The pie is a thing of won­der

The Northern Advocate - - Opinion - Joe Ben­nett

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 An­gloSaxon. 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.

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 at­tempts have al­ways dis­ap­pointed. These days I buy it from the su­per­mar­ket, cold, 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.

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 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.

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