Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
A Short Poem
A pie must have a bottom.
A pie must have a top
A pie must have a filling and
A pie must...please let's STOP!
I don't do poetry. But I can research and tell you the origins and story of the "pot pie." So, let's get started.
Long Ago, in a Distant Galaxy...
...no, I'm kidding. But archaeologists do point to the Neolithic Age (about 9500 B.C.). They tell us that our ancestors made a pie that
was a flat crusty galette made from ground oat, wheat, rye, and barley and was filled with honey. It was baked over hot coals.
Over 3,000 years ago, royal bakers for the pharaohs of Egypt added some fruits. Drawings of this can be found in the Valley of the Kings, etched on the tomb walls of Ramses II. We are told that the Greeks nudged in a bit of meat, but...that still sounds like dessert to me. So, where's the beef?
The Roman Empire Came to the Rescue
Leave it to the Romans to assimilate the food of the Greeks and add their own decadent spin. They created a galette filled with meats, oysters, mussels, lampreys, and fish. But there's one problem. They tossed away the crust.
Unlike the flaky pastries that we make today, the crusts of the Romans were little more than a mixture of flour and olive oil. They were rock-hard and not meant to be a part of the meal, they were little more than a convenient vessel.
All Roads Lead to (Or Is It From?) Rome
(The following is a greatly abbreviated version of history, with tongue set firmly in cheek.)
Something as wonderful as meat pies (even if the crust is inedible) is difficult to contain.
They traveled with the Roman legions and spread across Medieval Europe faster than the plague, with a little help from the Crusades of course. Lords and ladies were still discarding the pastry. (I wonder if this is where we gained the expression “upper crust”.)
The state of the crust improved somewhat in Northern Europe. There the locals grew wheat and raised their own sheep, pigs, and cattle. And instead of olive oil, flour was mixed with butter or lard. With these winning ingredients, a proper meat pie was finally born.
But they weren’t being called pies, at least, not yet. These wonderful meat-filled pastries were called coffins (yes, just like it sounds, meaning a box). Members of royalty (of course) took even this humble dish to the next level. Songbirds were often cooked and used to “adorn” the top of each coffin to indicate the type of filling contained therein. (Perhaps “four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie” is not merely a nursery rhyme).
And Then, With the Renaissance…
…the finer things in life included not just art and music but also sophisticated items of food and drink. Meat pies were now an art form. Refined wheat flour was lower in gluten and thus could be shaped and sculpted into works of art. Flour, fat, and water were now being fashioned into birds, beasts, fish, flowers, and castles; colors were added with the use of egg wash, saffron, and even real gold.
Meanwhile, in the Reality Which Was Poverty
Meat pies were not so gaily adorned. And, under edict of the Pope (who believed that meat enflamed sexual passions) animal flesh was replaced by the fruit of the sea. Fish pies became common. But this, in turn, helped the fishing industry to prosper, so some good resulted.
And Then, There Was the Victorian Era
Anthony “Tony” Chan is currently enrolled in the Baking and Pastry Arts Program at the Vancouver Community College. He has an amazing blog in which he shares the history he is learning—everything you ever wanted to know (and more) about pastry. He shares this tidbit about pot pies and the Victorians:
The pie was part of life in the Victorian era. The Industrial Revolution mass produced pie moulds. The type of pie distinguished the social classes. Game pies and fish pies were available to those who had land and hunting rights and the poor and working class could only eat mutton from old sheep or beef pies from dairy or draft animals. Pigeon pies were available to people of high status because only the rich were able to raise pigeons for supply of meat in the winter months. In America however, pigeons were abundant and available to anybody with a rifle.
Two world wars altered much of history, including the history of even something as mundane as the pot pie. Families were no longer sitting around the dining table each evening, and mothers were now working in factories and assembly lines. The tradition of working long hours each day to produce a family meal had become a thing of the past.
Innovation and Mass Production
After World War II (in 1951), the Swanson Company began to produce chicken pot pies, individual meat pies available in the frozen food aisle of every grocery store. Meat pies were reintroduced to the American dinner table and the rest, as they say, is history.
