The humble meat pie is as Aussie as it gets. The iconic fist-sized pastry is light, flaky and golden on the outside, and filled with piping hot minced meat and gravy on the inside – perfect as a frosty winter’s day meal at the footy or a cheap, tasty snack from the servo.
In the 2014 season of The Bachelor Australia, contestant Laurina Fleure precipitated a hashtag frenzy on social media when she bemoaned a date that involved eating a ‘dirty street pie’ from a Sydney pie-cart. Her remark alluded to the pie’s status as food for the working class, and the stereotypical connotations of crudeness and boorishness that come along with it. A pie-eater is a derogatory Australian term used to refer to a small-time or second-rate person, originally of the criminal persuasion:
[The term] arose from the fact that most crims were unwillingly conscripted into the army & at the first opportunity deserted. Having no coupons & identity card & prevented from getting work they managed to live by getting free pies from the army buffet in Hyde Park … so to call a person a pie eater was an assertion that they pretended to have a special status & knowledge when they had neither the qualifications nor the knowledge to justify it. (Ted Hartley in Gary Simes, Dictionary of Australian Underworld Slang, 1993)
It’s no surprise then that slang terms that refer to pies themselves can come across as unrefined. In fact, a number of them are downright nauseating in their association with pests, vermin, and unsavoury animal parts; we have never trusted the dubious contents of a pie. Take maggot bag, for instance. As Kel Richards wrote, ‘to ask the nice lady at the canteen for a “maggot bag and blood, thanks, love” is to ask for a meat pie and tomato sauce’ (Dictionary of Australian Phrase and Fable, 2013). In a similar vein, to ask for a ‘dog’s eye with dead ‘orse’ is to ask for a meat pie with sauce.
Rounding up the animal trifecta is rat coffin, described in a slightly dubious tone by the Sydney Morning Herald as:
A tasteless term for a meat pie that is strangely evocative even though it is completely inaccurate these days. We hope. (Sydney Morning Herald, August 25, 2005)
Interestingly, in their original form in medieval Europe, pies were called ‘coffins’, or ‘coffyns’, simply meaning a box or container. Food historian Janet Clarkson, in her book Pie: A Global History, noted that pie shells were made of thick pastry and were used as cooking vessels for the meat filling. The shell was made of hard, coarse rye flour, and was often several inches thick. Back in a time when refrigerators hadn’t been invented, this sturdy crust had the added benefit of preserving the contents within.
The word ‘pie’ is probably the same word as the archaic term ‘pie’, a name for the Eurasian magpie: the various iingredients of a meat pie being compared to objects randomly collected by a (Eurasian) magpie. It certainly reflects both historical and contemporary meat pie-manufacturing processes, in which fillings are typically minced and derived from multiple animal parts. In medieval times, pies and pasties contained beef, mutton, venison, fowl (or a combination thereof) and in some cases even porpoise meat (Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food).
While modern-day Australians are unlikely to grind up sea mammals for food, the ‘mixed bag’ approach to meat still applies. According to Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, meat pies are only required to contain 25% ‘meat flesh’, defined as ‘the skeletal muscle of the carcass of any buffalo, camel, cattle, deer, goat, hare, pig, poultry, rabbit or sheep … plus any attached animal rind fat, connective tissue, nerve, blood and blood vessels’. The manufacturer is not required to label the type of meat used in the pie, as long as it meets the criteria above. If that’s not enough to make you toy with the idea of becoming a vegetarian, tongue roots, liver, spleen and tripe are also permissible parts to include in a pie (as long as these parts are declared on the label).
With the pie manufacturing process the way it is, it’s no wonder that the Australian slang terms for meat pie are all pretty unpalatable. Just as Aussies have put our own culinary stamp on the dish, we’ve done the same in a linguistic sense too. Maggot bag, dog’s eye and rat coffin, in true Aussie style, are terms that are sardonic, irreverent and doused with a dollop of saucy humour.
Alicia Cheah is a Primary Publisher. Once, in a feeble attempt to increase her vitamin A, iron and selenium intake, she cooked a massive batch of fried chicken livers, sautéed lamb liver and crumbed lamb kidneys. It could only be described as an offal affair.
This article was inspired by entries from the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. This dictionary is the only comprehensive, historically-based record of the words and meanings that make up Australian English. It is a unique lexical map of Australian history and culture.
The dictionary was produced at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University. The Centre, established in 1988, is a joint venture of theAustralian National University and Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand.
Chief Editor: Dr Bruce Moore is a former Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre (1994–2011). He has edited a number of OUP dictionaries, including the Australian Oxford Dictionary.
Managing Editor: Dr Amanda Laugesen
Editors: Mark Gwynn, Julia Robinson
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