Feast and Phrase

Gastronomy in the world of words.

Tag: pie


Ten More Pasta Shapes

Following up from last week’s look at ten pasta shapes and the meanings behind their names, here are ten more pasta shapes to complete the list!


PappardelleImage from Flickr user Alpha.

These broad ribbons of pasta are often served with heavy sauces, and the name is said to fittingly derive from the Italian pappare: ‘to gobble’, or ‘to stuff oneself’. Or as we say here on the Internet (and in general life), ‘Nom, nom, nom’.


PenneImage from Pixabay. The featured image for this article is from Flickr user Christian Cable.

Easily one of the most popular pasta shapes, ‘penne’ is the plural form of the Italian penna, meaning ‘quill’, ‘feather’, and (not surprisingly) ‘pen’. Would it be possible to dip penne pasta pieces in ink and write with them?


RavioliImage from Pixabay.

This one is slightly tricky. John Ayto suggests in his Diner’s Dictionary that the term is the diminutive or ‘small’ form of the Italian rava (‘turnip). ‘Ravioli’ would therefore translate as ‘little turnips’ and may have originally referred to some sort of small meat and turnip pie. It might also come from rabiole, which in the dialect of the Italian city Genoa means ‘leftovers’ or ‘bits and bobs’.


RigatoniImage from Flickr user jeffreyw.

These lined pasta tubes take their name from the Italian verb rigare, meaning ‘to score’ or ‘to groove’ (no, not musically).


RotelleImage from Wikimedia Commons.

‘Small wheels’ is the translation of this Italian name, though this Pasta Shapes Dictionary (there’s a dictionary for everything, isn’t there?) gives it as ‘Wagon Wheels’, which reminds me of a certain lunchbox snack…


SpaghettiImage from Pixabay.

We’ve had little tongues, little ears, little turnips, and little wheels. Now we have ‘little strings’ or ‘thin strings’, from the Italian spago, meaning ‘string’. The word ‘spaghetti’ may bring up many fond and delicious memories for most of you, but all I remember is Kevin Malone’s suggestion from the US hit show, The Office.


StrozzapretiImage from Flickr user fugzu.

Fancy eating some ‘choke-priest’ pasta? In different parts of Italy, it is also known as strangoloprevete and also strangugliaprieviti, both of which make the dark meaning slightly clearer (or at least the strangling part). Quite how this variety of pasta got its name is a mystery. One suggestion is that priests had a reputation for being fast-eating gluttons, but had difficulty getting this pasta down and choked. A less sinister explanation is that it refers to the shape of the priests’ collars (which were presumably a little tight).


TagliatelleImage from Flickr user Markus Reinhardt.

More ribbons – this time deriving their name from the Italian verb tagliare: ‘to cut’.


TortelloniThis is mushroom and truffle tortelloni. Image from the Flickr account of Restaurant Alexander Den Haag

Five-minute tortelloni was a household staple during exam time at university, and I tried just about every type available at the supermarket. What’s the difference to tortellini? Both have the same basic shape, but tortelloni is larger and generally has vegetarian fillings, while tortellini is smaller and usually has meat fillings.

I should probably have mentioned this near the start, but the ‘-ini’ ending refers to a smaller variety of pasta, while ‘-oni’ refers to a bigger variety!

As for the name, it comes from tortello, meaning ‘small cake or fritter’ (torta is ‘cake’). So technically speaking, tortellini is a ‘small small cake’, and tortelloni is a ‘large small cake’. My brain hurts now.


VermicelliI don’t think this was the image you were expecting. Nom, nom, nom? No, no, no. Image from Flickr user Allan Henderson

Finishing the list and continuing the trend of little things, vermicelli is ‘little worms’. You know who ate worms thinking they were pasta? Mr Twit, that’s who. Except he thought he was just eating spaghetti.

There you have it: ten more pasta shapes and the meanings behind their names. And if you’ve been traumatised by that ‘vermicelli’ image, maybe some spaghetti?

Spaghetti 2Image from Pixabay.

Much better.

Mince Pies

Mince Pies Through Time

A German colleague was recently telling me about her confusing first try of a mince pie. Tucking in with savoury expectations, she was stunned to find that they were sweet. She described with flailing arms how reality briefly fell apart, exclaiming, ‘Why would you call them mince pies!?’

Mince Pies 3Mince pies and mulled wine. Image from Flickr user Nick Webb.

For a good few centuries, mince pies were just that – pies filled with minced meat. They have an ancestor in ‘chewet or chewette pies: small in size, these medieval specialities had fillings of chopped meat or fish and were baked or fried. ‘To mak chewettes of beef tak beef and cutt it smalle’, instructs the 15th century Noble Boke off Cookry. In general, beef was a very popular filling, and it was common to enhance the flavour with dried fruit and spices.

