The British hate pot pies so much they won’t even call them pies

You call this a “pie”?
You call this a “pie”?
Image: AP/Larry Crowe
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This post has been updated.

While people all across America are happily tucking into the last of their leftover-turkey pot pies, a controversy over the practice of draping a pastry top over a casserole is brewing in the UK.

A little over 3,000 people have signed an e-petition imploring the UK government to strictly regulate what pubs and restaurants can legally call “pies.”

“Make wrongly describing a casserole with a pastry lid as a pie a criminal offence,” the petition urges, adding:

For too long customers in pubs and restaurants have ordered what is described on the menu as a pie only to be served with casserole in a pot covered by a puff pastry lid. This is not a pie and is also curiously difficult to consume. A pie is defined by the OED as “A baked dish of fruit, or meat and vegetables, typically with a top and base of pastry.” This petition urges the implementation of criminal sanctions upon the owners of food outlets that serve items described as pies without a pastry base. Exemptions will apply for Shepherds, Cottage and Fish Pies.

Someone named Bill T. Wulff (Quartz could not find him online nor reach him for comment*) authored this petition in May of 2014 and gathered a thousand signatures within the month. Since then, apparently, the campaign has lost momentum, though it has seen a bump in recent days. But however you slice it, 3,000 is a long way from the 100,000 minimum needed to trigger a debate on the measure in Parliament.

Since 2011, voters in the UK have been able to force debates in the House of Commons via an online petition system almost identical to the “We the People” initiative launched by the Obama administration in the US in 2008. Whether these direct petition programs are helpful when it comes to setting public policy is a matter of debate: More than 100,000 people signed a petition last winter for the US to deport pop singer Justin Bieber, for example.

The campaign to stop casseroles from masquerading as pies may seem just as silly, but there is actually some merit in the quibble. The offensive item Wulff describes as “a casserole with a pastry lid” is what the Oxford English Dictionary calls a “pot-pie.” And although it originated in Elizabethan England, today it’s as American as, well, apple pie.

Here in the US, the pot pie is a malleable concept: Sometimes the filling is covered with a thick, buttery crust, and sometimes it bubbles beneath a crisp sheet of puff pastry. Sometimes the filling is simply topped with biscuits (the lowest example of the form, some might say).

We’re a little baffled by Wulff’s contention that these constructions are “curiously difficult to consume,” but on one point we agree with him: Pies and pot pies are not synonymous and interchangeable. What the UK needs to do is reclaim the latter and embrace the virtues that, arguably, elevate it above the fully enclosed pie.

For one, it’s a lot easier and less anxiety-provoking on a weeknight to drape some frozen puff pastry over a stew than it is to roll out a pie crust that may well crack or melt under your rolling pin, and then end up too dry or tough. Those avoiding excess carbohydrates might appreciate the higher ratio of filling to crust. And the pot pie is actually a brilliant solution to the problem of soggy side crust—by concentrating instead on the best part of the pastry, the golden-brown top crust, you protect your filling from drying out, and provide a tasty counterbalance to its soupiness.

Just don’t call it pie.

*Update: Wulff spoke out on Twitter this morning to let us know that he does have an online presence and was available for comment. According to a statement dated December 1, his full name is Tiahowler Jon Von Biltawülf. He says, “Today has been a difficult today [sic] for me, my family and Dave, the pub landlord. The avalanche of publicity was unexpected and has taken some considerable toll upon us.”