Let’s settle the bottom-crust debate.
My mother, for her part, countered this argument with plenty of examples in her cookbooks of pot pies without bottom crusts. In hindsight, this was substantially about the fact that my father ate frozen pot pies in the 1960s, when the lack of a bottom crust could be considered cheating (although the ad to the left from 1955 would disagree), and my mother’s cookbooks were from the 1970s, when making a pie crust would’ve been a pain.
So who was right? As usual, there wasn’t much wisdom around:
|Ancient Greeks cooked meats and poultry in open pastry shells called artocreas, but the Romans added the top crust creating the first real pot pies. — About Chicken Pot Pie, eHow.com|
|Everyone thinks that “Chicken Pot Pie” is a meal that is served in a pie crust of some sort. This is not true. — Chicken Pot Pie (the real Pennsylvania Dutch Way!), Just a Pinch Recipes|
Oh hey, look what time it is:
To start, we have to clarify that a pot pie isn’t a meat pie, and accordingly, the pretenses of connections to Greek or Roman preparations don’t have a basis in anything that actually happened. Pot pies have a gravy or sauce. And their origins have nothing to do with leftovers–in fact, the meat in the original pies was raw when it went in.
Among one of the earliest mentions is in the 1803 and 1807 editions of The Frugal Housewife by London’s own Susannah Carter, a book originally published in 1765. While the original printings of this book contained entirely English recipes–many of which were borrowed for the first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, in 1796–later American reprints had an appendix of entirely American recipes. Pot Pie was one of them:
To make a pot Pie.
Make a crust and put it round the sides of your pot, then cut your meat in small pieces, of whatever kind the pot pie is to be made of, and season it with pepper and salt, then put it in the pot and fill it with water, close it with paste on the top; it will take three hours doing.
Notice it says to cover the sides of the pot but not the bottom? That’s the original pot pie crust configuration. Consider the version from 1837’s Directions For Cookery, In Its Various Branches by Eliza Leslie (image from the 1840 printing):
A Pot Pie.
Take a pair of large fine fowls. Cut them up, wash the pieces, and season them with pepper and salt. Make a good paste in the proportion of a pound and a half of minced suet to three pounds of flour. Let there be plenty of paste, as it is always much liked by the eaters of pot pie. Roll out the paste not very thing, and cut most of it into long squares. Butter the sides of a pot, and line them with paste nearly to the top. Lay slices of cold ham at the bottom of the pot, and then the pieces of fowl, interspersed all through with squares of paste, and potatoes pared and quartered. Lay a lid of paste all over the top, leaving a hole in the middle. Pour in about a quart of water, cover the pot, and boil it slowly but steadily for two hours. Half an hour before you take it up, put in through the hole in the centre of the crust, some bits of butter rolled in flour, to thicken the gravy. When done put the pie on a large dish, and pour the gravy all over it.
You may intersperse it all through with cold ham.
A pot pie may be made of ducks, rabbits, squirrels, or venison. Also of beef-steaks.
Cut up two large chickens; grease your pot, or dutch-oven, with lard; roll out crust enough in two parts, to go round it, but not to cover the bottom, or it will burn before the pie is done. As you put in the pieces of chicken, strew in flour, salt, and pepper, some pieces of the crust rolled thin, and a few potatoes; cover this with water, and put on a covering of paste, with a sit cut in the middle; let it cook slowly for about two hours; have hot water in a tea kettle, and if it should dry up too much, pour some in; just before you dish it, add a little parsley and thyme.
Veal, lamb and pork pies, may be made in the same way. If you like more top crust, cook it in a dutch-oven; and when the first crust is done, take it off in a pan and set it near the fire, and cover the pie again with dough.
(But see the bot boi history over at Chez Pim–I’m sure there was some interaction between the German stew and the American pot pies of the day.)
Nor were these preparations limited to the savory. Consider this version from the September 8, 1845 edition of the Gettysburg Adams Sentinel, which preserves the basic structure of the pot pie while adding internal layers of crust:
Peach Pot-pie.–Cover the sides of a Dutch oven with a common pie crust; lay in as many pared peaches as will cover the bottom (or more if you please); spread over them a think overing of pie-crust; then put on another layer of pared peaches, and so on, putting peaches and crust alternately, until you have put in all you wish. Stir together three parts of water and one of molasses; make a cross-cut in the middle of the pie, as you would for pot-pie; pour the molasses and water into the opening, cover the Dutch oven, and make it with a brisk heat (not fierce enough to scorch). I should think three-quarters of an hour would be about right. The quantity of molasses must be judged by the acidity of the peaches. For a peck of good peaches, of the usual flavor, about half a pint of molasses would be needed, and three times as much water. This pie is excellent.
So that’s the original pot pie. But as between biscuit-topped top-only pies, and bottom-and-top pies, which came first?
From what I can tell, the bottom crust iterations predate the biscuit versions, and made important evolutionary strides to our expectations of modern pot pies. In the versions we’ve seen so far, the meat is raw, and generally still on the bone. But consider this layered version from 1857’s The Great Western Cook Book, or Table Receipts, Adapted to Western Housewifery by Angelina Maria Collins (who lived in Indiana):
Take raised pie-crust, line a pot, or small Dutch oven, or a very deep stew pan, bottom and sides, with one-half an inch thickness; lay your fowls and pork, or veal, in very small pieces (the pork is always best boiled first,) in, with salt, and pepper, and small pieces of butter, then potatoes, cut in very delicate slices, then a layer of crust, one, again of meat, then potatoes, then crust. Then pour in the water in which the pork has been boiled, through a hole in the top crust. The pie must be baked very judiciously, or it will be a failure. It is, therefore, always best to cook the meat and fowl, unless they are very young and tender. Lay a sheet of foolscap over the top, to keep it from baking too rapidly.
