11-23 pie bird

[Image above] Pie birds are hollow ceramic figurines that can be used to vent pies during baking. Credit: Paul Joseph, Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

While baking is not my forte—yeast invariably faces a quick death under my watch—I love partaking in the many baked goods that proliferate during this time of the year.

Pie in particular features regularly in holiday meals. However, as steam rises from the iconic slits in the top crust, people may not realize there was a different—and more whimsical—way of venting pies in the early 20th century.

Venting “double-crust” pies that have bottom and top crusts is necessary to release steam as it bakes. Otherwise, the top crust will not settle along with the fillings, leading to an air-filled gap between crust and fillings that collapses when cut. Or, pressure from the steam could cause the crust to rupture, leading some of the filling to spill out and make the crust soggy.

While people today often vent pies by cutting slits in the top crust, in the early 20th century, people used hollow ceramic figurines often shaped liked birds to vent the steam.

According to author Linda Fields in her anthology Four & Twenty Blackbirds, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the history of these “pie birds” can be traced to the Victorian era in Britain. Back then, bakers placed small cylindrical or hourglass-shaped ceramic funnels in the center of double-crust pies to release steam.

Around the 1930s, ceramic companies in the United States started taking artistic liberties with the funnels. Likely inspired by the nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence,” they morphed the funnels into birds with open beaks (though other animal shapes were used as well).

Pie birds fell out of fashion by the mid-20th century, which Fields credits to fewer people baking at home and the invention of frozen pie crusts (patented in the 1950s and ubiquitous by the mid-1960s). But the birds have witnessed renewed popularity in recent years thanks to younger generations discovering the tools on eBay, Etsy, and vintage shops.

To use a pie bird, place it in the center of the bottom crust and then add the filling. Next, cover the bird with the top crust, with the bird’s head poking through. When baked, steam will escape through the bird’s mouth, and it will appear to “hatch” from the pie as the crust settles.

Credit: HaroldImportCompany, YouTube

For a fun look at how pie birds are created, check out this article written by artist and instructor Craig Hinshaw for the Ceramic Arts Network. As both a baker and ceramist, Hinshaw decided to create his own pie bird in the shape of a poodle, in honor of his childhood nickname. Also included in the article is his award-winning apple pie recipe!