Crusty Conundrums: When Pies Become Serious Business

meat pie

Sing a song of sixpence, a pocketful of rye/Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie/When the pie was opened the birds began to sing: Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king?

The rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence” is centuries old, and there is a measure of truth in its words. Bakers did put live birds inside “surprise pies” in England during the 16th century. Other animals that enterprising bakers have put inside pastries include squirrels, foxes, and frogs. Today such practice would undoubtedly be problematic.

Aside from forcing live animals into puff pastry shells, pies can’t be all that problematic, right? You’d be wrong.

A Surfeit of Lampreys

In the days before bakers had access to piston filling machines to load their pies with meaty or fruity goodness, they had to catch what they were going to serve up. In England, lampreys were a popular meat pie filling. Lampreys are eel-like fish with horrifying round mouths lined with nasty teeth. Some lampreys are parasitic creatures that latch on to bigger fish and literally suck the blood of their hosts like slippery, aquatic vampires.

Despite their unappetizing appearance, lamprey pies were the favorite meal of one of England’s less fondly-remembered monarchs, Henry the First. How much did the king love his fishy pastries? In 1135, King Henry I gorged himself on a large number of lamprey pies, heedless of the warnings of his physician. According to historical sources, he died from a “surfeit of lamprey,” which some historians theorize was another term for food poisoning. This charming story of gluttony is the reason the people of Gloucester, England has sent lamprey pies to the British royal family at every coronation and jubilee.

Pies of Legal Distinction

dining table

What is a pie? How is it different from a cobbler? You might think that mistaking one for the other is a simple culinary faux pas, but there are strict rules of what constitutes a pie.

  1. A pie is a pastry comprising grain, such as wheat, rice, or the crumbs of cookies and crackers. If there is no pastry, it’s not a pie.
  2. A cook must bake a pie inside an oven at one point in its creation process. Steaming, boiling, or frying are not acceptable substitutions.
  3. A baker must cook a pie inside a dish, whether metal, glass, or ceramic.
  4. Pies have a top crust and a bottom crust. A pastry with only a bottom crust and filling is technically a tart, whereas a pastry with only the filling and a top crust is a cobbler.

Such rigid rules for the definition of a pie may seem a little excessive. But petitioners have approached the legislative body of the United Kingdom with a law that makes it illegal for restaurants to sell casseroles as pies. A casserole is a pastry with a meat filling and only a top crust. When the petition closed in 2015, there were 5,687 signatures on it. Talk about a meaty legal problem.

Food can bring out many emotions. If you tasted something that a loved one used to cook for you, that emotion might be fondness. If the dish is well-made, it might be happiness. However, food can also be serious business, as demonstrated by the death of King Henry I and the existence of the petition.  So when it comes to pies, bakers should tread and knead lightly.