In the Thorne Rooms of the Art Institute is a placard describing a special pie that George and Martha Washington are thought to have served on Christmas at Mount Vernon.
First make a good standing crust, let the wall and bottom be very thick; bone a turkey, a goose, a fowl, a partridge, and a pigeon. Season them all very well, take half an ounce of mace, half an ounce of nutmegs, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, and half an ounce of black pepper, all beat fine together, two large spoonfuls of salt, and then mix them together. Open the fowls all down the back, and bone them; first the pigeon, then the partridge, cover them; then the fowl, then the goose, and then the turkey, which must be large; season them all well first, and lay them in the crust, so as it will look only like a whole turkey; then have a hare ready cased, and wiped with a clean cloth. Cut it to pieces; that is joint it; season it and lay it as close as you can on one side; on the other side woodcocks, moor game, and what sort of wild fowl you can get. Season them well, and lay them close; put at least four pounds of butter into the pie, then lay on your lid, which must be a very thick one, and let it be well baked. It must have a very hot over, and will take at least four hours.
I puzzled to imagine the result of this outrageous recipe: a stew in a deep pot, swimming in butter? Weren’t the Washingtons cooking up a food-borne disease? The realities of their experience, though, turn out to have been far more pleasant and sophisticated; to an informed sensibility, the virtues of their Christmas Pie were considerable indeed.
In November 1786, Washington’s old friend and military aide, David Humphreys, wrote the retired general regretting that he would “not have the felicity of eating Christmas Pie at Mount Vernon.” Afterward, Washington replied that he could have used Humphrey’s “aid in the Attack of Christmas Pyes . . . on which all the company . . . were hardly able to make an impression.”
Ivan Day’s research into food history illuminates what the Washingtons’ Christmas pie looked like and how the dish was actually consumed. The recipe above, meant to be eaten cold, was for a standing Yorkshire pie well known throughout Georgian England. According to an interview Day gave to The Hill, the crust served only as a standing vessel for the meats and was not meant to be eaten. Instead, the crust and the thick seal of butter encased the meat, preserving it air-tight, not just for days but weeks. The main ingredients, spiced and tightly packed inside one another, created concentric circles in the cooked pie when sliced. When the pie was ready to be served, the top was broken off and guests feasted on the terrine-like concoction resting inside. (For representative pictures, click here, here, or here.)
Victorian-era illustration featuring meat and game pies.
The Yorkshire pie was a towering work of gastronomy and ‘a universal favourite at Christmas time.’ Making such a pie demanded time, ample resources, and patience, but the result was a showy presentation of the choicest meat delicacies, baked in a fashion that sealed in their flavors.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the Yorkshire Christmas pie, which remained popular for at least a century, became a calling card of the powerful and wealthy. The Washingtons’ recipe, from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (London: 1784), explains that
This crust will take a bushel of flour. . . . These pies are often sent to London in a box, as presents; therefore the walls of the crust must be well-built.
The Washingtons’ pie was not just massive and delicious, but a sign of their means and their ability to bestow largesse on other people. Around the same time, the future English abolitionist William Wilberforce was arriving at a similar understanding. Then a student at Cambridge, “he was truly hospitable,” for “there was always a great Yorkshire pie in his rooms, and all were welcome to it,” according to R. V. Taylor, in his Yorkshire Anecdotes, or, Remarkable incidents in the lives of celebrated Yorkshire men and women.
Merry Christmas, everyone!