walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_Pie_, Janet Clarkson

Subtitled: A Global History

Also on the cover: The Edible Series

Published by Reaktion Books, a small independent publisher in London that started out doing, among other things, design books. It is a beautiful little book, a hardcover a little taller than a mass market paperback, thin, with a dust jacket, clay coat pages, a variety of illustrations that are helpful to understanding the text, mostly in color except when the source material was not. I believe that as ebooks take over more and more of the market for books which are predominantly text, the smart move for publishers who want to continue making paper books would be to make giftable books with wide appeal that have characteristics difficult to reproduce in electronic form: children's books, books you cut or otherwise take things out of (paper dolls), books you write in, and, at least until the color good-display-in-sunlight problems is solved, good color pictures.

That's point one, largely irrelevant to the textual content of the book. Point two, slightly related to the textual content of the book: in a recent discussion in this blog, H. posted a link to an article that claimed meat pies could last up to a year, quoting Janet Clarkson, and her book. I did not believe the assertion for a second, altho after some thought, I was willing to allow as how maybe if the meat were smoked or jerked ahead of time. The book was available to buy for not a large amount of money, and the preview on Amazon suggested that Dr. Clarkson (an M.D.) had actually done some research and had a pleasant authorial tone, so I ordered a copy.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the book, Clarkson did not supply enough additional information for me to successfully look at the recipe in question, even tho I now know the source (William Salmon's _Family-Dictionary_). I started trying to triangulate around the source, and found a couple books on Questia which led me to conclude that the pie preservation technique was a form of potting (storing stuff in containers, completely covered with oil/fat to prevent access by aerobic bacteria) in which the container was a paste crust rather than earthenware. Based on that, and some close-to-contemporary quotes indicating that meat preserved in this way tended to go off by midsummer, I initially concluded that, yeah, William Salmon was full of it. However, I am willing to allow the possibility that if the estate cold room was cold enough (i.e. full of ice), it might work. But then, the "without refrigeration" part of Clarkson's assertion is no longer valid.

The rest of the book is problematic as well. Her definition of pie requires a flaky pastry thus, in her words, fat (because you can't make a flaky pastry with oil, according to her) and wheat (because nothing else has enough gluten). Yet her extensive discussion of pies-as-preservation/storage/vessels involves rye crust that clearly was _not_ flaky -- and didn't involve wheat. The index does not reference phyllo or filo and she only includes a single paragraph about it. She doesn't seem aware that phyllo or filo with its flaky, oil crust would put the lie to her definition of pie.

The subtitle, "A Global History", would more correctly be, "As Known in English-Speaking Countries", as her focus is tightly on England, Australia (where she is from) and the US. While she thinks pie originated in northern Italy (absolutely no reason to accept that, once you figure out the phyllo thing you can trace it back to Egypt and a whole lot longer ago) and the transmission route to England included France, she asserts without much support that France does not have a pie tradition like England etc.

Her theory about why Australia developed a meat pie tradition vs. the sweet pie tradition in the US has at least surface plausibility, and I know nothing in particular to contradict it (altho I don't understand why she persists in saying mincemeat doesn't include meat anymore, because all the recipes my immediate cooking-connections use involve meat, and the commercial varieties I've seen in the last couple decades all had meat in them, too); however, due to the above mentioned problems in the book, I wouldn't hesitate to accept an alternative plausible theory if one were presented to me.

While the book serves a useful purpose in expanding the intended audience's understanding of pie and its history (viz. convince Americans it isn't an American thing and Australians it isn't an Australian thing -- you can see why it was easy to convince a London firm to publish this), in doing so it also reifies a bunch of dippy pie myths (can't make a flaky crust without oil, for example) and adds at least one new one (pies have magic that can preserve meat for a year without refrigeration!). On the good side, she does list a few sources in a "Select Bibliography" and some of those sources are plausible. A person interested in food history who started hear might continue on a beneficial path.

And it is a pretty book.

For a book bought to track down an annoying error I believed to have been committed in the book, it was a good experience.
Tags: book review, food, non-fiction

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