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13 november 2011

Janet Clarkson's Pie entails as much definitional angst as its companion in the Reaktion Edible series, Ken Albala's Pancake. What makes a pie? It must have a pastry crust (and hence something inside, a filling); it must be baked . . . and then it turns out there is no third rule. No other common denominator unites all the world's pies.

Clarkson does argue that the pie is limited by historical and geographical constraints, though. Only wheat flour and solid fat (preferably butter or lard) can create true pie pastry. Everything else is just bread or cake batter. But most cultures on earth use oil, not fat, because fat melts between certain latitudes. And wheat tends to grow only in the southern half of the fat belt.

Pies, then, are Anglo-American, with some presence in France and Russia, and considerable currency in Australia and New Zealand. The Reaktion series emphasize Britain anyway, but in the case of Pie it would seem we are dealing with a genuinely British phenomenon. In the great houses of the Middle Ages in England, meals were preserved, often for months on end, by being baked in crusts of pastry so thick and impervious that they were called "coffins": ostensibly a neutral word for any kind of storage box, but the connection between various dead meats and their containers must have suggested itself frequently.

Till very recently, a British pie was something you could send Empire-wide through the Royal Mail – or in the case of a Cornish pasty, drop down a mineshaft without fear of breakage. Only in the 20th century did pies become associated more with freshness than with heavy-duty preservation. Americans get the credit here. We like our pies steaming from the oven, with light, flaky crusts, and we like them sweet. Many American pies, dispensing with a top crust, make not even a pretense that you're going to keep them in the pantry for months. Among them are the great American treats: pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and chess pie (for which I've heard the folk etymology "just pie": say that fast with an Appalachian accent to reach the current spelling).

Australians, by contrast, insist that pie is a savory dish. Clarkson adduces the Meat Pie Floater, a concept I'm now dying to sample:

Apparently somewhere in that dish is a meat pie, trapped in a suspension of mushy peas. That looks like ketchup on top. Bring it on.

Clarkson also comments on my damndest pie memory.

For sheer marketing nerve it is hard to beat the Ritz cracker manufacturers in the 1930s, who for many years proudly displayed a recipe for Mock Apple Pie on the package. The pie filling was made entirely from crackers, and difficult though it may be to believe, it was popular to the extent of becoming almost a cult item. It is even more difficult to believe the many fans who swore it was indistinguishable from the real thing. (70-71)
I don't remember Mock Apple Pie as a cult favorite, exactly. It was more an act of whimsy on my parents' part to fix it one time – it must have been in the late 1960s. We always kept a lot of Ritz Crackers around. The recipe hammered into one's consciousness: it was almost as if you had to make Mock Apple Pie at least once just to get the back of the box to shut up.

"Indistinguishable" is not how I'd put it. Mock Apple Pie stands distinctly on the other side of the Uncanny Valley from real apple pie. But some chemical reaction between Ritz crackers and bottled lemon juice concentrate strikes an apple note. And recall that we're comparing the Ritz concoction to pies made from tired American Red Delicious apples, which when baked have the consistency of soggy crackers anyway. You'd take a slice of Mock Apple Pie and say to yourself, "that's weirdly like apple pie." With vanilla ice cream, you could count yourself about three-quarters of the way home.

Clarkson, Janet. Pie: A Global History. London: Reaktion, 2009.