The most deliciously mathematical holiday is upon us. Situated brilliantly between Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, the 14th of March – Pi Day – is a great day for celebrating things pie. Though some may have you believe the holiday is meant to honor the numerical constant that makes geometry possible, we here at Foodseum think it’s a way to break up the doldrums of winter and smile on all things crusted.
Much like your favorite superhero, any pie worth its salt has an origin story, that moment of inspiration (or desperation) that put ingredient A and ingredient B in a crust. The first pies were actually called “coffins,” a term used to describe how the meat or filling was totally encased in pastry. Though some, like the tangy key lime, can be pinned to a specific historical moment, others, like pecan pie, have a more sorted background. The history of American pies could fill a book (and has), but I think to do proper service to Pi Day we have to span the circumference of the planet.
Key Lime Pie
While the beginnings of the Floridian dessert are hazy at best and most people cannot even agree on the right components (pastry or graham cracker crust? Meringue or whipped cream on top? Raw or cooked filling? Life’s unanswerable questions), the pie is certainly synonymous with Southern Florida. As best as I (and pie-related scholars) can tell, the probable origins are from a cook simply named Aunt Sally. She worked for the first self-made millionaire in Florida, a ship salvager named William Curry. Sometime in the late 1800s Aunt Sally started producing the tart delicacy using sweetened condensed milk because fresh milk wasn’t available. Though some historians may argue Aunt Sally was ripping off a recipe local fishermen favored to use up those bright little limes.
This English banana and toffee pie was invented in 1971 after Chef Ian Dowding of East Sussex’s The Hungry Monk restaurant became frustrated with an American recipe for toffee pie. The Yankee recipe was missing something and the restaurant’s owner suggested adding banana. Sometimes spelled “banoffi” the word is now used to describe anything with banana and toffee flavors.
This Moroccan sweet and savory pie has as many potential origins as it does spellings. Though many think it may have been brought to the North African country in the fifteenth century when the Moors emigrated from Spain, writer and culinary historian Paula Wolfert rejects that theory. Alongside her extensive and comprehensive 13-page recipe for the layered pie, she reasons that the dish came from an old Berber dish of saffron chicken called bestial. Either way, the complicated creation is made in four basic parts, the thin warka crust, spiced chicken or pigeon, an egg-based mixture or sauce, and sweet almond. You may have been able to guess that this is an extravagant dish mainly consumed for celebration.
Hoosier Sugar Cream Pie/Finger Pie
Before I begin this section, I need to level with you, dear reader, that I hate Hoosier pie. The cloyingly sweet blend of sugar and sugar just doesn’t speak to me, but I will do my best to not let that bias my account. Mushy texture aside, it does have one of the richest histories and followings of any American pie. In fact, the pie may be older than its namesake state. The first recorded recipe appeared in the same year Indiana became a state, but the Shakers and Amish communities were making the foul creation long before then. Developed like most comfort food out of poverty and desperation, the sweet, custard dessert would’ve been an excellent way to use up staple ingredients and stretch the sugar on a farm.
* If you are an Indiana native, or a food history buff, Café Indiana by Joanne Raetz Stuttgen is an informative and sweet guide to the culinary culture of the state, as well as a handy guidebook for tracking down local favorites.
Unlike that unspeakable Shaker pie, pecan pie is the sweet ambrosia of life itself. It is also, admittedly, my favorite of all pies. As a point of order, the little voice in your head that you hear when you read should be pronouncing it “pee-can” not “pah-cahn.” Though some Alabamans would have you believe the dessert was created there sometime in the early 1800s, the first recorded recipe was in 1886. It was not until the Karo syrup company needed a new marketing lean that pecan pie took off in the States. The company’s 1930s ad campaign claimed the nutty pie was a discovery made by a sales executive’s wife. No matter where it began, the dessert has quickly become one of America’s most prized pies.
Growing up in a Mexican family in the South, Rachel Valdéz began to love food before she could hold a spoon. After graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism, Rachel decided to go into the kitchen professionally. Having just finished her culinary arts degree at Kendall College, she is primed to start work at one of Chicago’s food nonprofits to help alleviate the pressures of food access issues in Chicago. In her spare time Rachel enjoys cuddling her puppy, haphazardly doing yoga, and writing about herself in the third person.