There has always been a lot of speculation around the reason the humble pie was invented. Nowadays our adoration of this clever invention is liable to cloud the objective perspective of those who lived in bygone years. A pie is made of two main ingredient categories, 1) a crust and 2) a pie filling. Nowadays we can enjoy a vast array of crusts or pastries. Their flavors and textures vary to suit both the filling and the sensation that the pastry chef wants the diner to enjoy.
Man has know how to make dough for many thousands of years. Ever since man began to gather cereal crops he has experimented with the possibilities it presented him with. Whole grain bread, in one form or another has been a staple of many civilizations throughout history. Initially, it would have been the job of the women of the house to make bread in a small earthenware oven. As man moved from living in extended family groups or clans resources began to come under the control of chieftains.
This had several consequences for the common man. 1) he had to find ways of pooling resources in order to use fuel more efficiently, 2) if fuel was to be used at a central place somebody would have to be chosen to oversee the baking of the bread. 3) if people would have to pay for these services they would have to work more outside of the home to cover the cost, 4) if they mad less time to mill the grain somebody would have to undertake that function too. And so two important professions were born. The baker and the miller. Now I know that in explaining this process in this way it may seem that I mean that this happened overnight. No, this was a process that may have taken quite some time.
So now we have our bread being baked centrally. What has this got to do with pies you may ask. OK, I’m building up to it. A baker has to keep his oven very hot and at a constant temperature. Because of the design of the bakers oven it has the capacity to hold residual heat for a very long time, even after no more fuel is added. We have already defined heat as a resource that people of bygone eras could not let go to waste. When the baker was not using his oven for baking he would earn a bit more money by letting the women of the village put their pots of stew or hot pot into the oven to cook slowly overnight. This was a very clever idea that was used in many European villages until quite recently and maybe still is in some remote areas.
Now bakers had boys or apprentices working for them who did not get very much to eat. To see an oven full of stew pots simmering away in the oven would have been a type of torture for them and it is told of an evening they would sneak back into the bakery and sample a “little” from all the pots in the oven. The ladies who had given the cooking of their stews to the baker were very disconcerted to find that the level of their pot had reduced somewhat more than they had anticipated. They looked for a solution for this ongoing problem and eventually came up with the idea of wrapping a piece of dough around the rim of the pot and the lid. The pot was now effectively sealed and woe betide the bakers apprentice who broke into one of those seals.
During the evolution of mankind trial and error has led to a great number of observations and the very same ladies who used the bakers oven to cook their weekly stew would have undoubtedly noticed that the condition of the stew would have been better with the pastry seal left on than if it were removed. This would have led to the observation that factors leading to the spoilage of cooked food came from without rather than from within. Therefore, maintaining the state of separation from the environment was seen to preserve the “shelf life” of your stew or hot pot. In those days this was very important news indeed.
If pastry or a dough surround was accepted as being the secret of preventing the rapid spoilage of food, could it be possible to put a filling into pastry and cook it in an oven when one needed to make smaller more individual portions of food? Experimentation along these lines obviously happened. The original ides would have been to eat the filling and discard the pastry crust as if probably wasn’t designed for taste in those early days. As time went on it was obviously realized that to discard the crust was a waste of food resources and hence bakers and women alike began to experiment into ways of making the pastry an integral, edible and tasty part of the pie “experience”. The next time you eat a pie, give a thought for how important it’s development was to the growth of civilization as we know it and the development of insight into food hygiene.