Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Dinner with History

Many years ago in Cornwall, England, the wives and mothers of the local tin miners would wake up early to bake a special lunch for their husbands and sons to take down into the mines.  They would dice potatoes and onions, meat, carrots and rutabagas, or whatever they had on hand, pour it onto a rolled out round of pastry dough, fold it in half, crimp it and bake it in the oven.  They would often sculpt an initial out of dough and stick it on one corner of this pie so that the miner who was going to eat it would remember which one was his.  Sometimes they would put a sweet fruit filling in the corner under the initial, separated from the meat and potatoes by a little dough wall, so the miner would have both lunch and dessert in one tidy package.

It was cold down in the mines.  The miners would take their hot pies, called pasties, and put them inside their jackets to keep their bodies warm on the way down to work.  There was arsenic in these mines, and it would get all over the miners' hands.  To avoid poisoning themselves, they would only hold their pasties by the crust on the corner that had their initial on it.  They would start from the other end, eating first the savory and then the sweet until they got close to the handled corner.  This last bit of crust they would throw on the floor, to appease the gremlins or ghosts that they suspected were responsible for the many tragic accidents of the mines.

Pasties (pronounced pas-tees) date back to at least the 1100's.  They are mentioned as one of Robin Hood's foods in the ballads of the 1300's.  They came west with the Cornish miners who migrated to the United States to mine for copper in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where they are still a regional favorite.

My kids were so enchanted by this history, that we decided to make one for a special lunch for Papa to take to the mines (his real estate office).  His pasty had the classic filling, but I'm pretty sure you could put anything you like in there, although you might have to change its name to Samosa or Empanada.  They say the Devil himself avoided Cornwall because the women there had a reputation for putting anything and everything in their pasties, and he did not want to be baked in a pie.

Diego and I had a good laugh when he realized that the dough that separates the sweet side was not made of corn... he was expecting a "corn wall."

Papa did not save any of his crust for the gremlins.


  1. I love this post. I had recently watched a Rick Steves video he did on Cornwall and there was a short segment from one of the pasty shops there giving this same history.

  2. before i had to go wheat-free, i'd make (vegetarian)pasties all the time. of course, i'm horrid with dough, so i used the pizza dough balls from trader joe's. still, they were tasty.

  3. Oh, yum! This was a really interesting history of pasties, and I must say I usually don't read long posts but I loved this! Yours is simply gorgeous. I'm fascinated by little hand pies.

  4. Lucky Papa who gets that for lunch!


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