How Pie Got Its Sweetness

The first pies were weird crow-meat casseroles. How did they evolve into the dessert we know and love today?

In America, pie finally reached its syrupy potential.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Thinkstock.

If you’re planning on stuffing your face with pie on Saturday in honor of the geometric ratio whose digits march on to infinity, you’ll probably take two things for granted. The first is that the pie will be round—after all, if pies weren’t circular, their only relationship to pi would be homophonous. The second is that the pie will be sweet. Whether you prefer peach or apple, cream or custard, in modern-day America, pie equals dessert.

It didn’t always. In medieval England, pie began as a decidedly savory affair. The word pie likely derives from magpie, the bird known for collecting odds and ends in its nest. This etymology reflects the fact that pie eaters were not picky: They happily supped on chickens, pigeons, rabbits, and just about any other animal you could swaddle in crust. “Eat crow” and “four and 20 blackbirds” aren’t just common sayings but holdovers from the era when crow was a common pie filling. (According to some accounts, their feet made useful handles in a pre–oven mitt era.) Alas, these pies’ crusts were nothing like the layers of flaky, buttery stuff that are the main point of eating pie today. Medieval pie crust was purely functional, a tough vessel that had to be cracked open in order to scoop out the delicious crow therein. Fittingly, it was known as a “cofyn.”

Today, you’d be horrified if you ordered a pie and someone tried to serve you a crow baked in tough crust. So how did these semiedible avian tombs evolve into the sweet dish we know and love? The answer has a little to do with the peculiar way words evolved as they crossed the Atlantic and a lot to do with America’s insatiable lust for sugar.

Early prototypes of sweet pie did exist in medieval England, but they were distinguished from their crow-filled brethren by the name “tarts.” One recipe for apple tart dating back to 1379 instructs bakers to “Tak gode Applys and gode Spycis and Figys and reysons and Perys and wan they are wel brayed colourd wyth Safroun wel and do yt in a cofyn and do yt forth to bake wel.” (A little vague, no?) But this ur-pie wouldn’t have tasted very good to us, because it didn’t have any sugar in it. At the time, sugar was so rare and expensive that it was mainly used as decoration and a symbol of wealth.

By the 1700s, the British had established sugar colonies in the Caribbean, allowing the sweet stuff to finally go mainstream. But by then, savory pies were firmly entrenched in the culture. It was in America that pie would finally realize its full, syrupy potential.

When colonists brought English recipes to America, something got lost in translation. What the English called a tart, they started calling a pie. This lexical difference, some authors have ventured, became a mark of the widening divide between the Colonies and the motherland. “A developing nationality was evident,” writes Carl Degler in Out of Our Past: The Forces That Shaped Modern America. “Americans … made up words … ‘Pie’ in England, to this day, means a meat pie, but in the colonies that was a ‘potpie.’ ‘Pie’ was reserved for the fruit pastry.”

Yet sweetness was not a given: Even after the Revolution, American cooking retained a British flavor. The first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ 1796 American Cookery, shows an equal predilection for savory and sweet pies: apple, fig, dewberry (kind of like a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry), mock pork, real pork, and pumpkin (at the time, a savory pie) all made appearances. But in this land overflowing with botanical possibilities, where orchards sprang and apples grew in infinite variety, that balance was not to last. Americans embraced the fruit pie, the perfect vehicle for the bounty of the season.

Yet England, too, had orchards. So what made America so obsessed with sweet pie? To find out, I called up several pastry historians, all of whom were stumped. Then I put the question to David Shields, a Southern food historian at the University of South Carolina. “This is a relatively simple matter,” Shields told me immediately. The real turn came in the 1810s, with the establishment of a mainland U.S. sugar refining industry, whose plantations sprawled across Georgia and Louisiana. Overnight, the once scarce resource became commonplace and cheap. American homemakers began churning out jellies, jams, preserves, wine—and fruit pies. “Sweet pies are an expression of the transformation of home cooking by sugar,” Shields told me.

For those living in a land without sugar production, saccharine sweets must have been “an astonishment, a kind of intoxication,” as Michael Pollan writes in The Botany of Desire. This new ecstasy, combined with the spread of fruit orchards across the country, proved a winning combination. From then on, pie was permanently imprinted on American tastes, bound up in the American mythology of Johnny Appleseed, simplicity, and nostalgia for home. Troops in World War I fought for their mothers—and apple pie. “Pie is the food of the heroic,” the New York Times wrote in 1902. “No pie-eating people can ever be permanently vanquished.”

For many, making pie was about being resourceful, about making sweetness out of suffering. This ethos is encapsulated in what Paula Haney, founder of Chicago’s Hoosier Mama Pie Company, calls “desperation pies.” When nothing was in season and there was nothing in the larder, American homemakers used their imaginations. They baked pies at their most basic, pies made of nothing: chess pies, cream pies, vinegar pies, oatmeal pies sweetened to taste like pecan pie. Hoosier cream pies, for instance, are made up of little more than cream and sugar, but “the flavor is wonderful—somewhere between crème brulée and melted caramel ice cream,” writes Haney in the Hoosier Mama Book of Pie.

As Americans headed West, they made what they could of the land. As if by culinary alchemy, they turned vegetables—rhubarb (now known as “the pie plant”), green tomatoes, sweet onions—into sugary desserts reminiscent of home. In their quest for the sweetness, some even turned to more desperate measures. In the 1930s Depression era, Ritz crackers began printing recipes for “mock apple pie,” made by soaking crackers in cinnamon, lemon, and vanilla, to use in place of apple filling—a creation almost as weird as the original “cofyn” pies.

In a way, pie has come full circle. It started as a way to transform just about any animal into dinner; now it’s a way to transform just about any plant into dessert. And the American approach to pie has won fans in the Old World as well. Emily Elsen, founder of Brooklyn, New York, pie shop Four and Twenty Blackbirds, told me her pies have become especially popular in pastry-loving Paris, where her cookbook has been republished. Yet when it comes to pastry, the lexical divide between Europe and America may not have completely been conquered. Guess what many of her European customers call her pies? Cakes.

In addition to the sources mentioned, the author would like to thank Rene Marion of Bard High School Early College and Rebecca Claire Bunschoten.