Since it’s almost Thanksgiving, I thought I would do some research on the origins of some of my favorite holiday pie! What I found out is very interesting. Like most things in life, pies seem to have a sordid tale to tell and many are not without some level of controversy. Here is what I learned.
Pecan pie has a pretty murky history. Pecans as a plan have their origins in Texas. Pecans are an ancient food with evidence that they existed in the fossil record before the Indians showed up here in America. That being said there are actually two widely agreed upon origins for the delight we know today as Pecan pie. It seems that about half the historians attribute the pie to the French-American who settled in what is today known as Louisiana. No known written recipe for pecan pie has ever been found dated before the early twentieth century. This causes the other half of historians including the Karo syrup folks themselves attribute the origins of the recipe to mass manufacturers of corn syrup. In any event that certainly helped to spread the joy of the pecan pie to the rest of America and beyond.
The basics of pumpkin pie go back to writings in medieval times sometime before the 1500’s where pumpkin was stewed with sugar and spices and wrapped in pastry. When the English migrated to the Americas on that faithful voyage of the Mayflower they brought the humble pumpkin with them. It became a staple of life. The colonists would cut off the head of the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and fill the insides with milk, spices, and honey. This was then baked in hot ashes. I think it’s interesting how the early colonists used pumpkin meat as an ingredient for the crust of pies, not the filling.
Americans would like to think of apple pie as being an American dish, unfortunately it is not. Way back in the fourteenth century the English were making meat pies as a staple. Fruits such as apples were substituted in the traditional meat pies and viola’ you had a dessert. Apple pie was a favorite dessert during the reign of Elizabeth I. In Colonial times the taste of a dish was emphasized more than appearance and presentation. Pies were often baked with a “take-off crust”. The process allowed sugar and spices to be added after the apples had baked in the bottom pastry shell. Sliced apples were arranged in a pastry-lined pie pan. The pie was baked with the top crust loosely placed on top, but not sealed to the under crust. When the pie was done, the top crust was gently lifted off, sugar and spices were added and the top crust replaced before serving. Sometimes the top crust was baked separately from the bottom crust and assembled after both parts were completely cooled.
The last pie to make my list is Chess. This one seemed to be the hardest to pin down. Some “Pie Scholars”, think it’s a corruption of the word cheese. It seems the jolly old English used to make a lemon curd pie, which has a filling that bears a striking resemblance to the dairy product. Supposedly southern cookbooks used to describe pies with curd like textures as cheesecakes or cheese pies, even if they contained no cheese. Another theory is that it’s a corruption of “chest.” This theory is based on a story that chess style pies contained so much sugar that they could be stored in a “pie chest” (or “pie safe”) without spoiling, rather than a refrigerator, where most pies needed to be kept. Another origin story involves a possible town of origin called Chester, England.
There you have it. Pies and their fantastic tales. You can make and send me any of these pies you like. Cheers!