Butch Cassidy was known for his daring bank heists, but as a kid, he was collared for stealing a pair of jeans and a slice of pie. He was acquitted, of course. What American jury could convict someone for stealing pie?
We have loved pie longer than we have loved baseball. Even before we had a flag, we had pie. And though Americans would like to take credit for this touchstone dessert, especially around Thanksgiving, the truth is that pie existed long before the first Pilgrim set a buckled shoe on Plymouth Rock.
Friends, Romans, Pie Makers
Every culture has made its mark on pie. As far back as 1300 b.c., Egyptian bakers were experimenting with a primitive pie dough. The Greeks were the first to mix flour and water into a thick paste that could wrap (and preserve) meat—early Tupperware, as it were. Wealthy Romans packed their pies with oysters and other mollusks, and even blood-sucking lampreys. The first “published” recipe came from the Roman Cato the Censor, for a goat cheese and honey pie.
As the Roman Empire spread north through Europe, so, too, did pie’s reach and popularity. More often than not, early pies were filled with meat. In the medieval royal courts of England and France, where banquets were run like circuses, royal chefs would place live animals into gargantuan pies to “wow” jaded guests.
According to the American Pie Council, fruit pies or tarts (“pasties”) were probably first cooked up in the 1500s, when English pastries brimmed with pears, quinces, and apples. English lore credits Queen Elizabeth I with making the first cherry pie. Pie shells were called “coffyns” because they were considered baking vessels or “boxes,” and pies were still all about the filling. Even aboard the Mayflower, one of the dishes of choice was a baked meat “pie at sea.”
When the Pilgrims landed, they made use of the exotic ingredients they discovered around them. Since the sweet apples and other fruit found in England had not yet made it across the Atlantic, settlers turned to their Native American neighbors, who recommended a few tasty berries, among other suggestions.
Resourceful colonial women heeded their advice. They added cranberries, eggs, and molasses to the belly-filling pies they served with every meal. When they ran out of fresh fruit, they substituted dried fruit.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, cooks were using butter, sugar, and spices in their pastries, forever changing the dessert landscape in America. As sugar production grew, so did the popularity of sweet treats like lemon meringue pie.