When the Pie Was Opened…


A family member sent a picture this morning of an apple pie with two “pie birds” embedded in the upper crust. (I learned they are also called “crustholders” because another function other than venting steam from the pie is that they support the crust so that it won’t sag in the middle.) Hmmm, I wondered. Did the nursery rhyme (four and twenty blackbirds…) come first, or the pie birds, and later the odd nursery rhyme? Or was there any relationship between the two birds at all?

Dang if the tale behind the “Song of Sixpence” isn’t much more convoluted than I would have guessed. It turns out, it is a veiled message to the pirate Blackbeard’s potential recruits. And somehow, it has become entrenched among our nursery rhymes.

Sixpence: the pay. Pocket full of rye, the (drinkable) perqs. The four and twenty blackbirds: two dozen storming pirates dressed in black who overtook the easy prey (the pie) and set it before their leader, Blackbeard, the “king”.

AND…it turns out, I’m not the first person to wonder about this connection between rhyme and dessert. Wikipedia has it thusly:

The nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence refers to “Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie; when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing” but it is uncertain whether pie vents were designed to look as birds because of this song, or whether pie vents in fact existed earlier and the song was a reference to them.

Wait! There might be another explanation.  But really: dwarfs?

“Animated pies or pyes were the most  popular banquet entertainment. The nursery rhyme “Sing a Song of Sixpence . . . four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie,” refers to such a pie. According to the rhyme, “When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Wasn’t that a dainty dish to set before the King.”

In all likelihood, those birds not only sang, but flew briskly out at the assembled guests. Rabbits, frogs, turtles, other small animals, and even small people (dwarfs) were also set into pies, either alone or with birds, to be released when the crust was cut. The dwarf would emerge and walk down the length of the table, reciting poetry, sketching the guests, or doing tricks.”


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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. I’ve always loved that song as a kid but never really paid attention to what the lyrics meant. This was a cute awakening. And that’s an even cuter pie.

  2. This brought back deeply-buried memories!
    My mother and I had a very volatile relationship, it wasn’t until two weeks before her sudden death that we came to know and appreciate each other, better late than never…
    After her death the only thing that I took as a keepsake, other then her photograph albums, was her blackbird piecrust ‘propper’
    and I can’t for the life of me think why!