By JAMES HEFLIN Staff Writer
Go ahead, say it: “pie.”
Say it a few times.
Breathe the word out slowly, like Garrison Keillor.
It’s faintly amusing, appetizing, mathematical in its roundness. Pie is also old-school American fare, redolent of late-night diners and coffee. And, says Easthampton author Rob Cox, it’s quintessentially New England.
Cox, who is by day the head of Special Collections and University Archives at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, recently finished “New England Pie: History Under A Crust,” the third book in a trilogy about New England food. The first examined clam chowder, the second cranberries.
Though he’s authored three food volumes, he is in one respect a self-effacing chronicler of crusts. “I’m kind of a fraud,” Cox says. “I don’t cook at all.”
He is, on the other hand, “fond of eating.”
Not to worry — it turns out that pie, a centerpiece of the cuisines of old England and New, is a storied subject. Put with that Cox’s gift for well-paced prose crackling with fresh word choices, plummy insights and humorous asides, and “New England Pie” turns out to be a true pleasure, an entertaining and informative read.
The book is divided into a dozen chapters, each about a style of pie for a month of the year. That structure reflects a central truth about pie in New England: It’s been an important vehicle for seasonal ingredients, particularly in the pre-refrigeration era.
In the depths of winter, where Cox’s book begins, New Englanders have traditionally tucked meat between their crusts. Cox explains that chickens, before the 1922 discovery that they needed sunlight to synthesize vitamin D, slowed down dramatically in their egg-laying during the cold season. That made them frequent targets for pie makers with eager cleavers.
With warm weather, pies turned sweeter, full of stewed concoctions of rhubarb or berries. With the harvest came apples and pumpkins. And along the way came maple pies, cream pies, chocolate pies, even pseudo-pies like the whoopie pie and the entirely crustless shepherd’s pie.
Cox, 56, who’s a transplant from California, first dug into the pie-making and -eating habits of early English settlers in our region. We usually think of pie as dessert, but it turns out that’s a fairly recent phenomenon.
“Pie in New England,” Cox says, “used to be for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Savory or sweet, pies were a catch-all for whatever was on hand. “You can hide a lot underneath a crust,” he says.
And in early days, a pie wasn’t quite a pie, at least as we envision it.
For one thing, those early Colonial chefs were prone to mixing together combos most modern palates would reject. The individual ingredients were often items not commonly eaten in 2015. The more ancient authorities Cox cites, hailing back to the early 18th century, made pies of most anything they could shoot. Chickens were just the beginning — a 1732 cookbook by Charles Carter offered recipes for pies of partridge, goose, quail, sparrow, lark, curlews and most anything else with wings Carter could shoot from the sky.
In 1807, a Maria Rundell cookbook called for a remarkable pie of beef steak covered with pigeon carcasses gussied up with boiled eggs and ham, the pigeon gizzards providing the centerpiece. The crust, she suggested, should be crowned by three pigeon feet.
But all that meaty indulgence was just the beginning.
There was a tendency to really spice things up, says Cox.
The intent was, more or less, showboating to prove how refined the cook’s taste was. This resulted in what Cox calls “an old taste — the mix of savory, meat and sweet.” A hodge-podge of meat might be combined with fruits, primarily apples and raisins, and the whole doused with spices like cinnamon, mace, nutmeg and clove.
A descendant of such ancient concoctions has remained in circulation as the mincemeat pie, a force with which the young Cox reckoned. In “New England Pie” he says, “Every year around the holidays, the ghastly pastry would appear at the head of the table, a round leer of golden crust foisted on us by an ancient grandmother oblivious to its shuddering impact.”
It was in large part anti-indulgence sentiment that led, in the 19th century, to the rise of the meatless version of mincemeat that now reigns. Old-school mincemeat, Cox writes, was seen as dangerously rich and decadent.
