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Pies, The Nation's Favourite Comfort Food?

‘Stress cannot exist in the presence of a pie’ - David Mamet

They say familiarity breeds contempt. And perhaps that can be true sometimes. But when it comes to food, it is also true that familiarity breeds comfort.

What is it about our favourite foods that we like so much? Is it purely the taste? To a degree this must be true, but some foods go beyond the senses and penetrate deeper into our subconscious, providing us with feelings that tap into something more fundamental to our sense of wellbeing than just the pleasant taste or smell of what it is we are eating.

A common question that most of us have been asked at some point during our lives is of course, ‘what is your favourite food?’

The chances are that when asked, most people can answer this question within seconds. And more often than not, the answer given will tend to be a food that creates a feeling of comfort in some way. Perhaps it is a food eaten regularly in childhood, cooked by a loving parent or grandparent on a regular basis. It could be a food from a particular region or country, reminding us of where we grew up, or it could even be a food eaten at a favourite holiday destination that reminds us of a happy and relaxing time in our lives.

Food and its effect on us makes for a profoundly interesting study into the human mind, revealing that at heart, we crave comfort, security and warmth. Certain foods offer us a psychological shortcut to these feelings that compel us toward them, helping for a brief period to give us a well needed distraction from the stresses and strains of everyday life.

Pies are indeed one such food that Britain has been eating for centuries, becoming a unique part of our food culture and history, supplying a traditional hearty meal that provides these feelings of comfort.

Of course, we love pies because they taste great. But as we have established, the feelings of enjoyment we get from eating them are created by more than just the taste. So what is it that makes pies one of Britain’s favourite comfort foods?

The answer lies in how we are exposed to the imagery of pies from an early age, often before we’ve even eaten one! Our childhood nursery rhymes and tales of folklore are littered with stories about pies. These stories are often related to historical characters or events, sometimes used as allegorical cautionary tales, designed to help us form our values and behaviours as growing human beings. Consider the tale of the ‘3 little kittens’ (who wouldn’t get pie until they found their lost mittens) or that of ‘Simple Simon’ who finds out the hard way that pies can’t be purchased on credit!

There is anecdotal evidence that ‘Little Jack Horner’ was actually the steward to the Abbey of Glastonbury during the period of the dissolution of the monasteries by Herny VIII. The plum that he pulled from his Christmas pie was allegedly the deeds to the manorial lands of Mells in Somerset.

‘Sing a song of sixpence’ has a literary reference point going all the way back to 1614, as part of Beaumont and Fletcher’s play ‘Bonduca’ which contains the line ‘Whoa, here’s a stir now! Sing a song ‘o’ Sixpence’ although interestingly, the first printed version of what we know as the nursery rhyme actually contains ‘4 and 20 naughty boys’ baked in a pie rather than blackbirds. What the naughty boys had done to deserve this rather severe punishment isn’t made clear!

There are countless further examples of pies being referenced in our childhood images and stories, which goes a long way to explaining why they hold a place in our hearts as a food we seek comfort from in later life.

Of course, pies continue to be used in popular culture, and the invention of film and TV have further extended the tradition of pies being used in stories, all the way from Laurel and Hardy’s famous cream pie fight in ‘Battle of the Century’ (which apparently used up all the full day’s production of the local bakery’s cream pies) to the more recent film ‘American pie’ which has to be one of the rarer examples of a pie being used as a sex object!

Added to that are the dozens of references to pies in the novels of Charles Dickens as well as the plays of Shakespeare. The pie has woven itself into our cultural fabric and continues to be an unlikely literary icon to this day, also popping up several times in J K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, both at Hogwarts and on the menu at the Leaky Cauldron pub.

Our personal experiences and memories also contribute to the feeling of comfort that we get from pies. Perhaps it’s pies on the football terraces with Dad when we were young, or Granny’s apple pie served with lashings of custard, or a pie we ate at a favourite country pub. Pies connect us with feelings of comfort and happiness and have meaning in our lives.

In a way, we’d even argue that pies are somewhat of a forgotten national dish. Other more modern dishes do of course lay claim to being culturally significant to us, but is there a food with as much history, cultural importance and comfort factor as the pie?

So next time you sit down to eat a delicious pie (hopefully a Yorkshire Handmade Pie!) perhaps you’ll remember some of the reasons why it is the ultimate comfort food!