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Baking 4 + 20 Blackbirds Into a Pie

Mother Goose Illustration - blackbirds in pie.

I’ve been researching 17th century wedding customs this week and a 1685 recipe for Bride’s Pye caught my imagination. Bride’s Pye included all manner of ingredients that seemed a bit unusual from my perspective, though I admit I am not the most adventurous eater. Examples include cock stones and combs [roosters’ testicles and the combs on the top of their heads]; lamb-stones [testicles], and oysters, all items that are still consumed.

But what really caught my attention was encasing living creatures into the pie. The pie is prepared with the ingredients mentioned above, plus other items such as chestnuts, pine kernels, bacon, spices, butter, and eggs. However, one part of the pie is left as a sort of shell. If, for example, three pies are made and stacked, the middle one can be baked with flour which is then removed for the birds.

illustration of tiered Bride's Pye

Several other Pies belong to the first form, but you must be sure to make the three fashions proportionably answering one the other; you may set them on one bottom of paste, which will be more convenient; or if you set them several, you may bake the middle one full of flour, it being bak’t and cold, take out the flour in the bottom, & put in live birds, or a snake, which will seem strange to the beholders, which cut up the pie at the Table. This is only for a Wedding to pass away the time.

It seems that the nursery rhyme below may well have been true.

King watching birds fly out of pie

Epulario, or The Italian Banquet

I found myself less interested in whether the king liked his surprise than how the living birds ended up in the pie at all. My investigation led me to the 16th century recipe below.

Common blackbird

Make the coffin of a great pie or pastry, in the bottome thereof make a hole as big as your fist, or bigger if you will, let the sides of the coffin bee somewhat higher then ordinary pies, which done put it full of flower and bake it, and being baked, open the hole in the bottome, and take out the flower. Then having a pie of the bigness of the hole in the bottome of the coffin aforesaid, you shal put it into the coffin, withall put into the said coffin round about the aforesaid pie as many small live birds as the empty coffin will hold, besides the pie aforesaid.

And this is to be done at such time as you send the pie to the table, and set before the guests: where uncovering or cutting up the lid of the great pie, all the birds will flie out, which is to delight and pleasure shew to the company. And because they shall not bee altogether mocked, you shall cut open the small pie, and in this sort you may make many others, the like you may do with a tart.

How to Bake Birds into a Pie

Saffron finch

Parakeets, finches, and blackbirds are all fairly small, and one source said an empty covered pie could hold 3 parakeets or 6 finches. But there still is the obvious question of how exactly one bakes living birds into a pie. Turns out it isn’t as complicated as it seems, and there were at least two ways it could be done.

Rose-ringed parakeet

During the Middle Ages and on into the 17th century, a pie crust was thick and could be baked before making the actual pie. The crust rose as it cooked, making a “pot” — hence the later term pot pie. In this case, the top crust of the pie could be removed and living birds placed inside the pot pie which was then recovered. When someone cut into the top crust, the birds were released.

A second method of baking birds into a pie was to cook the pie with a bran filling to prevent the lid from falling into the cavity. The cook could then cut a hole in the bottom of the pie crust to release the bran and insert the birds.

Heston Blumenthal, an English celebrity chef, decided to see if he could replicate such a pie. The video is in two parts. The first is about creating the pot for the pie. Given the size of the recipe, this involved using industrial equipment. In the second video, he investigates how to contain the birds in the pie. Each video is 2-3 minutes long.

Sandra’s Books: Ambition, Arrogance & PrideSaxon HeroinesTwo CoinsRama’s Labyrinth.

Illustrations & A Few Sources

Illustration from Mother Goose Rhyme, 1833; Illustration from The Accomplish Cook, see below; Boyd Smith Mother Goose, 1920; Common Blackbird by Charles J Sharp; Saffron Finch by Charles J Sharp; Rose-Ringed Parakeet by Tisha Mukherjee. Bride’s Pye from Robert May. The accomplisht cook, or, the art and mystery of cookery: a facsimilet of the 1685 edition (5th edition), Page 234. To Make Pies That the Birds May Be Alive in Them, and Flie Out When it is Cut Up. Four & Twenty Blackbirds. History Undressed. Feb. 23, 2008.

Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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