Christmas pie like no other

There are meat pies, there are turduckens, and then there is Martha Washington’s Christmas pie. 

“The official recipe for Christmas pie consists of different fowl — pigeon, partridge, duck, goose and turkey — starting with the smallest and working up to the largest and surrounded by whatever fowl was available [such as woodcocks, or small animals like hares]. They’re all de-boned, heavily spiced with mace, all spice, covered with clarified butter to stop from spoiling and baked in a thick crust,” said Mary Thompson, a research specialist with the Mount Vernon Ladies Association.

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The recipe Washington used came from 18th century cookery writer Hannah Glasse, best known for her cookbook The Art of Cookery. The recipe itself dates back to 1747 and took a long time to prepare. 

The Christmas pie has its origins in Yorkshire, and while it is no longer made for popular consumption in England or here in the United States, there appears to be renewed interest in such period cuisine on both sides of the Atlantic.

While George Washington kept detailed records of his daily activities, writing letters, touring his plantation, attending church and visiting friends, “there are no actual surviving descriptions of a Christmas dinner here at Mount Vernon,” according to Thompson.

However, in reading through Washington’s correspondences and financial records, historians have been able to piece together what would have been served at the Mount Vernon dinner table. During the holidays, you were most likely to find ham or bacon, chickens, custards, tarts, mince pies, plum pudding and fruitcake. But it’s Glasse’s recipe for Christmas pie that stands out on the table.

In a letter dated Nov. 16, 1786, a military friend, David Humphreys, wrote to Washington of his regret at being unable to visit Mount Vernon over Christmas and how much he would miss tucking into the popular pie.

“Tho I shall not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pies at Mount Vernon, I hope & trust my former exploits in that way will not be forgotten.”

His exploits were indeed missed that year, according to Thompson. The day after Christmas, Washington wrote back informing Humphreys that the family had “had one [a pie], yesterday on which all the company, tho’ pretty numerous [there were at least nine people present] were hardly able to make an impression.”

The renewed interest in the Christmas pie can be attributed in part to English food historian, chef and broadcaster Ivan Day, who specializes in such dishes and writes a blog on period cooking, foodhistorjottings.blogspot.co.uk.

“I have made these Christmas Pies many times ... I made my first one 35 years ago and have made them just about every Christmas since,” said Day.

Like the Washingtons, Day has used Glasse’s 1747 recipe. 

“These pies were designed for keeping the cooked meat sweet inside for considerable periods of time — many weeks and sometimes months. ... They were frequently sent long distances as gifts,” said Day.

In fact, he even came across one record of a pie being shipped from Northern England to Paris in the 19th century. The journey likely took about three weeks to make, but Day said the pie appeared to have held up well with the clarified butter and thick crust (not for eating) acting as an early form of preservation.

“I’ve read the return letter describing how sweet the game birds and poultry were inside the crust,” said Day. 

A regular visitor to the United States, Day’s period creations are legendary. He is in Minnesota this month as guest curator for the Supper with Shakespeare exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts — running from Dec. 13, 2012, to March 31, 2013 — which looks at the evolution of English banqueting food.

Last year Day set up an 18th century English table at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the year before he set up an 18th century dessert table at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden in Washington, D.C., that took about six weeks to prepare.

Back in England, Day offers period cooking classes at his home in the Lake District; just before leaving, he made one of his now famous Christmas pies with his students. He also shipped off a large replica of the one for display at the Minneapolis exhibit.

Day also owns a vast collection of antiquarian cookbooks and culinary utensils — more than a thousand, by his count, that he uses in his own kitchen. The self-described food archeologist says his mission is to rediscover the past through cooking, scratching away at the surface, browsing through centuries-old cookbooks trying to understand the past, how our ancestors lived and what food they prepared and ate. The documentation is there, he argues. We just need to read it for ourselves.

The closest we might come to the Christmas pie is today’s popular multi-bird roast — the turduckens. But Day considers this a fake heritage item that our forefathers would have frowned upon.

“Our ancestors, like George Washington, cooked the boned birds all inside each other in a pie. That made good gastronomic sense, as the meat remained much juicier and succulent than you would by baking the birds without the pastry in an oven.”

While Day and Martha Washington’s servants and slaves used the same Glasse recipe — he has used others — Day says it’s impossible to know what the first first lady’s pie would have looked like. However, Day’s creations are beautifully and painstakingly decorated masterpieces. And unlike Washington’s pie, Day’s crust is edible.

“I tend to make a very good edible crust, because we do not store the pies, but eat them the day after they are baked,” said Day.

The process for making one of these pies is arduous and time-consuming. 

“For one person, skilled with a filleting knife, it takes two hours to bone the birds, one hour to make the pastry, one hour to construct the pie, one hour to decorate it and four hours to bake it. I think a total of nine hours — a long working day,” said Day.

Making a Christmas pie is not cheap either: Plan on budgeting about $220 — that’s what it cost Day to make one a few weeks ago.