A Brief History of Pie

Pies, especially portable little hand pies, go back so far in human history, it’s nearly impossible to say when or where they first showed up. As I mentioned at the beginning of the week, they’re just one of those foods that seems to have sprung up independently, all over the world…some ideas are just that good. It’s probably safe to say that one of the world’s best-known hand pies, the calzone, is a descendant of the sanbusak, a small triangular fried pie that the Arabs have been making since at least the 9th century. Why is it safe to say this? Because the Arabs occupied pretty much the entire Southern Mediterranean and a good deal more from the early 700’s right up until almost the beginning of the 16th century. Regions under Arab control included the Island of Sicily, which is of course part of modern-day Italy (in fact, it’s thought by some historians that secret Arab societies, which hung on in Sicily well after Christians retook the Mediterranean, went on to become the modern mafia). The Arabs introduced a huge part of what we now think of as Mediterranean cuisine to the area, since in those days they truly were on the cutting edge of everything from cuisine to science to agriculture. Since one of the jewels of the old Caliphate was Spain (or as the Arabs used to call it, Andalus, it goes without saying the Arabs originated the empanada, which, like its Arab progenitor, is still served fried.

What does all this have to do with the history of the pasty? I have no idea. Nor does anyone else, except to say that pasties probably are’t part of this particular lineage. They do date back at least to the Middles Ages though, since old English literature is replete with references to them. Chretien de Troyes’ Aurthurian romances mention pasties. They were written in the 12th century and set, curiously enough, in Cornwall. The Robin Hood ballads of the 14th Century also talk about them, as does Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor written in 1600. In fact, pasties might well be some of the most talked about pastry in all of English literature. Clearly, the Cornish have been on the ball in this department for quite a long while.

Who might have brought the pasty to the British Isles prior to 1150 A.D.? Well, the Vikings blew through that part of the world in about 876 A.D., and they liked pie. Before them the Romans were crawling all over lower England right back to the time of Chirst. They were big pie eaters too. Who can say? But I can say this: call it a calzone, call it pasty, call it empanada, call it pierogi, call it pot sticker call it sanbusak, I, for one, shall call it delicious.

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