Before There Was Writing, There Were Pies

It's Pie Week on Morning Edition, and we wanted to know more about where pie comes from. Linda Wertheimer talks to food anthropologist Deborah Duchon about the history of pie.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Welcome to day two of Pie Week here on MORNING EDITION. We wanted to know more about where pie comes from. So we consulted a nutritional anthropologist who explores the origins of all things edible. Deborah Duchon joined us from Atlanta.

Tell us a bit about the very first pies.

DEBORAH DUCHON: Pies are really an ancient food. The first pies were really more like the kind of handheld pies you get in a carnival today, and they were savory. So it was a bit of dough wrapped around a bit of meat or vegetables, and then cooked. It was even a form of preservation, because the food that was cooked into the roll was bacteria-free, and it would stay so for a few days.

WERTHEIMER: Now, what are we talking about here? I mean, what's the timeframe we're talking about?

DUCHON: We're talking about, really, before there was even writing, shortly after wheat and rye were domesticated and people could start making bread. So, even the ancient Greeks had pastry chefs.

WERTHEIMER: Now, when did pie begin to evolve into the sweet treat that it is today? What was the beginning of the pie as we know it?

DUCHON: There's no written record of that, but the first written pie recipe is dated 1303. The apple pie, as we know it today, was really much perfected in England by the 1400s. We're eating pretty much the same pie now as they were eating then.

WERTHEIMER: Now, let's talk about pie in the New World. American pies, it seems to me, are sweeter than desserts almost anywhere else in the world. Why'd that happen?

DUCHON: Well, a lot of that happened because of Prohibition. For many years, Americans ate mainly meat and booze. We were big drinkers. And Prohibition really put a stop to that. And a lot of the companies that had made their living making liquor and beer started making what they called soft drinks, as opposed to hard drinks. And, of course, those are the sugary beverages that we eat so much today. And also around the same time, people just turned to sweets as a way to put off how much they missed liquor. So people got used to eating sweet things.

WERTHEIMER: Do you know where the expression four and 20 blackbirds baked into a pie - I remember when I used to hear that as a little kid. I kept thinking about feathers.

(LAUGHTER)

DUCHON: Actually, I found a recipe for that kind of thing. It's dated from 1598. In those years, there was actually a course in, like, state banquets, very important banquets, called the entremets.

WERTHEIMER: That means between something, right?

DUCHON: Between plates. Exactly. Diners had to wait a long time between courses, and so chefs came up with ways to entertain the guests. And one of the things they would do is they would bake an empty pie crust, fill it with flour so it would hold its shape, and then they'd put a hole in the bottom and pull out the flour and put in birds so that the chef could bring this big pie out and open the crust, and the birds would fly out.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder about other pies. Have we, in this country, done much for the idea of pie?

DUCHON: Well, I think so. There are variations on pies that are very American, like the Apple Betty and cobblers and flumps and grunts. Those are all variations on pies that were developed by pioneers who didn't have the equipment that they needed - the right kind of pan, the right kind of oven. So those are all American-style variations.

WERTHEIMER: I think everybody knows what a cobbler is. What is a slump? What is a grunt?

(LAUGHTER)

DUCHON: A grunt is something that you basically cook all the ingredients on a stove, and the crust is actually more like a dumpling. And when it is cooking, it makes a grunting sound. It kind of goes uh, uh, uh, uh on top of the stove.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Big bubbles coming up through the...

DUCHON: That's exactly.

WERTHEIMER: ...through the pastry?

DUCHON: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Deborah Duchon is a nutritional anthropologist. She joined us from member station WABE in Atlanta, Georgia. Thank you very much for coming in.

DUCHON: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

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