Mystery meat no more: Meat pies are gaining ground
NEW YORK—Consider the poor meat pie. Historically speaking, it hasn't always had the best associations attached to it.
"Is that just revolting?" sings Mrs. Lovett, the pie-shop owner in Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," the musical tale of meat pies gone seriously awry. "All greasy and gritty? It looks like it's molting, And tastes like, Well, pity." (And that's BEFORE she turns to shepherd's pie, "peppered with actual shepherd.")
But pity the meat pie no more: Much loved in Australia, Britain and elsewhere, but traditionally ignored in the United States, it's showing signs of hitting trend status here, too, with high-end fillings Mrs. Lovett apparently never thought of.
Chunky steak, for example, or Thai chicken curry. Those are two of the flavors offered at a new takeout spot in midtown Manhattan, the first U.S. outpost of an Australian chain called Pie Face, which opened in January and has a line out the door at lunchtime. Ten more stores are planned in the city by year's end, and more later in other cities, including at airports and train stations.
"We're doing much better business in this store than in any of our 70 stores in Australia," says Wayne Homschek, an Australia-based American who founded the chain with his Aussie wife, Betty Fong. "The question isn't whether Americans are liking it, it's why haven't they picked up on it before?"
In supermarkets, too, meat pies are getting more shelf space, analysts say, thanks at least in part to the rising cost of beef. The Department of Agriculture projected late last year that beef prices would remain high for the next few years.
"The meat pie is a less expensive and filling alternative to a steak, a big burger, a meat loaf -- even chicken," says Phil Lempert, the food marketing analyst known as the Supermarket Guru.
Last year, Lempert explains, supermarkets were reluctant to raise prices when the cost of beef went up, a result of a tighter cattle supply due to the rising price of their feed. "So now, they are making room for alternatives," he says.
Add to that the rising popularity of food trucks, Lempert notes, with ethnic food that often includes a type of meat pie. "It's exotic, inexpensive, and easy and fun to eat," Lempert says. Plus, he adds, Americans have gotten much more used to handheld foods -- burritos and the like -- in recent years.
Tanya Wenman Steel already is a convert. The editor-in-chief of Epicurious.com says she sees huge interest whenever her site posts a meat-pie recipe or mentions them in stories.
"I'm obsessive about them," says Steel, who grew up in England, which explains a lot. "I grew up with Cornish pasties" -- portable meat pies that originated in Cornwall. "I also love Scotch pies, which are made with mutton. But even more than that, I love steak-and-kidney pie! It's a classic pub food."
A reason for the meat pie's rising popularity, Steel says, is that once you get the hang of making it, it's endlessly versatile. "You can really put anything in there," she says. "A protein, and then onions, carrots, peas, whatever you want. And there's something so calming, so comforting about meat pies."
Perhaps because they've been around since ancient times. The Greeks and Romans are known to have eaten them, and they were popular in medieval times as well, though the crust hasn't always been edible. The Tudors loved their meat pies; cinematic depictions of the period feature live birds baked into pies, which flew out for general merriment when the crust was cut.
These days, meat pies are hugely popular in Australia and New Zealand, and in Europe, but not just there. On a recent tour through Latin America, Steel says she sampled a different kind of meat empanada in each country she visited.
"In Costa Rica last week, I had one with chicken, onions and olives," she says. "In Chile, I had one with beef and hard-boiled eggs. It's really their sandwich."
Maybe it's the ubiquity of the sandwich -- and the burger -- in the United States that has obscured the value and convenience of the meat pie. Not so in Australia. "Every kid grows up eating them in the school cafeteria," says Homschek, the Pie Face founder. "Everyone has a meat pie story."
Of course, often, in those cafeterias, "you never knew what was in it." That's not a problem with the Pie Face pies, which bakes its titles right into the pies. The letter C baked onto the face, looking like a smile, is for chicken-and-mushroom pie; an S is for the steak; and a V for the vegetarian version. (Large pies are $5.95, and mini-pies are $2.75.)
Homschek, a former investment banker, and Fong say they discovered the true appeal of meat pies when they put on a high-end fashion show. They served lowly meat pies -- a working class delicacy -- and everyone loved the food most of all.
In 2003, they opened Pie Face, helped by Fong's brother-in-law, a French pastry chef (his buttery crust adds puff pastry on top to the brisee crust on bottom). They came to New York this year with aims of creating an empire. (Though they aren't the first or only meat pie eatery from Down Under in New York; the popular DUB (Down Under Bakery) Pies in Brooklyn, for example, was launched by a New Zealander in 2003.)
On a recent Wednesday, matinee day on Broadway, there was a briskly moving line out the door of Pie Face at lunchtime. There were no seats, just a few tiny spots to stand. And be warned: The pies, which come in little boxes, may be easy to eat on a park bench, but much less so on the street, where one might end up with sauce all over one's hands and face, seeking more napkins. (Take it from us.)
The owners have made a few adjustments to suit American tastes. Sweet pies -- what most Americans think of as pie -- are much more popular here, and one can get lemon, apple, and cherry pie, as well as other pastry items like chocolate croissants and cookies.
But one thing that isn't different: People seem to like their meat. That vegetarian option? Not the most popular. The chunky steak is.
"You can't change whole cultures," says Homschek. "Hey, people just like meat."