The History of National Pie Day

National Pie Day – celebrated every year on January 23 – was started in the mid-’70s by Charlie Papazian, a nuclear engineer from Colorado in the US, who had such a passion for pies that he decided to celebrate the pleasurable pastry with its own day and chose his birth date on which to do it!

Historians trace the pie’s initial origins to the Greeks, who are thought to be the originators of the pastry shell which they made by combining water and flour. The wealthy Romans used many kinds of meats, even mussels and other types of seafood, in their pies, while in medieval England, they were most often filled with beef, lamb, wild duck or pigeon and spiced with pepper, currants or dates, often to make the rich, gamey flavour more palatable.

It was only later that chefs began to experiment with sweet fillings using fruits such as apples, cherries and blueberries. A cookbook from 1796 listed only three types of sweet pies, while one written in the late 1880s featured eight sweet pie varieties. By 1947 the Modern Encyclopaedia of Cooking listed 65 different varieties and today there are literally thousands of recipes for sweet pies.

Pies today are made with everything from apples to zucchinis. The most popular sweet ones amongst South Africans include the classic apple pie as well as lemon meringue pie and pecan pie, while savoury favourites are pepper steak, chicken and mushroom and steak and kidney. Pies also come in the form of quiches, tarts, big pies or small pies and even dishes like a shepherd’s pie, a cottage pie or a favourite of the festive season – the mince pie!

Here are a few fun pie facts and four recipes from chefs at Capsicum Culinary Studio, South Africa’s largest culinary school with six campuses across the country.

  • The first mention of a fruit pie in print is from Robert Green’s Arcadia (1590): “Thy breath is like the steame of apple-pyes.”
  • Oliver Cromwell banned the eating of pies in 1644, declaring it a pagan form of pleasure. For 16 years, pie-making and pie-eating went underground until the Restoration leaders lifted the ban in 1660.
  • The wealthy English were known for their “Surprise Pies” in which live creatures would pop out when the pie was cut open.
  • In the 1890s, the word pie was also a common slang expression meaning ‘easy’, hence the expression “easy as pie”.
  • The largest pie made weighed 10,540kg and was made by 17 catering students from Stratford-upon-Avon College in April 1998. It was so huge that it needed a container 9.75m long, 2.32m wide and 0.61m deep.
  • In early days the crust of the pie was known as a “coffyn” and there was usually more crust than filling. Because the pies were often made using fowl, their legs were left to hang over the side of the dish and used as handles.
  • The world’s most expensive pie is worth around R150,000 and can be ordered from the Lord Dudley Hotel in Sydney. Prime ingredients include two cuts of premium beef, two whole rock lobsters, rare winter black truffles, two bottles off Penfolds Grange Reserve and pastry with a 24 karat German gold leaf.