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July 9, 2008

Cornish pasties

Filed under: Beer,English food — Mr. Henry @ 7:30 pm

From the New York Times:


July 8, 2008, 3:40 pm
Dept. of Oops

By Stephen J. Dubner

The Economist is, almost inarguably, a great magazine.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t make the occasional mistake. Consider this lead from a recent article about a huge Mexican mining company called Fresnillo, which was recently listed on the London Stock Exchange:

In the hills north east of Mexico City it is not uncommon to find Cornish pasties for sale.

They meant to write “pastries” but, considering that miners work really hard, they might also be hoping to encounter the kind of people who go shopping for pasties.

Yesterday the famed Freakonomics writer stepped right in the middle of his very own pie. Responses and corrections to this howler make very good reading. One true disciple wrote that Dubner could not have really meant what he said and instead was proving his own point about “the occasional mistake.”


The Cornish pasty (pass-tee) is yet another British savory pie, one designed to be held in a sweaty, arsenic-dusted, tin miner’s hand. You eat the pie and toss the hard, folded crust that serves as a handle. It’s the first hot pocket sandwich, an inventive adaptation for a worker hundreds of feet down in the ground.

To really appreciate English food, Twistie says “Have a hearty, flaky, utterly delectable Cornish pasty.”

The savory pie is the very soul of British cooking. It is a preparation suitable to an antique hearth rather than a modern stovetop, a dish prepared in the morning and left out all day, perhaps two or three days. Incorporating meat and vegetable, it constitutes a complete meal.

According to the OED, “pasty” and “pastry” are both derived from the French pasté, but pasty is the older coinage.

Pasties are first mentioned in the 13th century, before Chaucer, before Piers Plowman, before the modern language known as English. It seems British cooking has changed less in 800 years than the English language itself.

Perhaps because they couldn’t afford finely ground pastry flour, the Scots employed a sheep’s stomach to house their national dish, the haggis. There is nothing airy-fairy about those Scots. In haggis no morsel of offal is too humble to include.

Why are English eating habits so conservative when their language is so dynamic? Isn’t culture bound up in language and vice versa? If so, why is the English menu stuck in the Middle Ages? Surely tradition can bend to accommodate a few improvements, the stovetop, for example, or the refrigerator.

Indeed, it was the traditional absence of refrigeration that sustained the tradition of bitter ale. Lager needs to stay cooler than bitter ale. Though he tries every decade or so to appreciate English bitter, Mr. Henry finds it consistently revolting. Thank the glorious angels for Guinness – rich, palate-cleansing, draught Guinness.


Did the medieval French plate look like the quintessential French plate today. That is, was there a meat with a sauce (butter based), a separate vegetable, and a starch? Unlikely.

Was medieval Japanese cuisine composed of fish or fish stock? Yes, probably. Like Britain, Japan is an island kingdom. Like the Brits, the Japanese drive on the left. Like English, Japanese is a dynamic language that appropriates foreign words. (Does this seal the argument? Probably not.)

Mr. Henry is no pasty man. He takes little pleasure in the genre of savory pies. Even the South American fried empanada holds no allure. Granted, Beef Wellington, the aristocrat’s pasty, is a pleasant diversion, but almost inarguably a filet of beef is tastier when baked without crust.


  1. Oh, Mr. Henry! Do not, I beg of you, limit yourself! I too am pasty, and proud of it. I also make a fabulous pork pie, spicy, savoury, and sweet, featuring, inter alia, apples, raisins, cinnamon and cloves. It’s delectable AND durable, and is a perfect picnic food in the summer, too.

    Then again, I did most of my early cooking as a youngster out of King Richard’s cookbook, and I find meat pies a perfectly acceptable food form. They won’t ever replace a steak – but then, they aren’t meant too, either.

    Comment by La BellaDonna — July 10, 2008 @ 11:04 am

  2. Mr. Henry is converted! The mere description of your pasty sends him searching for his jousting stick and armor. Camelot must be somewhere nearby.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — July 10, 2008 @ 11:10 am

  3. Why are English eating habits so conservative when their language is so dynamic? Isn’t culture bound up in language and vice versa?

    Mr. Henry, these are the questions that keep me up at night – very literally. On my bedside table, in my stack of current reading, I have a food history reference book, right next to a history of the English language (next to an art history book). The day I figure out just how all of those stories fit together…well, I just don’t know what I’ll do then. I guess I’ll have to find something else to think about.

    Comment by kit pollard — July 11, 2008 @ 7:00 am

  4. I am a firm believer in the concept that Everything Tastes Better in a Crust…unless the crust is as bad as my grandmother’s bouncing pasties. Good crust = Good eating. Bad crust = the Baby Jesus weeping into his Corn Flakes.

    Now I just need to decide if it’s too darn hot today to make crust because last night my neighbor sent over some gorgeous fresh peaches just picked from her mother’s tree and I want pie.

    Comment by Twistie — July 11, 2008 @ 10:24 am

  5. My mother made delicious pasties – but – ground beef was anathema. She used only left over roast beef, finely diced by hand and fortified with a 1:1 mix of peas, diced carrots & onions.


    Comment by Phyllis — July 11, 2008 @ 7:25 pm

  6. Aaaaiiee! And I should be more careful, especially when overwrought regarding cooking: that last sentence should be:

    They won’t ever replace a steak – but then, they aren’t meant to, either.

    I do encourage Mr. Henry to investigate some of the ancestors of today’s cuisine; there are wonderful recipes to be found amongst many countries. Modern French cooking was first codified in the 17th century, and it is a delicious tribute to the past to prepare the same kind of meal that our forebears might have had on the original Fourth of July*. I have a sentimental fondness for medieval cooking, and it is interesting to see how closely connected it is in many ways to Middle Eastern cooking. Plus there is the great challenge: how to cook meals that are filling and tasty that rely on neither the potato, the tomato, nor the noodle!

    *The date is close enough for government work.

    Comment by La BellaDonna — July 14, 2008 @ 7:10 am

  7. Dear Mr. Henry,

    I hope, at some point, you will try a Natchitoches (NACK-uh-tish) [Louisiana] savory, spicy meat pie; with real, giblet-based, dirty rice on the side.

    Comment by Carol — July 15, 2008 @ 8:20 pm

  8. I’m with Twistie, a delectable crust goes with pretty much everything!

    But then again, I am a total bread/starch fiend, so that might be why.

    Comment by Glinda — July 16, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  9. Gorthhuger da.Cornish pasties are a wonderful part of my childhood memories and many other cousin jacks around the world, i had a great time making pasties with my nan which was so much fun. A delicious cornish treat, not to be associated with English foods.
    Kernow bys vykken. Devedhys ov a Pennsans. Greetings from

    Comment by John Stevens — October 30, 2008 @ 8:15 am

  10. Tsha! It is a pity that this response is so late for the tasty suggestion for the Twistie’s peaches: My suggestion is that you prepare the peaches as for the pie, with one exception:

    No crust.

    Yes, a sacrilege, but better than the hot oven! Instead, cook the lovely peaches, and serve over the finest vanilla ice cream you can find! Summer pleasure, ahhhh.

    (Cinnamon ice cream is even BETTER with the lovely cooked peaches, but rather harder to find.)

    Comment by La BellaDonna — November 11, 2008 @ 10:03 am

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