Mince pie’ (in the meat sense of the term) has its first recorded use in the next century. French Schoole-maister, a French and English conversation guide from 1573, has the line ‘O Lorde, he hath supped up all the brothe of this mince pie.’ Increasingly eaten at Christmas time, mince pies came to be associated more and more with the festive season. So playwright Thomas Dekker writes in his 1604 pamphlet, Newes from Graues-end:

‘Ten thousand in London swore to feast their neighbors with nothing but plum-porredge, and mince-pyes all Christmas.’

What a feast that would have been…

Mince PiesA more homely feast of mince pies in front of the television. Image from Flickr user Simon Cocks.

Mince pies were also called ‘shred’ pies or ‘shrid’ pies, likely referring to the shredded meat inside them. Not surprisingly, ‘Christmas pie’ was another term which was used. During the 1600s, suet started to accompany or take the place of beef, with the sweet-and-spicy dried fruit addition becoming more prominent.

By the Victorian period, recipes for mincemeat largely left out the actual ‘meat’. Only suet remained, giving the mince pies that we know today. Suet may now be replaced with vegetarian alternatives.

Mince Pie FillingHome-made mince pies with their fruity filling. Image from Flickr user Ben Aston.

As Leah Hyslop writes, there have been various theories for why mince pies came to be specifically eaten at Christmas time, with none being particularly certain. For all that, it is clear that while the sticky fillings inside mince pies have changed over time, their name has well and truly stuck.

Humpty Falling

Nursery Rhyme Nibbles

English nursery rhymes abound with images of food, from Jack Sprat’s eating habits to ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. Memorised and recited without a second thought, these instantly recognisable lines and verses seem to hail from a hazy time long gone, where pigs went to market and dishes absconded with spoons. Many, however, are not as old or mysterious as is often assumed.

Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie write in their authoritative Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes that most can be traced back to the seventeenth century, with the term ‘nursery rhyme’ growing in use following the 1806 publication, Rhymes for the Nursery. While earlier printings made references to individual pieces, the first true collection to appear was Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book of 1744, featuring ‘Bah, Bah, a black sheep’, ‘Hickere, Dickere, Dock’, and several other songs which are now indisputable classics.

Four_and_Twenty_BlackbirdsAn illustration for ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, from the 1833 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. In the United States, ‘nursery rhymes’ are also known as ‘Mother Goose Rhymes’. Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The Opies state that the concept of ‘childhood’ as recognized in the present day has developed relatively recently; in past centuries, well into the 1700s, society viewed children as small adults. Few nursery rhymes were originally aimed at children, developing instead from ballads, drinking songs, riddles, and proverbs. Their ‘nursery’ status comes from their having been repeated to children over time by grown-ups, and this spoken heritage has led to widespread myths about the origins of different verses. As one source puts it, they have ‘suffered the indignity of having more nonsense written about them than any other folklore genre’. Cutting past this ‘game of spotting hidden meanings’ to focus on facts allows for a clearer understanding of the colourful range of figures and subjects in each, and what they might stand for – if at all.

Humpty DumptyA classic image of Humpty Dumpty. Uploaded by Flickr user tiffany terry.

Where food is concerned, this can be especially revealing. Take ‘Humpty Dumpty’, for instance:

‘Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses
And all the King’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.’

Imagining a humanized egg is now instinctive, but the rhyme gives no description of this. It was possibly once a riddle, with the answer being ‘an egg’. That function has since died out, due to the solution being such a well-known image; contributing to its spread were illustrations of Humpty as an egg, such as that in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872).

Humpty_Dumpty_TennielJohn Tenniel’s illustration of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1872). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

The word puzzle likely played on the meaning of ‘humpty-dumpty’ which was current during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: ‘a short, dumpy, hump-shouldered person’. Going back further brings up one more gastronomical connection, in that it was also the name of a drink consisting of ‘ale boiled with brandy’:

‘He answer’d me that he had a thousand such sort of Liquors, as Humtie Dumtie, Three Threads.’

In William King, A Journey to London (1698).

A popular theory put forward by multiple books and ‘did you know’ websites argues that Humpty Dumpty was not an egg, but a siege engine employed in the English Civil War by the forces of King Charles I – ‘all the King’s men’ – which was toppled from its position. As the Opies point out, this was proposed by one Professor David Daube in 1956 and was ‘one of a series of spoof nursery-rhyme histories for The Oxford Magazine– don’t ‘fall’ for it!

Jack SpratJack Sprat and his wife, as depicted in an 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies. The whole work may be read online.

Another expression for a small person, dating from 1500 to 1700, was ‘Jack Sprat’ (an older form of which was ‘Jack Prat’):

‘Jack Sprat could eat no fat,
His wife could eat no lean:
And so, between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.’

