A pie by any other name
With British Pie Week just behind us, and Americans celebrating pi(e) day on the 14th March (written 3/14 in the US, and thus resembling the first three digits of the number π), there has been a great deal of debate about what makes a pie a pie. Even Mary Berry has stepped on some toes with her recent recipe for a potato, leek, and cheese pie. Hailing from the North of England, I naturally have some very strong views on this matter. Views that, unfortunately, are not represented by the types of pie served in my new home of Oxford…
A Casserole with a Hat?
The great debate about the meaning of pie centres on the extent of pastry casing necessary to transform a lowly casserole into the food of gods. In many a pub, nowadays, ordering a pie can result in what is essentially a casserole with a pastry hat balanced on top. This can be, to say the least, a disappointment.
But is this disappointment a pie?
According to our dictionary definition, yes. A pie is “a baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry”. When lexicographers define a word, it is our goal to cover the most common usage, as it would be impossible to cover all potential uses of a word in a single definition without becoming pointlessly vague. We use words like ‘typically’ to indicate that in most instances when you encounter this term, this is what you would expect it to refer to, while also acknowledging that there are exceptions.
And so by this standard it is possible for a pie to lack a pastry base (or a pastry lid) and still be in essence a pie. However, I think it is worth stressing that such a pie is atypical. It is bizarre, an oddity, an aberration. Yes, sure, it counts. But barely.
If we turn to the venerable Oxford English Dictionary, a pie is “a baked dish of fruit, meat, fish, or vegetables, covered with pastry (or a similar substance) and frequently also having a base and sides of pastry”. So the question here is one of frequency: the most common type of pie must be one with a base and sides of pastry. If we allow these standards to slip, we are letting down the OED and the English language itself.
To further illustrate this point, let’s look at a type of pie that is more common in North America: the pot pie. Our definition for this is “a savoury pie baked in a deep dish, typically with a top crust only”. You will notice here that we must specify the lack of pastry base; most pies are expected to have a base, and it is worthy of note that this style of pie is served without one. What distinguishes it from a normal, typical, beautiful pie is that it is served in a pot and has only a lid. If all pies were meant to be served this way, then we would not need a specific word for it.
Of course, those determined to deprive us of delicious pastry have other means of doing away with it. Many of the fruit pies of North America are served with a poor excuse for a lid: the lattice. Analysing our corpus, we can see that US English speakers are more likely to have sweet modifiers for the word ‘pie’—blueberry, pecan, lime—while those of us in Britain prefer a pork pie, or a steak and ale pie. In no world would you expect to see a lattice top on a pork pie, but on a cherry pie it is quite natural. The lattice is sometimes used in partnership with a lack of base, resulting in a double deficit of pastry and a dish that is barely more than stewed fruit.
Here at Oxford Dictionaries, we are helpless: we define the words as they are being used. If people keep calling their hatted-casseroles ‘pies’, might we lose entirely the image of the typical pie as one with a base? I urge you not to let this go on. The perfect pie, Plato’s true form of a pie, is encased entirely in delicious, buttery pastry. Keep this meaning of pie pure and close to your heart, and let the merely-hatted ‘pie’ continue as only an exception. Go forth, bake, write recipes, and please, please, send me your pies. Thinking about pies this much before lunch has made me so very hungry…