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Monday, 3 June 2013

A life of pie

The pie, as a pastry-surrounded food item, was certainly known to Chaucer, who tells us of the cook in his Canterbury Tales:
He koude rooste, and sethe, and boille, and frye,
Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pye.
The mortreux, (today, we call it a mortress), is a kind of soup or pottage of bread and milk, or else of assorted meats, and the rest should make reasonable sense if it is read slowly, but what sort of pie did Chaucer know?

There was at least one more, for in the 'Reeve's Tale' Chaucer tells us that the wife of the miller was 'peert as is a pye' — as pert as a pie, but this was no ordinary pie, but the bird we now call a magpie. The Wife of Bath says her fourth husband was 'Stubborn and strong, and jolly as a pie', or in Chaucer's language, 'Stibourn and strong, and joly as a pye', which is back to the magpies again.

The Prologue to the 'Cook's Tale' refers to a Jakke of Dover that the cook has sold after it has been twice hot and twice cold, probably endangering his customers. The Jack of Dover, as we would call it today, was probably a pie, but the rest of Chaucer's pies are all of the feathered, avian variety.

Shakespeare offers us a wide variety of pies, and in Henry VIII, Buckingham complains of the Cardinal of York: "No man's pie is freed from his ambitious finger", but here, too, we find chattering pies, obviously the birds again, while Macbeth announces the apparently alarming news that
Augures and understood relations have
By maggot pies and choughs and rooks brought forth
The secret'st man of blood. . .
Here, though, we have a remnant of an old habit of according names to birds: Tom Tit, Jenny Wren, Jack Daw, and in America, Jim Crow, and in Australia, Willy Wagtail. A proud member of the clan is Maggot Pie, or as we might say, Margaret Pie. It is curious that so many of the birds with given names are largely black, but that is a side issue: does this have anything to do with the 'four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie' of the nursery rhyme? Probably not, but the bird known as a magpie in England, and un pie (pronounced, roughly, 'earn pea') in France, is very like the bird generally known as either a peewee or a peewit in Australia.

Shakespeare also has several people swear 'by cock and pie', which is a pre-Reformation set of rules about what to do when church events coincided. Shylock speaks of how Jacob had from Laban ' . . . all the eanlings which were streak'd and pied', which is a sense of 'pie' that lives on today in our 'piebald'. The Bard also offers us references to the edible form of pie, which seems more often than not to be a mince pie, a pie made with dried fruits.

So the clown in A Winter's Tale plans warden pies for a sheep-shearing-feast, and his ingredients include sugar, currants, rice, saffron, mace, dates, nutmegs, ginger, prunes and raisins. Petruchio, however, speaks of 'a custard-coffin', in The Taming of the Shrew, but here the coffin is just a pastry casing for a custard pie.

A coffin is also the carriage of a printing machine, and we find pies enough in the printing shop as well. Pie or pye is a jumble of type, mingled together higgledy-piggledy when a forme of type has been broken down, and all the handset letters have gone all over the place. And that brings us back to birds again, because this meaning of 'pie' comes from the medieval Latin pica, and that is also the name of the genus into which the magpie fits.

And then we are back to printing again, for Pica is a type size, equal to about 12-point type in today's language, and also a measure of distance in printing, but in medicine, 'pica' is a craving for non-food items such as minerals. Given the small amount of meat that is usually found in the meat pies served to shearers and others in Australia, this possibly chance connection seems entirely appropriate.

By way of a footnote, the clown's ingredient list for warden pie inspired one of my books. Bittersweet.  I started wondering where the clown in Shakespeare's time would have got sugar, and ended up tracing sugar back to where it started, in New Guinea, 9000 years ago, more or less.  But that's another you can buy for your Kindle, if you wish.

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