Kittens, Mittens . . . and Pie!

We've all heard the story of the three little kittens who lost their mittens . . . ​

The three little kittens they lost their mittens
And they began to cry.
Oh, mother dear, we sadly fear
​Our mittens we have lost.
What? Lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then you shall have no pie!

As the poem continues the kittens find their mittens and their mother is so pleased she serves them pie.  They eat their pie with their mittens on, their mittens get dirty (duh!), and mother tells them they are naughty kittens again.  But - hooray! - the kittens wash their mittens, and mother once again tells them they are good little kittens. 

The poem was published anonymously in Britain in 1833 and in the United States in 1843.  It has been attributed to Eliza Lee Cabot Follen ... it is likely she polished-up a British folk story.  In the 1830's and 1840's women were expected to be knitters, so Follen surely would have understood the frustration Mother Cat and all fellow knitters feel when we hear of lost mittens. "You lost your mittens!  Those weren't Wal-Mart mittens, those were knit by hand!"

The Three Little Kittens (1858)

The Three Little Kittens telling their mother
they lost their mittens (1858).

The mitten-loosing kittens are punished by going without pie, but it doesn't say what kind of pie they are going without.  Meat pies were very popular in the 19th century, far more common than they are today.  A pie is an easy way to cook meat - the meat simmers in its own juices, and the pie crust on top works like a cover to keep the meat from drying out.  Today we are familiar with chicken pot pie, but historically just about any type of bird was baked in pies.  Even small song birds were baked - they were de-feathered and gutted, but then placed in the pie whole.  It was then up to the eater to pick the bones out as he ate it.  (Yuck!)

The Three Little Kittens (1874)

The Three Little Kittens in an 1874 illustration.  But are they wearing mittens?  I'd call those wristies or muffatees. 

Of course we can't have a discussion of birds in pies without mentioning the poem "Sing a song of six-pence, a pocket full of rye.  Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie . . . ."  The poem was first published in England in 1744, although the origins may be much earlier.  In the story the 24 blackbirds were put in the pie alive and then flew out when it was cut open.  ​

I can't image anything more horrifying than having live birds fly out of your food, but this, surprisingly, was thought to be exciting and fun in the 1500s and 1600s.  An Italian cookbook from 1549 contains a recipe "to make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up," ... the method was repeated in other cookbooks around the same time as well. At the wedding dinner of Marie de Medici and King Henry IV of France in 1600 songbirds flew out of a pie as part of the first course.

Blackbirds Baked in a Pie

Blackbirds "baked" in a pie.

But birds "baked in a pie" weren't actually baked in the pie.  The pie crust was prepared and the pie was baked empty with supports inside to prevent the upper crust from sinking.  After the pie was baked, a trapdoor was cut into the bottom crust of the pie and the live birds were put inside.  Then the pie was positioned onto a dish to hold the trapdoor closed.  Since it looked like a real pie, the unsuspecting guests would cut into it ... then jump and shriek as the birds flew out!

If the pie-less kittens were missing out on a meat pie it would have been the same as going to bed without any dinner.  Like a casserole dinner today, the meat pie alone could serve as a meal.  But the kittens also may have gone without a fruit pie.  Historically cooks used a lot less sugar than we do today, so a fruit pie - with naturally sweet fruits or berries - would have been a delightful treat.  Going without a fruit pie would have been a brutal punishment for a misbehaving child (or a kitten!). 

The brilliant colors of berries can be used to create some wonderful natural dyes, so while eating a meat pie with your mittens on would be messy, eating a berry pie could permanently stain your mittens!  No wonder Mother Cat was so upset!

Wouldn't it be great to have the beauty of berry colors without the mess?  The gals at Mountain Colors Yarn have a new Wild Berry speckle-dyed colorway in Bearfoot, Twizzlefoot and Crazyfoot yarn.  For when you want berry colors on your mittens!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

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