“There’s something pervy about pie.” That’s right. I was watching an episode of Mind of a Chef one day, with Chef April Bloomfield learning how to cook a rabbit pie with the great meat pie-maker Fergus Henderson, and Henderson calmly, almost meditatively, said: “There’s something pervy about pie.” “Pervy?” April’s voice was the equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Henderson went on without skipping a beat, “It’s sort of bondage nature. The containment of ingredients. It’s a…dungeon.” He pauses. “Well, in any case, it’s a pervy thought that comes to me about pie.” After some nervous laughter, April said, “I never thought about pie as pervy before, but now I’m really going to go away with that in mind.”
And I couldn’t help but do the same. From the infamous scene where Jason Biggs violates a baked good in “American Pie,” to the slang figuring of “pie” as a sexual euphemism, Henderson isn’t really wrong when he associates pies with “something pervy.” But why is that, and why has food culture in general developed a sexual vocabulary for cuisine?
Let’s begin with the latter—our love affair with making the culinary erotic. It shouldn’t be a surprise that our culture has coined the popular term “food porn.” When you think about it, there’s always been something pretty sensual about eating. Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s an incredible level of intimacy in having something hot and rich on the tongue. There’s something super vital about it becoming part of your body: sex is an expression of life and carries the potential to create it, but food sustains that life force. Indeed, many cultures consider both feeding and sexual intercourse to entail a transfer of “vital essence.” And once you’ve finished eating, there is a certain, satisfied languor that ensues (cue the lighting of a cigarette). Food anthropologist Margaret Visser puts it simply but accurately: a meal, like sex, is an exercise in which “desires are aroused and fulfilled.” For many, in fact, a “foodgasm” is even better than sex.
Japanese anime and manga has developed a complete genre centered around the foodgasm. Shows like Shokugeki no Soma and Yakitate!! Japan follow the hardships and ascension of bright young chefs, and along the way, the viewer is treated not only to the salivating dishes that they make, but also to the erotic reactions the cuisine provokes in the lucky diners—clothes fly off, breasts heave, glistening with sweat, women pant and clutch themselves in ecstasy that seems just as sexual as it is gustatory…you get the idea. It takes #foodporn to the next level.
In the Renaissance, lust was often conflated with gluttony. In the Jacobean play The Revenger’s Tragedy, for instance, the villainous bastard Spurio speaks of his father’s sexual transgressions (and his own subsequent conception) in terms of eating: “I was begot / After some gluttonous dinner, some stirring dish was my first father” (I.I.179-80). The excesses of both appetites come together as a single sin. Today, we continue to associate the two. Dishes like chocolate devil’s food cake and bacon candy are “sinful”—guilty pleasures—because they’re so wantonly calorie-rich, yet we find ourselves lusting after them. They’re seductive because they’re forbidden fruit. Case in point: Chef Resha of the blog “Carnal Dish: Because Food is Sexy,” writes of her cinnamon rolls, “This is pure decadence, pure gluttony, and pure mouth sex. Help yourself to something sinful once in a while.”
In pies—and, I’d argue, meat pies in particular—there is more than enough to remind us of the sexual. It’s a womb enclosing hot flesh and juices. It’s temptation wrapped in a delicate lattice prison. Actually, Henderson’s description of the pie as a dungeon is not far off, etymologically speaking, as the word “pie” may come from the Old French puis, meaning “pit”; the implication is that the pie is a hole in which dainty morsels are trapped. In the case of the meat pie, the “dainty morsels” can be particularly provocative. Mine, which remains very true to medieval bake metis (“meats baked in pastry”), contains rich pork belly that melts on the tongue; the savory, slightly wild flavor of beef kidneys which, like most offal, has a reputation for being both impure and erotic; and succulent mushrooms with their meaty mouth-feel.
I’m not saying that I want you to think inappropriate thoughts while cooking or eating this dish. But if you find it just a bit sexy, I’m okay with that. Enjoy!
Kidney, Pork Belly, and Mushroom Pie
Loosely adapted from “Steak and Kidney Pie” from Inn at the Crossroads
¾ lb lamb or beef kidney—OR—poultry giblets
Milk for soaking kidneys
¾ lb pork belly
2 ½ tsp salt, divided
2 tsp poudre forte
1 TBSP olive oil
½ cup white wine, divided into quarter cups
2 TBSP butter
½ lb mushrooms
½-1 cup of flour
1 bottle ale
2 cups beef stock (preferably homemade)
½ lb peas
½ lb green beans, chopped
Pre-made pie crusts
¼ cup milk for glaze, or 1 egg, beaten
Preheat oven to 400F. Cut the kidneys into 1” pieces, cutting out the gristly white parts in the middle. Cover with milk and set aside to soak while you dice the pork belly into 1” cubes—if a piece is all or mostly fat, set aside for making stock later rather than using it here (if it’s about half and half, that’s okay). Sprinkle the pork belly with a fourth of a teaspoon of salt. Then chop the onions and slice the mushrooms; set aside together in a medium bowl. In a small bowl, mix the salt and all the spices together.
Drain the kidneys and sprinkle with ¼ tsp salt. In a Dutch oven, melt a TBSP of oil over medium-high heat, then sear the kidneys on all sides, for around a minute and a half total; remove and set aside in a medium bowl, covered. Deglaze the pan with a quarter cup of white wine. Add the pork belly, and brown on all sides, for about 2 and half minutes total. Remove the pork belly to the same bowl as the kidneys, pour out the excess fat, wipe the pot lightly with a paper towel, and return to the stove. Deglaze the pan again with the other quarter cup of white wine.
Lower Dutch oven to medium heat. Add butter, onions, and mushrooms to the Dutch oven and sauté until golden, about 10-15 minutes. Give it the extra time to get that color and flavor. Add the flour—a big handful, enough to evenly coat the top of the onions—and cook for about two minutes, stirring constantly. Add ale a little at a time, whisking constantly—there should be enough to form a thick gravy, and if not, add a bit of the beef stock to smooth it out.
Bring heat to medium-high. Add the peas and green beans, and enough beef stock to just cover them (about 1 ½ cups). Allow to come almost to a boil, then lower to medium. Cook down, stirring occasionally, until a smooth, thick gravy is formed. While that’s cooking, add the poudre fort and herbes fondamentales. Once the gravy is at the desired consistency, taste for seasoning and adjust as needed—you can’t fix it once it’s in the pie!
Place one of the prepared rounds of pie dough in the bottom of a greased pie plate. Pour filling into the pie plate, until it’s just below where the bottom crust reaches the highest point in the pie plate.* Top with the second layer of dough and cut vent holes in the top. Crimp edges of crust with a fork. Brush with egg or milk, place pie on a baking sheet (just in case the juices spill over during baking), and bake for around 40 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.
*You’ll probably have extra, depending on the depth of your pie plate. If so, enjoy on toast the next morning, or fold into pre-made puff pastry dough and bake to create hand-pies!