Early pies in New England also included a daunting feature modern diners would hardly recognize. Cox says it’s the most surprising thing his research revealed. Many a modern connoisseur saves for the highest praise the pie with the tenderest and flakiest crust, but that hasn’t always been a prized part of the pie experience.
“In the 17th century, pie crust was nothing like today,” Cox says. “Crusts were more or less substitutes for a pot. They used a mixture of flour and water to create an impermeable barrier for the contents to be cooked in.”
It was also useful for carrying the contents and close off the filling to preserve it longer.
Seventeenth-century crust-eaters were not exactly the upper crust.
“They’d toss them out to pigs, dogs, servants or anybody who was lesser. It was a tough piece of cardboard, that might, if you were lucky, have some remnants of the pie.”
In the 18th century, lard and butter had become more common, and crusts, Cox writes, “edged toward the edible.” By the late Victorian era, savvy cooks had decided maybe a good crust wasn’t such a bad plan after all. Cox says that notion stuck for good in the early 1900s, when Crisco shortening (and its later rival, Spry) hit the pie-making scene.
Sweet and simple
The success of a modern pie is a function of its crust and filling in concert, and most of the time, that filling is sweet.
There are multiple theories about why the end of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th saw the ascendance of pies as dessert.
Perhaps it’s down to less enthusiasm for mixing fruit with meat, the increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and leaving less time for all-occasion pie-making, or the increasing availability of sugar and other processed ingredients.
Maybe refrigeration made crust less necessary for preserving what might otherwise go bad.
Whatever the reason, the 20th century pie landscape is a sugary one.
Still, some things haven’t changed over time, says Cox.
“With fruit pie, you don’t see any difference. Even the earliest recipes for fruit pies are so basic — take some crust, throw in fruit and sugar, throw on the top, and bake it.”
But other things have changed. Cox says that the 1920s in particular saw, in concert with refrigeration, a new emphasis on economy and time-saving. That led to more reliance on processed foods. “Take pumpkin pie,” Cox says. “The recipes don’t say, first, pick a pumpkin.”
Most, of course, call for a can of pie filling. “That wouldn’t have been possible before the 1920s,” says Cox. A lot of bakers might be purists, he says, “but I don’t look down on that stuff.”
As head of special collections at UMass, Cox has thousands of cookbooks for reference. Though many such books are full of showcase dishes, he says community cookbooks — the sort a local church might publish, for instance — started including more and more processed ingredients in the 20th century. “People used them partly because of advertising campaigns, but also because it’s helpful. It saves time.”
He offers the example of his mother-in-law’s French-Canadian meat pie. The traditional way of making it calls for a complex mix of spices.
“She realized she could substitute for some of the spices by using Bell’s poultry seasoning. She thought this was apostasy, that she was letting down God and family. She felt really bad about it. But it’s one of these things that came in because it saved people steps.”
There are aspects of processed ingredients that Cox doesn’t like.
“In terms of the separation from seasonality, and from local and fresh ingredients, it’s kind of a bad thing.”
On the other hand, he says, he feels certain the Puritans of early New England would approve.
“A Puritan household would have used a can of pumpkin. That kind of economy is the most traditional idea of all.”
New England special
Which brings us to the question: What exactly distinguishes the pies of New England from others?
One answer is obvious: New England ingredients make for New England pies. Nowhere else in America, says Cox, will you find a maple pie.
But in his opinion, the ultimate Yankee concoctions are blueberry pies and cranberry pies, because the fruits are unique to the New World and were highly prized here. “Ours was a country stained in dark blue,” Cox writes.
He adds that the cultivation of cranberries, which had previously grown wild in bogs, took off around the Civil War era. That increased availability led to something of a cranberry craze, and the acidic fruits found their way between crusts forthwith.
Cox says the simplicity of such berry pies also appealed to a new sentiment that took hold after the American Revolution. American cuisine became simpler, which was seen as a quintessential part of our hardy colonial background.
