Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds

Some three years ago, I wrote a post here that touched on several things, including some satisfying book art, Joseph Cornell, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, his book-length exploration of the reasons he became a vegetarian. (And where I once again prominently used the word “aleatory”—if only this were a drinking game!) I ended my piece with a little uncomfortable reflection:

As a soft-hearted animal lover and guilty carnivore, I’m pretty sure I have every right to be afraid of this book. Most of the choices I make in life are reasonably weighed out in units of fact, desire, and principle; eating bacon is not one of those. All sorts of freshly-minted books get all sorts of publicity, and that’s as it should be, but this is one that I think probably should be in people’s faces. It probably should be in mine, anyway. And at the rate I’m going, it probably will be.

At the beginning of 2012, my spouse and I put our soft-hearted precepts where our mouths were, literally, and became vegetarians ourselves. I suppose we’re technically pescetarians, since we still eat fish, but not meat or poultry—no fur or feathers. It’s been easier than I imagined, and though the stuff I find myself missing—not big bloody steaks but meatballs, roast chicken, meatloaf eaten cold out of the fridge at 2 a.m.—sometimes throws a momentary grief on me, I find that the reconciliation of ideals with habits makes for a certain moral ease that outweighs any brief cravings.

This will be my first Thanksgiving with no turkey—or rather there will be turkey, and gravy, but not on my plate. And that gives another little twinge, as I do really love the stuff. But again, that’s not a deal-breaker. The way I’m framing it is that I can eat more pie. Every Thanksgiving of my life, I’ve already been pretty well stuffed by the time that last course was served, and I could never really do more than taste a little sliver of each offering. This year, I resolve to honor my Dessert Stomach; I will eat a respectable helping of everything, with a cup of coffee as well.

So in honor of my anticipated pie orgy, I’d like to offer last year’s post from Languagehat delving into the etymology of the word pie. Turns out that for something so simple and Anglo-Saxon sounding, its origins are a bit mysterious:

The American Heritage Dictionary cautiously says “Middle English” and leaves it at that. Alison Richards, at NPR’s food blog, takes the occasion of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday (in the U.S.) to cite the OED’s entry…. As she says, it “may well derive from the Latin word pica, meaning magpie”; here’s how the OED puts it (in the new third edition):

The dish, which originally consisted of any variety of ingredients, may have been named by association with the bird, either after the bird’s spotted appearance or after its tendency to collect miscellaneous articles. In this context, the similarity between the words haggis n. and haggis n., a name for the magpie, has been pointed out; compare also chewer n.1, a dish of mixed ingredients, and chewet n.2, a name for the chough [a member of the Corvidae family].

The suggestion here is that the word pie may come from a magpie’s tendency toward miscellany, but there are a couple of other connections that come to mind. One is the eating disorder pica, which manifests in a “pathological craving for substance unfit for food” such as clay, chalk or dirt, sometimes exhibited by children or pregnant women. This is also derived from the word for magpie, also relating back to its indiscriminate collecting habits. But I have to wonder, in light of my current non-bird-eating status, could it have anything to do with those four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie?

Most likely not, as the rhyme probably doesn’t date back much before the 17th century, whereas pies themselves were referenced as early as the 13th. But it’s something to think about as I eat my bird-free, pie-heavy meal tomorrow. I’ll be happy enough if nothing flies off my plate.

(Illustration by Ralph Caldecott, from R. Caldecott’s Picture Book [No. 1], late 19th c., courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.)


1 Comment to Four-and-Twenty Blackbirds

  1. nbm's Gravatar nbm
    November 23, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a vegetarian, but meat made up maybe five forkfuls of my Thanksgiving meal yesterday, plus a splash of gravy (and the stock for the leek & potato soup). The rest was vegetables, grains — and pie.

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