A Tuesday night presentation at the New Haven Museum showed residents that since its arrival over four centuries ago with the country’s early English settlers, pie has evolved into the traditional and ubiquitous American dessert that graces tables around the country today.
Robert Cox, head of special collections at University of Massachusetts Amherst, gave a presentation on the findings of his book, “New England Pie: History Under the Crust,” to an audience of around 20 Elm City residents. In his book, Cox traces pie’s journey from America’s earliest days to the present. The event was organized by Amy Durbin, director of education and the visitor experience at the New Haven Museum, who said the subject matter of Cox’s book and its connection with the holiday season prompted her to invite him to speak. His presentation recounted some of the most interesting and often humorous pie-related tales from American history, ranging from the debate over the pie-status of the Whoopie pie to invention of the infamous mock apple pie with filling made from crackers. These anecdotes not only elicited laughter from the audience, but also supported Cox’s main argument: food is crucial to culture, and pie is a key food in the New England culinary tradition.
“A classic New England pie makes use of something you have around in a simple way — the pie heightens the purity of what’s in it,” Cox said.
Cox began his presentation by asking the audience what they think counts as a “distinctly New England” pie. Answers ranged from squash to mince to seafood. But to fully answer that question, Cox said, it was necessary to delve into the history of pie in New England.
Pie in its earliest American iterations was simple and utilitarian, Cox said. In the 1600s, pie crust did not in any way resemble today’s “flaky and buttery goodness.” Instead, it was a simple mixture of water and flour — a dense, fairly flavorless concoction. This crust formed a “pastry wall,” Cox said, which made it both transportable and impermeable to insects and children alike. This crust was at the height of popularity during the peak of Puritanism in America, when austerity and the rejection of bodily pleasures defined New England culture. It would be 200 years before the pie crust would be reinvented as a treat instead of a functional storage unit.
The 19th century ushered in a new era of pie-making and the shedding of many of America’s puritanical constraints. Experimentation with traditional recipes led to the popularization of pie and the invention of several “mock pies,” which Cox defined as a dessert generally accepted as pie but without the crust and filling necessary to make it a pie. Cox, a self-proclaimed “pie purist” proceeded to attack the idea of mock pies. He said one such mock pie from the mid-19th century, the Washington pie — layers of sponge cake and jam — was actually a cake that people named a pie. The controversy over whether or not the Washington pie was indeed a pie so great that the Boston Globe published a poem on its creation in 1889, deeming it a “messy, mucilaginous Pestiferous compound.”
The crowd enjoyed the presentation. After the talk, some attendees said the pie’s trajectory through New England history was compelling.
“It was something that offered me a little bit of information on the history of pie in New England, which was exciting,” New Haven resident Lucy Gellman said.
Gellman said she was particularly interested in learning about savory pies. She said savory pies are her favorite kind — making her the only attendee out of five interviewed who did not prefer pumpkin. Monica Bunton, another attendee, said her biggest takeaway was that pie, something that she originally found simple, has really intricate and fascinating connections to social and political movements.
The first pies were filled with meat and called “coffins.”