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Tasty Traditions: Meat Pies

W hen we think of pies in this great country of ours, many of us conjure up that wonderfully nostalgic image of a steaming fruit pastry, lovingly latticed on top, left to cool on the windowsill on a sunny, temperate afternoon. Perhaps it's an apple pie (Mom and America's favorite), or maybe it's pecan, blueberry, blackberry, strawberry, rhubarb, peach, pear, or even mayhaw. But as much as we adore them, the most important pies in the annals of gastronomy are not the ones served for dessert, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. No, the serious pies, the ones that go all the way back to when the pie was invented, are not sweet treats at all, but savory ones.

Meat Pies - Everyday Food – Dartagnan.com

Indeed, we're talking about the historic, beloved meat pie. The term "pie," actually derives from "magpie," small birds that are well-known to bring back any bit of detritus to use in constructing their nests. History's early pies were said to look much like one of these nests (we can only hope that they tasted better). We can trace the invention of the pie all the way back to Ancient Egypt, around 9500 BCE, when intrepid cooks baked honey and nuts into pastry dough. There's even evidence of pies inscribed on the walls of the tomb of Pharaoh Ramsees II. The pie concept was refined and furthered by the ancient Greeks, subsequently adopted by the Romans, and perfected over the centuries until it became the flaky, savory dish we love today.

In the Middle Ages, long before the advent of refrigeration, hungry people -- often those on ships long at sea -- needed a way to preserve their food for lengthy periods of time without spoiling. There was salting and smoking and other methods of charcuterie, of course, but ship galley cooks found that packing your meats and vegetables into thick dough and baking provided a wonderful way to keep meals fresh during their epic voyages across the world. Today, meat pies are widely popular across the globe, as they can be inexpensively fashioned using a variety of different ingredients, depending on the region.

Looking for a way to make your life more savory with a delicious meat pie, and to become part of this wonderful and tasty historical continuum? Here are a few of our favorites:

Steak and Guinness Pie
A staple in British pubs, the Guinness pie is made with round steak (feel free to upgrade with sirloin, ribeye or hanger steak), onions and bacon. Make sure to serve alongside a healthy portion of fried "chips" for a classic English pub experience. And for the ultimate fried potato experience, fry them in duck fat.

Pigeon Pot Pie
While we do love the humble chicken pot pie, pigeon -- the unfledged bird also known as squab -- was actually one of the first meat pie ingredients. Its dark, fragrant meat will certainly take an ordinary pie to the next level.

Nacitoches Meat Pie
In the pantheon of official American regional dishes, this is one of our favorites: a spicy mixture of beef, pork, onions, bell peppers and garlic simmered and packed into a conveniently hand-sized, flaky wheat pastry, the Nacitoches meat pie is one of the official state foods of Louisiana.

Pasty
Another wonderful meat pie from the United Kingdom, this one is most famous in the picturesque English towns of Devon and Cornwall, and is filled with minced beef, tomatoes, potatoes yellow turnips and onions. The pie is so popular, there, in fact, it accounts for nearly six percent of the local food economy in Cornwall. If you'd like to fashion your own and are looking for accuracy, make sure to pack it into a "D" shape, and only crimp the dough together on the side, not the top.

Sfeeha (Middle Eastern Meat Pie)
This powerfully savory pie is fashioned, like much cuisine in the Middle East, from lamb, and is popular in Lebanon and Syria. Combined with yogurt, pine nuts and spices, this pie should more resemble a triangle than the "D" shape common to the Cornish pasty, Jamaican and Nacitoches meat pies.