On Pie

Reader Jonah points out that I failed to make the connection between chicken in a salt crust and Medieval pies, as I promised to do early in the week. Very true, Jonah, thanks for the reminder! My thought was simply this: that once upon time, pie wasn’t so much a “what” as it was a “how.” Which is to say, it was a method, a way to cook and to preserve food. I think of pie as the original Tupperware.

Food historians make the case that pie-eating dates to Greece and Rome. But here it really depends on what you mean by pie. Pies of the ancient world were more akin to modern tarts: open-faced, made for immediate consumption. The Arabs were the next in line to create pie-like baked goods, which is to say pastries with top and bottom crusts. Yet they were not — at least to my way of thinking — true pies. Those evolved in the Middle Ages in Europe.

Every human who’s ever prepared food has confronted the same problem: what to do with leftovers. The dilemma was especially vexing in the days before refrigeration, when fresh food degraded in an eye-blink. Cooking, which deactivates enzymes and kills microbes, was one way to prevent such degradation, and extended the life of quick-spoiling foods for days.

Pie-making did the whole cooking thing one better by (sort of) locking air out. That extended the shelf life of whatever was put into the pie for up to a week. More functional than delectable, pies like this could be up to several feet across.

Of course you couldn’t make a behemoth like than out of any old crust. Today’s flaky-tender pâtes brisées are absolute sissies compared to the workhorse crusts of old. These brutes started out as thick pastes of flour and water, pressed into deep, straight-sided pans (or possibly bottomless iron or wooden hoops) to a thickness of an inch or more.

After an hours-long bake in a low-heat oven, they emerged like clay pots, stone-like in their hardness, probably with a flavor to match. Eating a pie like that simply entailed cracking it open, scooping out the contents and discarding the exterior, which presumably resounded with a loud, hollow thunk when it hit the ground.

What did Medieval pies contain? Like tupperware, just about anything. Fruits, yes, but far more often meats and vegetables. Custards could go in, as could sauces which, combined with “meat-and-potatoes” ingredients created what could be thought of as early casseroles.

Which gives me an idea, actually…

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