This rhyme, or some variety of it, seems to have been present in the Tudor period. It is referred to in The Marriage of Witte and Science, a play from around 1570. The personified characters Instruction and Wit fight against Tediousness, declaring the following:

INSTRUCTION: […] But what, no force ye are but Jack Sprot to mee.

WITTE: Haue houlde heare is a morsel for thee to eate […]

[INSTRUCTION: No matter, you are just a little person to me.

WIT: Take this – here is a morsel for you to eat! [Strikes TEDIOUSNESS.]]

The Marriage of Witte and Science, Act 5, Scene 5 (c. 1570).

Perhaps ‘Jack Sprat’ came to signify a little person in allusion to the ‘sprat’, a small-sized fish. This was also known as a ‘sprot’, ultimately from the Old English sprott, a small herring’.

SpratAn image of the sprat from the 1877 French publication Les Poissons (‘Fish’). Located via Wikimedia Commons.

‘Little Jack Horner’ has also been linked to the Tudor era:

‘Little Jack Horner
Sat in the corner,
Eating a Christmas pie.
He put in his thumb,
And pulled out a plum,
And said, “What a good boy am I!”’

It is claimed that this speaks of Tom Horner, steward to Abbot Richard Whiting of Glastonbury. In a bid to please King Henry VIII, Whiting sent Horner with the gift of a pie, in which were concealed several property deeds, including that of the Manor of Mells. The steward opened it up and took Mells for himself. While there was a historical Thomas Horner who came to possess this manor at the time, he is known to have bought the property. No written mention of this tale has been found before the nineteenth century; the rhyme was first printed in 1725.

Little Jack Horner DenslowWilliam Wallace Denslow’s picture of Little Jack Horner in his 1901 collection, Denslow’s Mother Goose. Located via the Library of Congress.

Incidentally, the notion of ‘having a finger in the pie’ – ‘to be part of something in an interfering or suspicious manner’ – does date to a similar point. The Oxford English Dictionary gives a line from Act 1, Scene 3 of the 1553 dramatic piece Respublica: ‘Bring me in credyte that my hande be in the pye.’ Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s 1623 play Henry VIII has the dialogue:

‘The diuill speed him: No mans Pye is freed
From his Ambitious finger.’

[‘The devil speed him: no man’s pie is freed
From his ambitious finger.’]

William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, Henry VIII (1623).

Apple Pie FeaturedPictures from Mark’s History of an Apple Pie, which gives one version of the ‘A was an apple pie’ rhyme. The whole work can be read online.

Pies turn up so frequently in English nursery rhymes that it would be impossible not to encounter at least one! There is ‘A was an apple pie’, ‘Dame, get up and bake your pies’, and ‘Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie’. There is the old woman who ‘sold puddings and pies’ and there is the Scottish ‘Aiken Drum’ with his waistcoat made of pie crust. One version of ‘The Derby Ram’ has the creature end up in a pie, while one of ‘Ride a cock-horse to Banbury Cross’ suggests that it will be possible to buy ‘a two-penny apple-pie’ at the destination.

Yes – pies are everywhere in nursery rhymes. A thesis on the subject may well exist. According to John Ayto in The Diner’s Dictionary, the earliest occurrences of the word ‘pie’ were in the 1300s; the Yorkshire Lay Subsidy mentions one ‘Rogero Pyman’ selling his wares in 1301. Simple Simon’s ‘pieman’ was part of a longstanding profession, though the rhyme itself belongs to a lengthier fictional piece published in 1764. On the topic of baked goods, the role of ‘The Muffin Man’ was more nineteenth-century, while ‘Hot Cross Buns’ pays homage to the cries of street sellers in the 1700s.

Song of Sixpence‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ in the 1864 edition of Mother Goose’s Melodies.

What about ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’? ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ was first printed in Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book. There are various theories for what the birds might symbolize – everything from the twenty four hours of the day to hidden property deeds, as in ‘Little Jack Horner’. None are particularly strong. As for putting live birds in pies, the Opies draw attention to the 1549 Italian cooking guide Epulario, in which there are instructions to, in the words of the 1598 English translation, ‘make pies so that the birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up’. The English chef Robert May included a recipe for the same purpose in his monumental 1660 work, The Accomplisht Cook.

Accomplisht CookThe title page of a 1678 copy of Robert May’s The Accomplisht Cook. From the Wellcome Library, London.

Looking at English nursery rhymes from a factual perspective takes the explorer well beyond the world of children into one of drama, publications, and wordplay. Looking at their depictions of food in the same way highlights historical changes in gastronomical practices and language, whether selling pies or drinking humpty-dumpty.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén