By Anthony Murisco, Public Engagement Librarian
My name is Anthony Murisco. I am the Public Engagement Librarian here at NYAM. A few weeks back, we celebrated Pi Day by baking a couple of pies. I wanted to share my own experience.
For those who may not know or need a refresher, Pi is a mathematical constant. The symbol π, the Greek letter for P, represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The ratio will always be π. When written out, π is approximately 3.14. π is an irrational number, whose decimal form continues forever, which is why a shorter form is used. Hence March 14, 3/14, is known as Pi Day.
Pi Day is a celebration of all things mathematical as well as that certain baked good. Pi and pie not only share a name but are both circular. While the holiday may have earlier origins, the first recorded celebration was heralded by physicist Larry Shaw in 1988. When discussing the “mysteries of pi” with a colleague, he realized the irrational number has some rationality to it! In an effort to make learning math fun, he conducted the first Pi Day celebration with his class. The event, now celebrated by math enthusiasts all over, includes reciting the value of π to as many decimal places as one can, a real memorization challenge, and of course, pie tasting.
What better way to celebrate than by baking a pie? This year, this was my task. The New York Academy of Medicine Library has a plethora of recipe books, some more than 200 years old. A selection of these books has been shared before, on social media, in this very blog, and even on our digital exhibition. Here was one of the first attempts of our staff making a dish!
After searching through several books and finding only savory recipes, our Historical Collections Reference Librarian, Arlene Shaner, discovered what I was looking for. In the 1824 edition of The Virginia house-wife lay a recipe for simply “Apple Pie.”
Mary Randolph first published The Virginia Housewife in 1824. Its popularity led to several editions and reprints. The Virginia housewife, or Methodical Cook was the first of its kind, a published manual of recipes and housekeeping tips that would later surge and create an industry. This was the perfect book to make a pie from.
The book featured three different recipes. Only one specified that it was a pie. Arlene predicted that the second recipe was for pie filling. She is an experienced baker. She went with that one. I had never baked a pie before. I didn’t want to do anything wrong. I stuck with Randolph’s “Apple Pie.”
I looked at the recipe to make a list of ingredients. Apples. Cloves. It called for “powdered sugar.” And rose water. I stopped by my local pop-up market and got four large red delicious apples. Each looked almost double the size of a single apple. Surely this would be enough! Powdered sugar and whole cloves were easy to get. It wasn’t on my list but, I opted for a pre-made crust. While I know that pre-made is not ideal, I had never made a crust before. I would have needed even further directions! If store-bought is fine for Ina Garten, it would be good enough for me. The rose water ended up being the most elusive ingredient in my neighborhood. After several failed shopping trips, I contemplated looking up replacements. I ended up finding rose water downtown at a hip chain grocery store.
Having never baked like this before, I tried to stick exactly to the recipe. The years of doing mail-in meal services will do that to you! Without the exact measurements, I was left a little confused—how would I know how much to use?
The Virginia House-wife and other older cookbooks are not specific with their instructions. There’s a notion that you have some culinary instinct if you are reading it. The recipes are a supplement to your knowledge. Randolph did not foresee someone like me, a beginner, taking on the challenge.
During the filling of the crust, I noticed, two apples in, that I should have gotten more apples. I’ve seen pies filled before with an arrangement of the fruit, a kind of beautiful Busby Berkeley dance. This was not my case. Still, I used what I had! While the apples didn’t fill the pie completely, it wasn’t as empty as I had feared.
When I discussed my experience with Arlene, she told me that the powdered sugar I used was the wrong ingredient. Powdered sugar today is not the same as it was then. In the past, you would get a loaf of sugar, scrape off what you needed, and “powder” the cake that way. It was more akin to granulated sugar today. Modern-day powdered sugar, or confectioners’ sugar, quickly dissolves and tends to absorb the moisture. Though the pie tasted good, I had given it a different spin. I think that may have been Randolph’s goal. She doesn’t want to tell you exactly how to bake or cook, she just gives you some general directions.
While it may not have looked the best, that didn’t matter. The pie I made was tasty. The powdered sugar dried up some of the apples. I also put too many cloves. This led to quite a spicy taste.
Since 2020, Dr. Rachel Snell, a historian, has been working her way through The Virginia house-wife. Using two editions, 1824 and 1838, she created “The Virginia Housewife Project” to explore the recipes while investigating ideas of domesticity and the history of each recipe. I wish I had seen her blog prior to making the pie, so I could have prepared a little more!
I hope to be able to share more of these recipes in the future. In the meantime, please check out our digital collection of cookbooks. Maybe something will inspire a course for your dinner tonight!
Berton, Juston. “Any way you slice it, pi’s transcendental,” San Francisco Chronicle (11 March 2009) https://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Any-way-you-slice-it-pi-s-transcendental-3169091.php, accessed 27 March 2023.
Randolph, Mary. The Virginia house-wife. Washington : Davis and Force, 1824.
Snell, Rachel A. “The Virginia House-wife Project” https://virginiahousewifeproject.com/, accessed 27 March 2023.