Cox says the first American cookbook was printed in Hartford, Connecticut in 1796. “The author identifies herself as ‘an American orphan.’ The book represents what she thinks is a good, austere American diet. Compared to English cooking it’s simpler, and English cooking is simpler in turn compared to French cooking.”
In search of the truths of New England pies, Cox says he and his wife, Danielle Kovacs, embarked on several region-wide “tours de pie.”
They found some pie hotspots farther afield, like Petsi Pies in Somerville, but some gems showed up close to home. Cox writes of the old-fashioned crusty wonders of Kay’s Pastry Shop in Holyoke, and he notes the cultural comeback of pies in the area, particular as incarnated in the newly arrived Pie Bar in Florence, a restaurant which offers pie, coffee, and not much else.
Plenty of pie can be had in the Valley, at places from diners like the Bluebonnet or Miss Florence in Northampton to bakeries like Northampton’s Tart and Hungry Ghost (where you’ll find savory pies). Cox saves particular praise for the pie-work of Atkins Farms in Amherst, but he has even higher accolades for what he found at Bashista Orchards in Southampton, declaring its pie the best he had.
“Apple pie — I like it, but it’s not my favorite overall. We walked in, and it was still warm, just out of the oven. It was incredible.”
Some of his pie-tour days, says Cox, involved three or four pies. That led him to give up ingesting his subject for a while once the book was done. But the lure proved too much. “Now, I’m back on the pie,” he says.
He notes that after taking a course in the history of invertebrates and writing about clam chowder, “I haven’t been able to look a clam in the eye.”
But pies? “Pies haven’t done that to me yet.” But there is still one he won’t touch. “I went in thinking mincemeat was evil, and I still do.”
James Helfin can be reached at email@example.com.
Nora’s French Meat Pie
(with Suzette’s additions)
Makes one 9-inch pie.
Robert Cox’s mother-in-law, Suzette Kovacs, shares this family recipe, complete with variations. The contemporary cook may find the substitution of Bell’s Poultry Seasoning simpler, but some consider it heresy.
2 pounds ground beef (80 percent lean)
1 pound ground pork
1 potato, boiled and mashed
¼ tsp black pepper
¼-½ teaspoon each sage, cloves, cinnamon, to taste
¼ teaspoon thyme
pinch of nutmeg
1 small onion, minced fine
double pie crust
4 pats butter
Make a double 9-inch pie crust using your favorite recipe
Combine meats, onion and seasoning well and simmer, covered for 30 minutes, stirring the meat to break it up several times.
Drain off the liquid. Let it stand to allow the fat to rise to the top and discard the fat; return the rest of the liquid to the meat.
Combine with mashed potato. Place in pastry-lined pie plate. Cover with top crust and place 4 pats of butter evenly on top.
Bake at 400 degrees for 25 minutes or until browned. Meat mixture may be made the day before and refrigerated until ready to use. Great for brunch buffet.
Alter the ratio of beef to pork to 50-50.
Double the amount of potato.
Omit thyme, cinnamon, and, usually, the onion.
Substitute Bell’s Poultry Seasoning with (optionally) a pinch of ground sage and ground cloves.
Author Robert Cox says that fruit pie recipes have changed little, even over centuries. This classic take on the cranberry pie from Mrs. Jennie Munsell appeared in the “Orange Universalist Church Cookbook” in 1928. This recipe is scant on details and the ingredients seem a bit sparse.
1 cup cranberries, chopped
⅔ cup of sugar
2 tablespoons flour
½ cup raisins
1 cup hot water
1 teaspoon vanilla
Bake in two crusts.
Similar online recipes for a 9-inch pie call for the same ingredients but in different amounts for some of them: 3 cups of cranberries, 1 cup of raisins, 1¼ cup of sugar and ½ cup of water
Make your favorite double-crust recipe.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Combine the ingredients. Line the pie plate with half the crust. Add the filling. Cover with the top crust and make small cuts in it with a knife to allow steam to escape. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes. Lower heat to 350 degress and continue baking for 30 minutes. Cool before cutting.