Kitchn Love Letters

The $5 Tool I Inherited from My Grandma and Use Every Time I Make Pie

updated Mar 6, 2023
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Apple crumble pie plated with ice cream.
Credit: Photo: Yunhee Kim; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

I never saw my grandma bake a pie or even eat a piece of pie, but for some reason, she collected pie birds. Her pie bird collection took up entire cabinets and mantels, and she especially liked antique ones, 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 them in all shapes — and some that weren’t “birds” at all: chefs, elephants, owls, policemen, and mushrooms.

What’s a Pie Bird?

To back up a little: Pie birds are hollow little sculptures you’d use 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 basically explode. 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’d imagine people thought, “Well, this is much cuter” and went with it.

Nowadays, you don’t see many people using pie birds. (You can thank accurate, modern ovens for that!) But they’re available in vintage marketplaces like eBay and Etsy; Le Creuset even sells a cute one!

But, it always struck me as funny that my grandma collected pie birds — something that was 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 is in a nursing home now. She’s also in her 90s, with a frayed memory that causes her to forget people’s names and faces, the day, and even what she just ate. But, if I’m being honest, we weren’t close before any of 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 unraveling in therapy. 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?

Credit: Riddley Gemperlein-Schirm
My pie bird.

A handful of years ago, my grandma gave away all of her pie birds in a bid 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 home my husband and I bought.

It sits displayed in my kitchen and is 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!