In Ye Olde Tymes, some food historians speculate, pie was merely a vessel for food to get to the table. Everything that came inside was eaten and the actual pastry that contained it was rubbish.
That’s fine if you’re King Joffrey, but what a cruel waste of flour and fat (and perhaps filler) when, presumably, so many went hungry.
The savory pie’s reputation as a vessel of deception is well documented too, at least by Shakespeare, whose Titus Andronicus fed the Queen of the Goths a pair of pies stuffed with her murdered sons. Sweeney Todd handed over his exsanguinated victims to baker- accomplice Mrs. Lovett, whose miserable pie shop found sudden success with a new recipe that didn’t include cats. And again in Westeros, when Arya Stark served Walder Frey a pie made from his “damn moron sons.”
While in one familiar former British colony sweet pies became dominant, in another, Australia, savory meat pies were eventually declared the national dish. And steps have been taken to thwart dishonest pie makers, if not cannibalism: there’s a law requiring that meat pies contain at least 25 percent meat, a rule that’s been flouted and outed to the national disgrace a least a few times. While hand-sized pies commonly filled with steak and potato, mincemeat, or chicken and mushroom are to be found everywhere—bakeries, gas stations, convenience stores, and, particularly, footy fundraisers—in Australia’s multicultural big city melting pots they’re increasingly filled with things like Thai curry and tikka masala.
Arjun and Lilly Seigell had little sense of the mania said pies inspire in homesick expats when, after a visit to relatives in Sydney, they decided to open Chicago’s first Australian pie shop. On opening weekend last February Lakeview’s Barangaroos sold out of each of its nine varieties; not just the classics, but deliberately Yank-targeted ones like buffalo chicken, veggie pizza, and “Mexican” (steak fajitas, black bean, cheese, sour cream, pico de gallo).
All the pies at Barangaroos (named for an inner-Sydney suburb), traditional or otherwise, look exactly alike. If you’re imagining something like the towering, flaky, buttery English-style pies of the great Pleasant House (maybe crowned in mash and dripping with gravy), you might be underwhelmed at first sight. They keep a low profile, and their tiny fluted circumferences look a bit machine made—which they are. Though the Seigells knead the flour and some combination of butter or lard or shortening-fattened shortcrust dough (Arjun won’t say which), it is formulated into perfect pie clones—uniformly sturdy, pliant, pastry-encased casseroles—by a custom built (Arjun won’t say by whom) machine. There may be nothing criminal about these pies, but there is some mystery.
But as it was in the earliest days of pie yore, it’s what’s inside that counts. Even though the operation is partially automated, the Seigells had to close up shop and regroup for a few days after they were bum rushed by pie-crazy expats.
That’s because they’re making all the fillings themselves. To the untrained American, the generally beefier varieties originally introduced by the British might seem the most exotic; minced ground beef hiding a claymore of melted cheddar like an Anglo-Saxon Jucy Lucy; shepherd’s pie, much like the former though complicated with peas and carrots; and steak and potato, its Chunky Soup viscosity laced with the sharp vinegar bite of Worcestershire.
Arjun Seigell says two of those are among his best sellers, though on the day I tried seven of his nine pies, he was sold out of the aforementioned Mexican. Other flavors will probably be more familiar to the formerly colonized. Interestingly, these are all built around diced chicken breast, a muscle that by its very nature requires aggressive seasoning. The tikka masala (another top seller) is a sweet, lightly curried vehicle, while the buffalo chicken is also a bit cloying, but still layered in a foundation of spicy, buttery, blue cheese lava. Of them all the only one that backs down from any kind of fight is the chicken and mushroom, which seems to build a sturdy bridge between English sobriety and midwestern blandness.
Here’s where it’s important to issue a warning. To paraphrase New Zealand traffic cop Sergeant Guy Baldwin, the pies when heated are “thermonuclear,” as he lectured a young hooligan in a 2009 viral YouTube video: “You must always blow on the pie.”
That actually won’t do much good. As I mentioned, it’s what’s inside that counts, a lesson learned more than once after jets of scalding pie innards lashed across my hands after biting into them. “Hand pies,” you say? Sick burn, Australia.
The Seigells, like some of the most interesting characters in the restaurant business, are specialists. It’s just pies, a couple soups, some bags of Darrel Lea licorice and bottles of Bundaberg soda. But they’ve heard the clamoring of their Australian customers and soon will introduce a few other iconic Australian snacks: sausage rolls and lamingtons, jam-filled chocolate-coconut covered snack cakes. A different constituency has also spoken. Plans are afoot to introduce a vegan hand pie, which, if adhering to Australian law, should earn them a night in the stockades, but here, will probably get a pass. v