Texas Toast. Boston Cream Pie. Chicago deep-dish. Any time a food and a geographical location get married, there’s bound to be a little bit of drama. Emotions come into play over whether the food that’s claiming to be Chicago-style pizza can rightfully wear the crown. Suddenly, the food in question isn’t just a slice of pizza, bread or pie–it’s a slice of Chicago. (Or Texas, or Boston.)
So instead of is this food a tasty food, the question becomes does this version of this regional food accurately represent who we are as people? Which, uh, gets pretty loaded.
Such was the fate of the mostly-forgotten Bedfordshire Clanger–a hotly-debated hand pie from Victorian-Era England.
These days, political drama is always, always, always high-stakes, life-changing, and emotionally exhausting. So take a moment to waltz with me, hand-in-hand, down this delightfully low-stakes memory lane in which a bunch of Bedfordshire residents once got real up in arms about whether or not their beloved pie officially had jam in it.
“That’s $12.50,” said the woman behind the counter.
Sarah and I exchanged a look. We had just spent the last several minutes poring over the long glass pastry cases in her neighborhood Chinese bakery, scrutinizing the fluffy rolls and imagining all their possible fillings. In the end, we’d selected 10 pastries, hoping to cover all our bases. We carried the goodies back to her apartment in paper bags.
“$12.50 wouldn’t get you ten pastries anywhere else,” I remember saying. “At a French bakery, it would get you, like, two. Maybe three.”
Sarah shrugged. “That’s one great thing about Chinese bakeries.”
But once I started digging into it, “Chinese bakery” started to feel like an oxymoron. Historically, Chinese pastries weren’t baked–they were steamed. But all the treats in our paper bags had definitely seen the inside of an oven. So if traditional Chinese pastries aren’t baked, what are these pastries and where are they coming from?
And we’re back! If you missed Part 1 of “Who Really Invented Puff Pastry,” click here to read it and get some intriguing backstory on Claudius Gele, a guy that Google insists invented puff pastry, but (spoiler!) didn’t actually exist.
So why has this false “Claudius Gele” story stuck around?
This is total speculation on my part, but why do any of these stories stick around? People like to believe that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly, or that Albert Einstein was a C-student, because it gives you a sense of justice or comeuppance or whatever.
The Claude Lorrain story probably kept circling around because it’s intriguing to think that someone who’s great at one thing (i.e. landscape painting) might have also been a genius at another, completely separate thing. A double-threat, if you will.
But this vague story can be twisted to fit whatever worldview you favor. In one version, an amazing painter was ALSO the inventor of puff pastry, and wow, what a Cool Multitalented Dude.
In another (probably the most correct one), a kid was sort-of okay at baking pastries, but then found his real talents elsewhere, in landscape painting.
In the Claudius Gele story, some nice dude, in a burst of empathy for his #poorsickfather invents an ENTIRELY new way to bake dough that CONFOUNDS and amazes the so-called expert at the time.
So whether you’re someone who likes to hear about multitalented people, or people flailing a bit before finding their niche, or people totally upsetting the status quo for charmingly down-to-earth reasons (i.e. baking a loaf for their sick father, not baking a loaf To Change French Cuisine As We Know It)–there’s something in some version of this story to hang on to.
That stickiness, combined with the prevalence the myth built through the sheer number of times the Claudius Gele story was copied-and-pasted, is how an untruth becomes a truth.
So what do we actually know about who REALLY invented puff pastry?
First of all, puff pastry is much older than the above myth would have you believe. Like, four whole centuries older.
Puff pastry isn’t JUST for croissants. Arguably, it’s the foundation of many, many pastries as we know them today. It’s a technique that lets you enjoy warm, flaky layers of dough instead of literally everything being a biscuit.
But if you Google “Who invented puff pastry?” right now, the answer you get is Claudius Gele. And that’s SUPER wrong. Like, wildly wrong. Because Claudius Gele didn’t exist.
Insisting that a dead white guy didn’t invent puff pastry might seem like yelling at a cloud. Who cares, right? Isn’t that just…croissant dough? Dressler, we have bigger fish to fry here.
But here’s the thing–puff pastry is a majorly important technique, not a one-off party trick. We see it in bakeries, coffee shops, store-bought dough. It’s a huge part of our culinary landscape, so whoever pioneered the technique has influenced the way we eat today to a mind-boggling degree.
How in the world did a technique like this get so badly misattributed? And who is ACTUALLY responsible for that happy little pain au chocolat you’re eating while you read this at a cafe?
One of the streets that bordered my college campus was, not-shockingly, totally packed with loud and crowded bars. But, somehow, it also housed the most magical used bookstore.
The hours were completely unpredictable. A lovely elderly couple owned and ran the shop, and whenever they felt like it, they’d unlock their itty-bitty building packed with literal piles of books. Stacks and boxes, and narrow shelves. And the owners knew where absolutely everything was.
So if I found myself walking Mill Avenue and the doors to Old Town Books were open, I went in, almost always. And one day, I stumbled into their used cookbook section.
“Inglenook Cook Book” rhymed, so I picked it up–but once I started flipping through, my curiosity was super piqued. Wait, this book is from 1911? These recipes are all crowdsourced. Are they all written by nuns? Why the “Sister” in front of all the names?
Now, this book lives happily with me, covered in Post-It notes that mark interesting (and sometimes ill-advised) recipes.
And deep in the “Pie” chapter, Sister Mary E. Crofford lays out a pie recipe that she straight-up admits is weird; “It will make a queer-looking pie to those who have never seen it, but will taste far better than it looks. Try it.”
It’s called Rich Man’s Pie, and to make it, you need five ingredients (not counting the crust): melted butter, sugar, flour, nutmeg, and milk.