Surprise Pie – The Dark Side of Baking
Sing a song of sixpence / A pocket full of rye / Four and twenty blackbirds / Baked in a pie
When the pie was open / The birds began to sing / Wasn’t that a dainty dish / To set before the king
This is an old nursery rhyme that I read as a child. As many old stories go, it gets surprisingly dark. I mean first, there are live birds baked into a pie, then they fly out of the pie and peck off the nose of the maid.
Supposedly, this was written to parody an incident where King Henry VIII went to visit Anne Boleyn (his second wife) and a pie was baked for him with 24 whole blackbirds baked in it, feathers and all. When it was opened it smelled horrible.
However, the validity of this is questioned as the first printed version of the poem doesn’t actually have birds. It has naughty boys baked in the pie. So… definitely darker.
The origins have been attributed to many incidents or themes, but none have been confirmed.
But the fact remains that as a child I was amused by the idea of a live bird popping out of a pie. I was amused, that is, until this evening when I discovered that this was actually a thing.
Baked into pies.
That would escape when it was cut open.
For 16th-century amusement purposes.
And it wasn’t just birds. Sometimes they would use frogs or snakes.
Now, before you are as horrified as I was, and as confused about how on earth they managed to bake a pie without killing the animals, it turns out they didn’t actually bake the pie with the creatures inside. An enormous pie would be baked around a wooden frame, making it pretty much hollow. A trap door was created in the bottom of the pie, in which the animals were inserted. And when the top of the pie was cut, the animals could escape.
Food writer Steven Raichlen found a medieval cookbook with the recipe in it.
I’m not sure that the surprise pies were actually eaten, or if they were used for entertainment purposes only and then had other pies served alongside them, as eating the pies that had been housing live animals certainly wouldn’t have been ideal. And certainly wouldn’t pass today’s food safety laws.
An English chef named Heston Blumenthal recreated a similar pie to the one in the poem for a television series called Heston’s Feasts. The particular episode was Heston’s Medieval feast. Rather than creating a trapdoor underneath the pie, he made the entire top of the pie removable, so the birds could be inserted after the cooking process. And rather than blackbirds, Heston used pigeons. There are three videos below that show the making and display of his pigeon pie.
What do you think of this medieval practice? What creature would you want to see pop out of your pie, if any? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to check out the videos below!