I have received several queries about the ‘lumberpie’ mentioned in the post ‘Food in the time of plagueand fire.’ I cannot believe that I have not talked about it in any previous posts! I must have been lumber-pied out by Pie: A Global History. Today I want to make good my omission.
‘Lumber,’ as everyone and the Oxford English Dictionary know, encompasses ‘disused articles of furniture and the like, which take up room inconveniently, or are removed to be out of the way; useless odds and ends.’ The word’s origins are not clear by any means, due to its antiquity, but it seems to be related to an Old English/Saxon/Old Germanic word indicating various concepts of lameness, disability, imperfection etc. Is this the origin of the name of the pie, which is indeed, as you will see below, filled with an apparently random heap of ingredients?
The OED has an independent entry on ‘lumber-pie,’ which it defines as ‘a savoury pie made of meat or fish and eggs.’ The dictionary suggests that this particular usage of the word is derived from ‘Lombard,’ which references ‘Lombardy’ - the region of northern Italy which has as its capital, Milan. The natives of this area were, in the Middle Ages, associatedin English eyes, with money-lending practices. If this be the source of the name of the pie, where is the connection? A Lumber Pie was no hastily concocted dish of leftover scraps, but a complex construction which was time-consuming to make and expensive to fill. Perhaps the suggestion was that one might have to go into debt to pay for it?
Or perhaps the eggs (a regular ingredient) are a clue? They are round-ish, like the balls which make up the pawnbrokers symbol. The pie contains forcemeat balls too, which is perhaps in favour of this theory. Egg yolks are also golden yellow like – well, like gold.
The concept of a lumber pie is unequivocally medieval. A great mix of ingredients, often including fruit, was placed in a large ‘coffin’ which was given a pastry lid and well-baked. When it came out of the oven, a thickening mixture (a ‘caudle’or 'lear') was poured in through a hole in the crust before it was served to table, where the lid was removed, as we would remove the lid of a casserole dish, and the guests would then help themselves to the contents.
Most lumber pies do contain eggs, and in many or most the meat or fish is made into forcemeat balls, but as with any recipe idea which has been around for centuries, there are many variations on the theme. Here is a nice version from the first half of the eighteenth century, when it was already an old-fashioned dish.
To make a Lumber Pye.
Take a pound and a half of veal, parboil it, and when 'tis cold chop it very small, with two pound of beef-suet, and some candied orange-peel; some sweet-herbs, as thyme, sweet-marjoram, and an handful of spinage; mince the herbs small before you put them to the other; so chop all together, and a pippin or two; then add a handful or two of grated bread, a pound and a half of currants, washed and dried; some cloves, mace, nutmeg, a little salt, sugar and sack, and put to all these as many yolks of raw eggs, and whites of two, as will make it a moist forc'd-meat; work it with your hands into a body, and make it into balls as big as a turkey's egg; then having your coffin made put in your balls. Take the marrow out of three or four bones as whole as you can: let your marrow lie a little in water, to take out the blood and splinters; then dry it, and dip it in yolk of eggs; season it with a little salt, nutmeg grated, and grated bread; lay it on and between your forc'd-meat balls, and over that sliced citron, candied orange and lemon, eryngo-roots, preserved barberries; then lay on sliced lemon, and thin slices of butter over all; then lid your pye, and bake it; and when 'tis drawn, have in readiness a caudle made of white-wine and sugar, and thicken'd with butter and eggs, and pour it hot into your pye.
Compleat Housewife (1736), by E. Smith