Sing a Song of Sixpence

savory pie recipe with pie birds from lifestyle food blog

It all started with this little nursery rhyme… What exactly was meant by the line, “four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie?” Does this tell a tale of Old English pies? So, it does.

Pies, when served at important occasions, particularly to a king or queen, became a regal form of banquet entertainment. Frogs, blackbirds, or on one notable occasion, a dwarf, were carefully concealed within a thick housing of dough, only to surprise upon service. Was that not a dainty dish to serve before the king?

Pies, as any well-learnt pie enthusiast twill attest, are not in fact, an American creation. Instead, pies as we know them are derivatives of British pies, their method of cooking brought to the colonies by early settlers.

 to make paest

According to Proper Newe Booke of Cookerye, a collection of recipes documenting medieval cooking first published in 1545, here is a recipe for paest – dough, as we know it:

To make short paest for tarte. Take fyne floure and a cursey of fayre water and a dysche of swete butter and a lyttel saffron and the yolckes of two egges and make it thynne and as tender as ye maye.

For the early chapters in pie history (think 1500s here), pies were savory dishes, sturdy vehicles for meats and stews. The dough of these pies was thick and rigid, used as a standalone vessel to contain and protect their contents from the harsh temperatures of traditional ovens… and perhaps the pointy beaks of blackbirds. The pie form was out of necessity, not taste.

As grotesque as the thought of blackbirds in a cardboard-crust pie may seem, it was not so long ago these lovely  songbirds had a bit of a baking revival. From Medieval Times to the ovens of 1940s post-war America, life is good and  moral is pie-in-the-sky high. With a baby boom and a generation of happy housewives, the “All-American” pie is being churned out in every kitchen. New baking products, quick mixes, and special pie plates are flying off store shelves.

Then it happened. No one is clear on exactly where the initial model came from, but they hit. Pie Birds. Inspired by the popular nursery rhyme, pie birds are a derivative of a traditional chimney device that was placed inside the tall pies of medieval times to help release steam. Steam enters the bottom, then sings out through its open beak. How perfectly 1940s cute and way better than a steamy dwarf.

flying pie

When the pie was opened…


Detail of a still-life painting by A. Pereda (1678) showing a typical raised pie,

A typical raised pie


Proper Newe Booke of Cookerye

Proper Newe Booke of Cookerye


Andy Roberts,

Pie birds