Four and Twenty Blackbirds

What about pie? I found myself asking this question after looking through a series of formal table setting diagrams. If you look at one of these, you’ll see an array of specialized cutlery:  forks for the salad, fish, meat and seafood courses (as well as a cake fork – this is important); knives for the meat, fish and salad courses (as well as a bread knife). Then there are spoons: teaspoon; soup, demitasse; and a dessert spoon. You’ll also find as many as five glasses, a couple of cups, bowls and several plates. If your meal includes a hard-shell crab or lobster, you’ll also find other specialty utensils (picks and crackers).

At this point, you may be asking yourself whether your humble author hosts or attends a lot of fancy dinner parties. After all, such knowledge wouldn’t really come into play eating last night’s cold pizza over the sink. For the record, I neither host nor attend many affairs of this sort and my tuxedo hasn’t been out of the closet in more than a decade. 

Why then all the concern over the correct fork? It starts with my initial question: What about pie? You’ll notice that cake gets its own fork. There’s even a general purpose “dessert” spoon but no mention of pie. Why the slight of pie?

This apparent dig by members of the haut monde is not accidental. Rather, I think it is a systematic attempt to keep pie in its proper proletarian place. Cakes are refined and delicate. Pie is common and rustic. Their respective histories make the case.

To begin, we must define a few terms – hold on though, because things get stupidly inconsistent and muddy from the get-go. On face, we might go with the logic of Justice Potter Stewart’s famed “I know it when I see it” reasoning but it’s just not that easy. 

Let’s start with cake. When we read “cake” most of us probably have an image similar to those things wonderfully depicted by artist, Wayne Thiebaud (yes, he paints pies and many other things as well). We imagine light, sweet layers of sponge, separated by creamy frosting. Maybe you see little rosettes or birthday candles. 

The Art of Wayne Thiebaud

Were it so cut and dried. Throughout history, many things have been called “cake.” The word itself is of Old Norse origin, emanating from their word, “kaka.” The term doesn’t make its way into English until the 13thcentury. That said, cake is an ancient invention. 

According to John Ayto, author of An A to Z of Food and Drink,  “The original dividing line between cake and bread was fairly thin: Roman times eggs and butter were often added to basic bread dough to give a consistency we would recognize as cakelike, and this was frequently sweetened with honey. Terminologically, too, the earliest English cakes were virtually bread, their main distinguishing characteristics being their shape–round and flat–and the fact that they were hard on both sides from being turned over during baking.”

The Fanny Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1918) states that the first icing emerges around the 17thcentury (boiled sugar and egg whites). It’s not until the Industrial Revolution provided a ready source of baking soda that cake as we know it today becomes common. 

You’ll always find pie. If you don’t, you should leave immediately

Then we have some curve balls. Is iced gingerbread a cake? What about fruitcake? Cheesecake? Carrot cake? From what I have read, the answers respectively are no, no, no and probably. Gingerbread and fruitcake are closer to bread than cake. Go ahead and toss banana bread and pumpkin bread in that same pile… cake-ish bread. Cheesecake is either a pie or a tart, depending upon whom you ask. As to carrot cake, its consistency is markedly different from bread and; its cream cheese icing is a central feature. So… cake. Lastly – and I am loath to broach the topic – there’s Boston Cream Pie, which is most decidedly a cake.

Then there’s pie. Many sources suggest that pies have been part of the human diet since the Egyptian Neolithic period (ca. 9500 BCE). They also note that early pies tended to be savory not sweet – filled with beef, lamb, wild duck, tortoise, pigeon, mussels or other seafood. The crusts tended to be inedible. Early Greek and Roman pies were sometimes made with reeds as the crust. Greeks are generally thought to have developed the first flour and water crusts. Writing for TimeLaura Mayer notes, “Meat pies were also often part of Roman dessert courses, or secundae mensea. Cato the Younger recorded the popularity of this sweet course, and a cheesecake-like dish called Placenta, in his treatise De Agricultura.”

Multiple sources state that the crusts (edible or not) served two purposes: preservation and portability. The American Pie Council reports, “Pyes (pies) originally appeared in England as early as the twelfth century. The crust of the pie was referred to as ‘coffyn.’ There was actually more crust than filling. Often these pies were made using fowl and the legs were left to hang over the side of the dish and used as handles.” Sounds delightful.

Then there’s the so-called “humble pie.” In modern vernacular, to “eat humble pie” is to be made ashamed and perhaps submissive. “Umbles” were the English term for the organs (kidneys, tripe, liver, etc.) of an animal. We assume because these are now the cheaper, less desirable parts of an animal that eating such a thing would denote lower class status. This would be a tidy explanation save for the fact that common recipes from the 16th – 18thcentury for umble pie often prescribed the use of expensive spices. 

How to make an apple pie

Glyn Hughes, writing for the website, Foods of England theorizes that there’s a bit of homophone chicanery at play with the name, “Umble seems to come, via Norman French, from the Latin ‘lumb’ meaning ‘loins,’ whereas ‘humble’ comes from ‘humilem,’ meaning ‘lowly.’ I fancy it is just coincidence that we’ve ended up with two different words which look almost the same.”

While we’re debunking things, the Pilgrims probably didn’t have pumpkin pie at the first Thanksgiving. They may well have made the aforementioned coffyn pies, but they were likely savory not sweet. This is buttressed by the fact that the first printed recipe for a sweetened squash pie doesn’t appear in England for another half-century.

By the 16thcentury, European bakers had begun to add lard and/or eggs to the crust mixture. This made for a more palatable shell. Which in turn, provided space for other innovations.

By the late 18thcentury sweet pies were beginning to take hold. In Europe, the French were perfecting puffed pastry and choux. One author suggests that this is the era when shallow pie tins first came into popular use. 

The number of sweet pie recipes continued to expand throughout the 19thcentury with a few dozen different recipes published by midcentury. Multiple sources cite the Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking published in 1947 as a watershed moment of pie history. It contained sixty-five sweet pie recipes. A decade later, one could find hundreds more. Today, there are many thousands. 

As the idea spread, half-moon-shaped folded-crust pies gained currency in many cultures. This leads to things such as Spanish empanadas, Brazilian risoles, Indian samosas and Italian calzones. All of these pies speak to a certain practicality. By contrast, the diminutive forms of cakes (i.e. cupcakes and petits fours) are as the Brits say still a bit posh. 

There is clearly a class line between cake and pie. We need not even go down the road of Marie-Antoinette’s apocryphal “Let them eat cake.” You often find cake in a diner, but you’ll always find pie. If you don’t, you should leave immediately.

We’ve all heard “American as apple pie.” Of course, apple pie’s origins aren’t really American. Then again, most Americans’ origins aren’t all that American, either. When the Pilgrims came to the New World, they were shedding the fetter of aristocratic dominion. Perhaps then we should take the absence of a pie fork as a symbol of what they were leaving behind and the promise of what they hoped to find.


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