" I think, in the UK, pies can be viewed as a little pedestrian, depending upon where you grew up," says Samantha Codling, owner and chief baker of the Pie Store. "But I have some old cookbooks which show that pies were often the centerpiece of some insanely extravagant banquets, and were stuffed with all kinds of exotic birds and animals. I think there’s such a fascinating history behind today’s rather humble offerings."
PHOTOS: Top photo, clockwise from bottom left, pumpkin (also in the middle), apple, black raspberry and mincemeat.Bottom photo, blackberry raspberry and apple pie. Photos by Cammie Kenny.
Ancient Egyptians made a sort of rustic pastry shell from flour and water, but European ‘pyes’ didn’t start popping up until the 12th to 14th centuries.
At the first Thanksgiving in 1621, the Pilgrims had pumpkins, but no pies—the settlers did not yet have baking ovens. It would be about 50 years before the first mention of pumpkin pie in a British cookbook.
Codling, 44, has been working night and day to create hundreds of pies–familiar dessert pies like apple, pumpkin, chocolate mousse and mince–as well as hearty, classic, savory pies like steak and kidney, turkey and stuffing, chicken and mushroom, cheese potato and onion, and shepherd’s pie. They range in price (by size) from $10.95 to $24.95.
“The day before Thanksgiving is our busiest day of the year,” Codling says. “We also do sides like candied yams with bourbon and vanilla, caramelized Brussels sprouts with bacon, and we make cranberry chutney, as well.
"Mince pies are a must at Christmas," she adds.
Growing up in Essex, England, Codling learned the art of baking from her legal secretary Mum, During her colleges years in London, she cooked in pubs and restaurant kitchens to make ends meet.
"I made steak and mushroom, which was pretty popular, but pub fare back then was a little different than today," she says. "There’s been a resurgence of interesting meat pies since then."
After graduating, Codling moved to Hong Kong to work as a textile designer. “When I left school I was of two minds about whether to do a course in food or a course in art,” she says.
Initially, art won, but as one creative thing led to another she became a photo stylist specializing in setting up food shoots for magazines. “For me it seemed a natural transition.”
When her then-husband was transferred to the U.S. in 1998, Codling continued to work as a food stylist until she opened The London Food Company on Bloomfield Avenue in Montclair in 2003. She stocked her favorite things from home: teas, chocolates, biscuits and canned foods.
She dreamed of adding a little café, but lacking the funds, she modified the mission and in 2008 renamed the business The Pie Store and moved to her current location on the Park Street side of Watchung Plaza.
“I wasn’t seeing very much prepared food,” she explains. “Stuff that you could pick up on the way home from work and just put in the oven–something you could feed your family with meat and vegetables in it. There’s a helluva lot of that in the UK.”
One of her most popular items is the traditional Cornish Pasty, “a free-form, football-shaped” hand pie. A British staple of the working man and travelers, a pasty can be filled with almost anything, (meat, cheese, potatoes, onions), and toted along for a filling lunch or snack.
How to serve a savory pie at Thanksgiving? "The pies are full meals in themselves," she admits, but they do come in two sizes. They make good side dishes and add variety and freshness to the familiar standards.
"Over Thanksgiving we definitely serve more sweet than savory pies," Codling says. "But that balance is starting to even out a little as more people open to the idea that turkey stuffing pie can be an easy option instead of preparating a traditional turkey dinner."
So does a British ex-pat pie maker whip up her own Thanksgiving dinner, as well?
“Oh god no,” she laughs. “By that time I haven’t slept in 36 hours. I go to the diner.”
The Pie Store
100 Watchung Avenue
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.