Recipes in This Article
- Olive Oil Pie Crust
- All Butter Really Flakey Pie Crust
- Chicken Pot Pie (PP)
- Stir-Fry Beef PP
- Taco PP
- Ham and Brie Hand Pies
- Roasted Mushroom PP
- Beef Shin Pie
Olive Oil Pie Crust
This is the only recipe I use for making pie crust. Olive oil is a much healthier option than shortening, butter, or lard, and since it's a liquid there is no pesky "cutting in" involved.
All Butter Really Flakey Pie Dough
The blog SmellsLikeHome has an easy-peasy incredibly buttery pie crust recipe. This would be the perfect rich pastry to pair with your meaty, full-of-gravy-and-veggies pot pie.
Chicken Pot Pie
I love the blog TwoPeasAndTheirPod. Maria and Josh never disappoint with their collection of easy, family-friendly meal ideas. Their chicken pot pie is a winner-winner chicken dinner in my book.
Stir-Fry Beef Pot Pie
This recipe appears on countless blogs and websites, but none of them credit the origin. This recipe was originally published in Sunset magazine in March of 1997 (I know because I still have that issue).
- 1 cup medium-grain white rice
- 1 1/4 cups beef broth
- 1/3 cup oyster sauce
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
- 1 pound beef flank steak
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- 1 pound (about 5 cups) fresh stir-fry vegetable mixture
- 1 cup green onion pieces
- 1 unbaked refrigerated pie crust (1/2 of a 15-ounce package), at room temperature
- In a 2- to 3-quart pan, cover rice with 1 2/3 cups water. Bring to a boil over high heat; cover, reduce heat and simmer 15 minutes. Remove from heat; let stand, covered, 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, mix 1 cup broth with oyster sauce, cornstarch, garlic, and pepper flakes; set aside. Thinly slice steak across the grain into 1/8-inch thick slices. Add oil to a 10- to 12-inch nonstick frying pan over high heat; when hot, add meat. Cook, stirring constantly, until meat is no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Add remaining broth, stir-fry vegetable mixture, and onions. Cook, covered, just until vegetables are bright green, about 3 minutes. Stir seasoned broth into meat mixture; bring to a boil.
- In a bowl, combine rice with meat-vegetable mixture; spoon into a 10-inch pie dish, 9-inch square pan, or 1 1/2-quart baking dish.
- Unfold pie crust according to package directions. On a lightly floured board, roll into a 12-inch round for pie dish or a 1 inch larger than dish of another shape. Place over beef and vegetable mixture; fold edges under and flush with pan rim, and flute firmly against the rim. Cut shapes from crust and decorate the top, or make a couple of decorative slits in crust.
- Bake in a 350 degree F. oven until filling is hot in center, about 1 hour. Lay foil over crust if it begins to over-brown. Let cool about 10 minutes; spoon from the dish or cut into wedges.
Taco Pot Pie
Imagine all of the flavors that you love in a taco. Now imagine all of those flavors snuggly tucked between two buttery flaky layers of pastry. Cathy of LemonTreeDwelling makes it all possible.
Ham and Brie Hand Pies
Although these ham and Brie hand pies by CookingOnTheFrontBurners could be a "grab and go" breakfast, I wouldn't recommend it. They're much too good. These should be savored slowly on an unrushed (weekend, perhaps?) morning with the daily newspaper, a kitty on your lap (or puppy at your feet if that's your preference), and a good cup of coffee or tea.
Roasted Mushroom Pot Pie
The roasted mushrooms in this pot pie from TheCookieWriter are so full of rich, umami flavor you won't miss the meat.
Beef Shin Pie
The first time I tasted a beef pie was in Victoria, British Columbia. This quaint little city isn't London, but it's about as close as I can get without a plane ticket and a frisk from TSA. The pie was in a little off-the-beaten-path bakery, just a single serving. I could have finished it in minutes, but after that first bite, I knew this was something I wanted to linger over, to savor and enjoy every luscious bite. And before I left Victoria, I went back and had that pie twice more.
I've never even dared to replicate that dish. It's almost like treading on hallowed ground. But I think this recipe for beef shin pie might be ever so close.
(By the way, if the term "shin" is foreign to you, in the States you might recognize this cut as beef shank).
© 2018 Linda Lum