from Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain:

“To make this excellent breakfast dish, proceed as follows:
Take a sufficiency of water and a sufficiency of flour, and construct a bullet-proof dough.  Work this into the form of a disk, with the edges turned up some three-fourths of an inch.  Toughen and kiln-dry in a couple days in a mild but unvarying temperature.  Construct a cover for this redoubt in the same way and of the same material.  Fill with stewed dried apples; aggravate with cloves, lemon-peel, and slabs of citron; add two portions of New Orleans sugars, then solder on the lid and set in a safe place till it petrifies.  Serve cold at breakfast and invite your enemy.”

Ironically, this recipe may have gone over rather well in Medieval England.

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