Cobwebbed Tales: Pyes and Coffins

Sandy Jordan
Guest Columnist

In ancient Greece they had a baking dish called a “lasagna.” They altered layers of meat sauce, goats cheese and pasta until the pan was full and baked it.  In the medieval days there were few means of preservation, so meat often had a bad taste. They created Shepherd’s Pie and Pot Pie to cover it..

Colonial wives made the first sweet “pyes” out of pumpkin and squash.. The native Americans taught them to cook them by the hearth, but, they added a new twist. They cut off the top of the pumpkin, scooped out the fiber and seeds and filled the pumpkin with milk, then they sat the pumpkins in the open hearth and baked them until tender.

This method can be adjusted to modern day technology. Simply put a whole pumpkin in your oven at 350 degrees. Bake about two hours, until tender. It peels easily. Clean out the center, cut into slices to fit your blender. Once the pumpkin is thick sauce add your other ingredients called for in your recipe. Bake. This is a wonderful opportunity to bake ahead and have your pies ready to heat and serve.

Working with pumpkin in high altitudes can be tricky. The first pumpkin pye I baked in Colorado Springs, turned green as grass. But then, my dumplings migrated from the stewer to the ceiling. It was safer to stick to fried potatoes and hot dogs.

This early cooking method evolved. They took a pan, greasing it with lard, sprinkling it with coarse rye meal, then filling the prepared pan with the pye mix, and baking it.

In those early days there was no “white” flour. They used wild rye. They took the heads, grinding them with a pestle and mortar.   Eventually, they also made “corn” meal. The early settlers had no general store on the nearest corner, their supplies were shipped from England. These supplies were often “spoiled” before their arrival in the colonies.  Out of necessity,  they learned how to use the strange, primitive supplies available.

The” pyes” evolved further. They began using long, deep dishes, called “coffins”. A thinner, more refined pastry shell lined the pan before adding the pie mixture. These pies fed a great number of people. The pies topped off a meal of venison or rabbit stew.. Eventually, the coffin gave way to the round pie plate, which eliminated waste from the corners and yielded more slices per pie. 

Pies became common fare served nearly every night from produce in season. The ingredients grew to include squash, sweet potato, pumpkin, nuts and berries. Orchards were not common in the newly settled regions. Orchards were farther down the line, after the revolutionary war. Apples, peaches and pears do not grow well in the wilds, on land that is not cultivated and well tended.

This fourth of July clean the cobwebs from your family cookbooks. Dig out your deepest “coffin” and bake some history, sharing tales with your family as you serve your traditional  “pye”.