I made a pie and it was beautiful. I took it from the oven and I gasped.
There is something medieval about a pie. And something Anglo-Saxon. Robin Hood ate pies, and Desperate Dan, and Chaucer's 14th-century pilgrims. According to the OED the word derives from magpie, because the mix of foods inside a pie is like a magpie's hoard of pretty bits and pieces. No, I don't believe that story either but I have no other etymology to offer.
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The one ingredient shared by every pie is pastry. And the three ingredients of pastry are flour and fat and water. The flour is wheat, the water's water and the fat is lard or butter. Which last ingredient explains the pie's geography. You won't find pies where the weather's hot, because butter melts and lard goes rancid. In such climates they use oil instead of fat. There's a lot to be said for oil but you can't make pastry with it. So there's no tradition of pies in the Middle East or in equatorial Asia.
And pastry doesn't just need a cold climate. It also takes, I'm told, cold hands to make it well. Perhaps that's why my own attempts have always disappointed. These days I buy it from the supermarket, cold and rolled and blank as corpse-skin.
Part of a pie's pleasure is surprise. Unless you've cooked the thing yourself you cannot know what's in it. Many oddments have been baked into pies - files, the heads of relatives, four and twenty blackbirds. And even if you do know what's in a pie, to cut into it still feels like opening a gift.
A pie is not fast food. But it is convenience food. It can be held in the hand so it requires no cutlery. Such informality is perhaps why it's a New Zealand staple.
Pies from the dairy vary. Let us not pretend that there are no bad ones: pies where the pastry sags, the gravy's thin, where the only meat you can identify with any certainty is nostril. (I am told by one who claims to know these things that most such pies are imported from Australia, where they have a laxer legal definition of what constitutes meat.)
But a good pie from the dairy is a wonder. The pastry glistens with fat, the gravy's thick as lava and the meat is melting cubes. Me, I'm a steak and cheese man. One's a meal. Two would satisfy Samson.
I am not one for health warnings. We are shouted at too much already. Nevertheless all dairy pies should come with a warning in capital letters on the crinkly packaging: Do not attempt to eat this pie while driving.
The problem is that the commercial warmer heats the innards of a pie to the temperature of magma, The hungry driver bites. The magma bursts. The driver screams and spits and gasps. And in the frenzy and the agony of blistered tongue and cheek he squeezes inadvertently a blob of molten magma pie on to his crotch.
In a hypothetical safe-driving competition between a 12-beer drunk and a man with molten pie guts on his crotch, my money's on the drunk.
At university I had nothing to do but read a book or two a week and write an essay. So often of a weekday morning I would perch myself on a wall in Trumpington St to watch the baker's window opposite. And when around the crack of 10 a certain tray appeared in it, I'd cross the road and buy a hot pork pie.
The beast was two-thirds the size of a cricket ball but twice the weight. The pastry was a bomb casing, the juice was nectar, the meat a smoking delight. Voluptuous self-indulgence could reach no greater height.
Some years later I was broke and living in a hostel for the wretched in Eastern France. My neighbours were unemployed Vietnamese and Arabs whom the French despised and who fought with each other. One night I couldn't sleep. Drunks howled in the street. Eaten by misery I writhed on my hot bed till three in the morning then took out an exercise book and a wrote a story called Hot Pork Pies. It was explicitly sexual. When it was finished I slept.
The pie I made yesterday was a chicken pie. Or rather a chicken, bacon, leeks with butter, herbs and cream pie. But though it was a tasty creature, it was the pieness of it that pleased me most, the faultless dome of pastry, egg washed, glistening, golden, a good thing, an ancient thing, a thing as old as my culture, a bulwark against gloom. A pie.