The Meaty Business of British Pie Design

As we embarked on our two-week trip to England for the English Design History course, there was one topic I was most excited to sink my teeth into – meat pies. Having worked in a pie shop in Richmond, Virginia, for over two years savory pies are a food close to my heart. I wasn’t sure how much “design history” I would find in England relating to meat pies, but I was pleasantly surprised with how often they presented themselves as an important (and tasty) tradition of British design.

A steak and ale pie from the Raven pub in Bath, England

We first encountered pie at the Geffrye Museum. Their knowledgeable curating staff had pulled a number of objects from their collection for a guided hands-on analysis. Fortunately one of these items was a fifth edition copy of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cooking from 1685. When the book was first published in 1660, it became the first English printed cookery book to include illustrations of the actual food within its pages and started a revolutionary trend in cookery book illustration. The expanded 1685 edition we examined at the Geffrye includes over 200 figures; spread over four foldout pages and numerous in-text illustrations, most of which depict various kinds of pastry work and the many different shapes of meat pies.

A page from May’s “the Accomplisht Cook or the Art and Mystery of Cookery” that illustrates the many shapes of mince “pyes.”

One of the four foldout pages with different shapes and pastry designs for a variety of “pye” types.

If you have ever tried to work from historic cookery books you will know they are typically light on instructions with scant details on how ingredients should be combined or what the final product should look like. Yet here before me lay a volume that contained aspects of both visual design and physical construction. Many of the illustrations reminded me of 1570’s strapwork designs on furniture or details from the gothic architecture seen throughout London.

I kept these fanciful design images in mind as we later toured the kitchens at Hampton Court Palace. Led by well-known British food historian Marc Meltonville, we explored their interpretation of a pie kitchen. Marc explained that meat pies were an important staple of the British diet and were a preferred method of feeding the 400 to 600 members of the royal court that could reside at the palace at a given time. With this many pies to churn out, the pastry chef likely didn’t have time to attempt intricate designs and details; instead those were saved for feasts, banquets, and impressing royal guests.

A corner of the pie shop at Hampton Court Palace – the pies looked good enough to eat!

Pies baked and ready to be eaten – I appreciated that their interpretation showed that not all pies made it out of the oven unburned!

Now that I had explored the design traditions and observed the process of making pies, it was time to get my hands dirty. Luckily, the kitchens on the SS Great Britain were an interactive and multi-sensory experience. Guests can smell the food and hear the sounds of the ship’s kitchens at work and even experience what it might have been like to roll dough at sea!

I felt right at home here!

All of this research was leaving me quite hungry! My favorite part of exploring the world of savory pies was being able to sample multiple modern interpretations of the dish. My classmates even got in on the fun and began to send me pictures of their own pie dinners!

Potato, spinach, and cheese pie from the Eagle and Child pub in Oxford

Sara McNamara’s delicious looking meat pie dinner

The general excitement felt throughout the trip and widespread class participation in my “pie project” was a great reminder of the benefits and opportunities of interpreting history through food. Pie is familiar, comforting, and a touchstone that can pull people into a deeper historical understanding of how people cooked and ate over time. Meat pies, in both their construction and consumption, represent a long-standing tradition of British design and a lasting culinary achievement.

By Rachel Asbury, WPAMC Class of 2018

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