This is a most excellent dish for a harvest-party, or log-rolling; it can be made at any season of the year; in winter they are very fine, made of sweet-breads, tender-loins, and spare-ribs, finely sliced, or cut up.
Biscuit iterations don’t even show up until about seventy years after the 1803 mention, and when they first appear, they’re optional and follow the sides-and-top rule of the original. Consider this example from 1873’s Presbyterian Cook Book, Compiled
By The Ladies Of The First Presbyterian Church, Dayton, Ohio:
Boiled Chicken Pot Pie.
Mrs. James Stocksill.
Cut up a good sized chicken in all the joints; make a rich crust or like soda biscuit; have ready a smooth pot; put in a layer of chicken at the bottom pepper and salt; then square, small pieces of dough, and then a layer of of potatoes (quartered if large) and small pieces of butter; then another layer of chicken, and so on. Put a crust over the top with a slit cut each way, so that you can turn back and add more water if necessary. Before putting it on fill the pot with boiling water and cover loosely; boil with a good fire one hour and a half.
Meanwhile, an early mention of the drop-dumpings-on-top-and-call-it-a-pie version is 1884’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book by Mary Johnson Bailey Lincoln, where it’s just a veal stew with dumplings:
Veal Stew or Fricassee.
The ends of the ribs, the neck, and the knuckle ma be utilized in a stew. Cut the meat–two pounds–in small pieces, and remove all the fine bones. Cover the meat with boiling water; skim as it begins to boil; add two small onions, two teaspoonfuls of salt, and one saltspoonful of pepper. Simmer until thoroughly tender. Cut four potatoes in halves; soak in cold water, and parboil them five minutes; add them to the stew. Add one tablespoonful of flour wet in cold water, and more seasoning if desired; and just before serving add one cup of cream, or if milk be used add one tablespoonful of butter. Remove the bones before serving. To make Veal Pot-Pie add dumplings, as in Beef Stew. If intended for a fricassee, fry the veal in salt pork fat before stewing, and omit the potatoes. Add one egg to the liquor just before serving, if you wish it richer.
There aren’t a lot of recipes quite like this out there–the oldest similar recipe I’ve found so far is from the October 17, 1965 Parade magazine–this scan from the one included with the Oakland (California) Tribune:
Chili Pot Pie
1-1/2 lbs. lean beef, ground
Combine beef, salt, pepper, and Worcestershire sauce; mix well. Shape into 12 balls. Cook onion and green pepper in oil until tender; remove from pan. Brown meatballs in oil remaining in pan; remove meatballs to 2-quart baking dish. Stir chili powder into meat drippings; add corn, kidney beans, tomatoes, and ripe olives; mix well. Simmer 5 to 10 minutes. Stir in onion and green pepper; pour over meatballs. Prepare biscuits; arrange on top of baking dish. Bake at 425 deg. for 20 to 25 minutes or until biscuits are done. Makes 6 servings.
*Corn Meal Biscuit Topping
1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
Sift dry ingredients into bowl. Cut in shortening until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk; stir lightly until mixture is dampened. Turn out on lightly floured board or canvas; knead gently a few seconds. Roll out to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut with 2-inch floured cutter.
While it’s inconvenient that the recipe is unfinished, I think I’ve got an idea as to how it ended. My guess (and my reasoning) are after the retyped part of the recipe from the card, below.
From the box of L.R. from Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Chili-Corn Pot Pie
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 c. chopped onion
2 cups whole kernel corn, thawed and divided
1 (14-1/2 oz.) can chili-style chunk tomatoes, undrained
1 Tbsp. chili powder
1 (11 oz.) can fiesta nacho cheese soup, undiluted
1-2/3 c. Bisquick
1 large egg, lightly beaten
Cook beef and onion in 10″ skillet over medium heat ’till browned; crumble meat, drain. Stir in 1-1/2 c. corn, tomatoes, and chili powder.
Reserve 1/2 c. of soup in medium bowl; set aside. Stir remaining soup into beef mixture and bring to boil, medium high; reduce heat, simmer, stir occasionally for 10 minutes.
Spoon into lightly greased 2 qt. baking dish.
Place remaining [Card ends here.]
Place remaining 1/2 cup soup and egg in a bowl and beat together. Mix 1/2 cup reserved corn into Bisquick. Stir Bisquick and soup mixture until it just comes together. Spread evenly over the top of pot.
Bake at 375 deg. for 20 minutes or until browned.
Why I think this will work:
There’s a recipe for cheddar biscuits that uses three cups of Bisquick, one can of condensed cheese soup, and half a cup of milk. The volume of an 1 oz. can of cheese soup is 1-1/4 cups.
Since the volume a large egg is a scant quarter of a cup, and we’re using half-cup of soup, with a little added moisture from the corn… the proportions of liquid and solid ought to come together into something that’s sort of like a dry muffin. Which should be fine, as it’s not supposed to be a muffin at all, it’s supposed to be a crust.