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My grandma collected pie birds for years. I never, not once, saw her make a pie or even eat a piece of pie, but her pie bird collection spanned entire cabinets and mantels. She especially liked antique pie birds, so every time anyone in my family (and my mom has 14 siblings) went to a flea market, we’d look for pie birds. She had pie birds of all shapes — and some that weren’t “birds” at all: chefs, elephants, owls, policemen, and mushrooms.
If you need me to back up a little: Pie birds are hollow little sculptures and are used when making two-crust pies. They’re placed in the center of the pie, and are meant to poke through the top crust, acting as a steam vent that prevents pie filling from bubbling over. You don’t even have to remove them when serving; they’re decorative and you can easily slice around them.
Pie funnels were invented in 19th-century Victorian England when, according to Taste, ovens were incapable of gentle, consistent heat, causing pie fillings to blowout. The actual bird shape and “pie bird” name only came about in the 1930s when an Australian potter patented a pie funnel in the shape of a black bird. I imagine people thought, “Well, this is much cuter.”
But, it always struck me as funny that my grandma clung to her pie birds — something so obscure and, like I said, she never actually made any pies with them. I thought, maybe, because she was born in the late 1920s, perhaps they reminded her of her childhood.
I haven’t had the chance to ask her. Because while she still is alive, we don’t talk much. She lives nine hours away and, because of COVID, only sees her nurse. She’s also in her 90s, with a frayed memory that causes her to forget people’s names, the day, and even what she just ate. But, if I’m being honest, we weren’t close before this happened either.
My mom had a tough time when she was growing up. Her brother and father died, separately, when she was a teenager and my grandmother remarried a man no one was fond of, to say the least. And I spent a long time blaming my grandma for the childhood trauma my mom spent years and years of therapy having to unravel.
But, a big part of me wishes I knew my grandma better. What did she think of everything that had happened? What was her childhood like? What does she want me to know? A handful of years ago, my grandma gave away all of her pie birds, to clear out her house a bit. I knew I had to have one. It would be a tangible piece of her. I picked one and have held onto it. It’s come with me everywhere I’ve lived — the house my roommate and I shared in college, my many (many) rental apartments, and finally, to the new home my husband and I just bought.
It sits displayed in my kitchen. It’s the shape of a pheasant, with a green head and brown body. Its yellow beak has a tiny chip in it, but I think that’s just evidence of how well-traveled it is. And yes, I do bake with it: Because, while pie birds aren’t necessary any more, every time I use it I think of my grandma. I think about forgiveness and family because, more than anything, I’d like to bake my grandma a pie and tell I love her — even if she doesn’t remember it the next day or even the following hour.
Do you have a pie bird? Tell us about it in the comments!