The Case of Pie v. Tart

How's about a mile high slice of pie?

Posted Oct 24, 2011

It was a beautiful essay, filled with fields of wild blue phlox and buttercups (with a dog in the car you have to stop often). I especially remember her quoting a man she met who claimed that "pie judgments are sexually dimorphic." "Women judge a pie by its crust," he told her, "men by its filling." Brilliant, I thought to myself; and, based on my own experience, how true.

Today the article comes to mind for a different reason. I've been wondering about why it is that we Americans so love our pies-as opposed to tarts, that is, which in a way are quite similar, but which we tend to reserve for fancy occasions or for when we dine out. Our most patriotic holidays feature pies: can you imagine July 4th or Thanksgiving without them? There's something utterly all-American about pie. The admen at Chevrolet knew what they were doing with their "Baseball, hotdogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet" jingle. We've even created a day in their honor: did you know that January 23rd is National Pie Day?

None of this is to say that we Americans are alone in our love of pies. Almost every cuisine you can think of has some sort of filled dough concoction. Obviously they're popular the world over. It's generally thought that the ancestor of European (and, hence, American) pies was born in ancient Greece and Rome where they used to enclose meat in a pastry made of flour and oil. It's also thought that the Latin word torta, "a round loaf of bread," came to refer to these pastries as the Romans set out to conquer the world, taking their pastry with them. Up north, olive oil was replaced by more readily available butter or lard, resulting in pastry dough that could be rolled out or molded. Thus was born both the "tortes" and "tartes" of France and, centuries later, of England: a happy marriage of a Roman name and northern fat, whether butter or lard. Some of the earliest English recipe compilations we have include a variety of "tartes" and "tartletes," which back then were usually filled with bits of meat. Odd as it may sound, it was probably those bits of meat that gave us our distinctive English word pie, from the last syllable of magpie, the bird famous for stealing bits and pieces of things to construct its nest. To this day pies can still contain meat-just think of shepherd's pie, steak-and-kidney pie, or the chicken pot pies that we tend to prefer on this side of the Atlantic-although it was the fruity ones that really took off after the Pilgrims brought their pies to America. It was here that dessert pies came into their own, allowing Sue Hubbell, a few hundred years later, to feast on the likes of Shaker Lemon Pie, Nantucket Cranberry Pie, Chocolate Meringue Pie, Shoofly Pie, Strawberry-Rhubarb Pie, and so many more.

What I conclude from this brief excursus through the history of pie is this: although most people bake something like them, only English speakers call them pies. So why is it, I wonder, that we adapted the French tarte, whereas they never cozied up to our pie? Why is it that they bake tartes, but not pies, whereas we English speakers bake both? And is the biggest difference between them based on ingredients and technique or, as I have a hunch, does it reflect instead our very different attitudes toward the two?

Culinary historians distinguish between pies and tarts as between two distinctly different confections: pies have flaky crusts, whereas tarts have crumbly ones; pies are baked in sloping-sided pans; tarts in pans with removable bottoms; pies have more filling and, often, a top crust, whereas tarts are always open-faced. All true, but I think that to the layman's eye, the biggest difference is that one's fancy and one's not. If I were to tell you I'd just baked an apple tart, you'd think I was out to impress you. If I were to invite you over for a slice of apple pie, you'd be more likely to conjure up visions of a red checked tablecloth in a warm and fuzzy kitchen. Face it: a tarte aux pommes sounds more elegant than an apple pie, even though your guests might think you a bit snooty if you were to serve a tarte aux pommes next Thanksgiving.

There's always an exception that proves the rule. Just consider the "Pop-Tart." On the other hand, the Kellogg Company might have known precisely what they were up to. Nothing like a bit of French to add some panache.