Stuffed (7)

By: Tom Nealon
May 6, 2015

custard

One in a new series of posts by Tom Nealon, author of the highly popular 2010–2012 HiLobrow series DE CONDIMENTIS. The posts in the STUFFED series are inspired by Nealon’s collection of rare cookbooks, which he sells — among other things — via Pazzo Books. His rare cookbook catalog is available here as a PDF or a full color book.

STUFFED SERIES: THE MAGAZINE OF TASTE | AUGURIES AND PIGNOSTICATIONS | THE CATSUP WAR | CAVEAT CONDIMENTOR | CURRIE CONDIMENTO | POTATO CHIPS AND DEMOCRACY | PIE SHAPES | WHEY AND WHEY NOT | PINK LEMONADE | EUREKA! MICROWAVES | CULINARY ILLUSIONS | AD SALSA PER ASPERA | THE WAR ON MOLE | ALMONDS: NO JOY | GARNISHED | REVUE DES MENUS | REVUE DES MENUS (DEUX) | WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE | THE THICKENING | TRUMPED | CHILES EN MOVIMIENTO | Etc.

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AN INVESTIGATION INTO PIE SHAPES

pie_richcloset

A few years ago I picked up a banged-up copy of The Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of Rarities (the second edition, London, 1687). Why? Because it had two pages of the most amazing pie shapes I had ever seen — all put forward with no (and as if they required no) explanation.

These same pie shapes, I’ve discovered, had been passed around for a few decades, by that point — having appeared in a few different cookbooks.

They first appeared in Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook, or the Art and Mystery of Cookery (1660), which pictured these and a few other similarly shaped pies with a similar lack of explanation. Which is odd, because — beyond the carp pie looking like a fish, the tongue pie (maybe) looking like a tongue, and the oyster pie looking like an oyster (if you are a crazy person) — there seems to be no real relationship, here, between form and filling.

carp and oyster pies
carp and oyster pies

The custard pies are especially all over the place. One element, naturally, was decorative, but the profusion of strange, sweeping shapes evokes something familiar, but what?

custard2

double_custard

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Why did mid-17th century pies take on such fantastical shapes? Let’s investigate.

One popular explanation has to do with the most commonly found weird-shaped pie: mince. It was illegal to have mince pies for Christmas, according to legend; as a result, mince pies were fashioned in outlandish shapes — i.e., in order to evade detection.

oliver_cromwell_by_samuel_cooper1

Another in a long line of nonsensical food stories, you might think. However, this one has at least a grain of truth. In 1657, Oliver Cromwell did make it illegal to eat mince-meat pies at Christmastime — as part of his puritanical campaign against gluttony. (He also outlawed Christmas, hilarity, and being Irish.) This was towards the end of Cromwell’s run as Lord Protector, eight years after relieving Charles I of his head — and just a year before he succumbed to a potent combination of malaria, kidney stones, and black bile imbalance.

an array of minced pies from Robert May's cookbook
An array of minced pies from Robert May’s cookbook

Still, Cromwell’s anti-pie laws were never broadly enforced — and, in any case, did not survive into the reign of Charles I, during which time Robert May published The Accomplisht Cook. (Hilariously, banning Christmas and mince pies did catch on in puritan New England; the ban remained in Boston until 1681.) And even if glutton-pies were verboten, wouldn’t you disguise them as something other than… a pie? No officer, that’s not a mincemeat pie, it’s a playfully shaped sawdust pie! We make them fresh and then leave them out all week to make sure they are extra terrible. Have one for the road?

The Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of Rarities, 1687
The Accomplished Ladies Rich Closet of Rarities, 1687

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Alas, the historical record provides no answers to curious pie-shape question. Although it does reveal that, for a variety of reasons involving not only cultural traditions but economics, 17th century pies were typically cooked free-standing — i.e., not in pie tins. Hmm. I contacted Hilobrow friend and contributor Deb Chachra, who happens to be an engineering professor, for some insights.

According to Dr. Chachra:

Why are the shapes of the pies so fabulously baroque compared to today’s plain round or square pies? One reason might be to help provide structural integrity to a high-walled pie that wasn’t baked in a supporting tin. Thin walls tend to buckle or fall over when they’re flat; adding an angle or a curve makes them much more stable. (You can see this by trying to balance a piece of paper on its edge, then folding it in half and trying it again.) Especially in the larger pies, having scalloped or sharply curved edges would make the pie walls more stable without having to use a thicker crust. The same principle can be seen in crinkle crankle walls, serpentine walls that are usually only one brick wide — the alternating curves means that the wall can be made very thin, while still not falling over (and thus use fewer bricks). Of course, using different patterns of curves and angles for each type of pie may also help differentiate the contents, and would also provide different ratios of crust to filling for different kinds of pies.

a crinkle crankle wall
A crinkle crankle wall

Aha! Although our natural assumption is that the fantastic shapes of 17th-century pies were motivated by aesthetics, in fact these shapes apparently evolved in parallel with the crinkle crankle walls built by Dutch engineers in swampy [nothing swampier than a custard filling!] areas of East Anglia in the 17th century. Free-standing pie walls were collapsing, but the bakers wanted to keep the exterior walls thin and delicate (no one wants an inedible crust on a custard pie — you might as well just have some custard), thus: a fantastic-looking, but entirely functional solution to our mystery.

Did crinkle crankle walls directly influence the design of pies, or vice versa? Inquiring minds want to know. If you have evidence, readers, please forward it along. — eds.

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STUFFED SERIES: THE MAGAZINE OF TASTE | AUGURIES AND PIGNOSTICATIONS | THE CATSUP WAR | CAVEAT CONDIMENTOR | CURRIE CONDIMENTO | POTATO CHIPS AND DEMOCRACY | PIE SHAPES | WHEY AND WHEY NOT | PINK LEMONADE | EUREKA! MICROWAVES | CULINARY ILLUSIONS | AD SALSA PER ASPERA | THE WAR ON MOLE | ALMONDS: NO JOY | GARNISHED | REVUE DES MENUS | REVUE DES MENUS (DEUX) | WORCESTERSHIRE SAUCE | THE THICKENING | TRUMPED | CHILES EN MOVIMIENTO | Etc.

MORE POSTS BY TOM NEALON: Salsa Mahonesa and the Seven Years War, Golden Apples, Crimson Stew, Diagram of Condiments vs. Sauces, etc., and his De Condimentis series (Fish Sauce | Hot Sauce | Vinegar | Drunken Vinegar | Balsamic Vinegar | Food History | Barbecue Sauce | Butter | Mustard | Sour Cream | Maple Syrup | Salad Dressing | Gravy) — are among the most popular we’ve ever published here at HiLobrow.

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What do you think?

  1. Is there any evidence that the pies were baked in these shapes as opposed to, say, decorated with bits of pastry cut into these shapes?

    If I were baking a pie without a tin to support it I think I’d just put some filling in the middle of a piece of pastry and gather it all around it dumpling style – how come your engineer friend is not showing any love for spheres? What sort of engineer is that?! The crinkle crankle theory seems specious, especially looking at some of the shapes shown here. Surely the sharp corners would just burn, even if those shapes were somehow easier to make and stronger than simpler ones.

  2. in Russia and the Soviet Union, this practice was done so that consumers could tell at a glance what flavor the pie was. It also looks like you are supposed to make an array of pies and fit them together to make a complete design.

  3. Forget why, I’d like to know HOW they made these. Can some brave pie-reenactor please attempt to make some of these bizarre pies shaped like Jim Woodring’s hallucinations.

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