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For The Origins Of Pie, Look To The Humble Magpie

 A drawing of a medieval pie baker, circa 1465-1475.
Courtesy of Institut für Realienkunde
A drawing of a medieval pie baker, circa 1465-1475.

This is the month when the stately, voluptuous turkey takes a place of pride on most dinner tables. But when it comes to dessert, it's worth considering the relevance of another bird — the humble magpie.

That's because, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "pie" — defined as a baked dish topped with and sometimes also surrounded by pastry — may well derive from the Latin word pica, meaning magpie.

So how do you get from a smart Roman bird to the traditional Thanksgiving dessert? The OED admits it's all bit uncertain, but offers a few linguistic clues to how these black and white birds could have been transformed into edible pies.

Magpies didn't actually acquire the prefix mag- until the 17th century. Before that they were called simply "pies" or "pyes," the original Latin having been shortened and smoothed as it made its way through older versions of French and English.

These chattering pies first show up in English manuscripts in the 13th century, along with their close relatives crows, rooks and ravens .

But it's not long before the word pie starts to turn up with its edible meaning.

The dictionary references a Rogero Pyman selling pies in 1301. And the cook who joined Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims headed for Canterbury, "koude rooste, and sethe, and broille, and frye,/ Maken mortreux, and wel bake a pye" in the Canterbury Tales.

One possibility is that this linguistic sleight of hand occurred because of the association between a magpie's characteristic black and white plumage, and the appearance of medieval pies.

It's not that farfetched. The word pie quickly became an adjective describing things that had patches of black and white, like a friar's habit. Later it came to denote birds, animals and people whose feathers or coats displayed contrasting patches of light and dark: Think piebald horses, pied wagtails, and the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

So maybe those long ago diners were struck by the contrast between the light paste, and the rich dark filling that oozed out when the pie was opened. Or perhaps it was the filling itself – resplendent with light and dark meats – that reminded them of the black and white birds.

I don't know enough about 13th century cookery to judge how likely this is, but I suspect that the paste might have functioned as more as scorched heat shield than as a pale foil for the unctuous filling. And in my experience, British stews are more muddied than marbled.

I like the next idea more: the filling as the key to the association. But not because of its color. More because of its content.

Magpies and crows are well-known for their habit of collecting an assortment of odds and ends in their nests. Not so very different, the thinking goes, from the way medieval cooks assembled ingredients for their pies.

The modern mince pie is typically filled with raisins, sugar, and spices.
/ iStockphoto.com
The modern mince pie is typically filled with raisins, sugar, and spices.

The OED points out that early haggis recipes also call for an astonishing range of anatomical bits and pieces to be minced together with suet, oats and vegetables. And the word haggis or haggesse turns out to be an alternative name for magpie.

There was also a dish called chewet that was a concotion of meat or fish mixed with fruit and spices. Chewet was also the name of a chough or jackdaw – a relative of the magpie with similar housekeeping habits.

The idea that the link between the two kinds of pies was the jumble of ingredients also seems to be borne out by the fact that by 1650 there are references to a "printer's pie" which describes what the OED calls, "A mass of type in confusion or mingled indiscriminately, such as results from the accidental breaking up of a form of type."

It's interesting,too, that the original Latin word for magpie - pica - turns up again in medical Latin to describe pregnant women's cravings for strange, miscellaneous foodstuffs.

So as you eat this year's slice of pumpkin or apple pie, I hope you'll enjoy the thought that each sweet mouthful of fruit and spice carries the memory of an ancient magpie treasure trove.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning science journalist Alison Richards is deputy supervising senior editor for NPR's science desk.