I keep moving, heading to the meat counter in the hopes that something strikes me. I’m bored with chicken. We don’t really eat pork. I don’t feel like buying steak. We just had turkey. We eat fish a lot. And we’ve had so many vegetable-based dinners recently that I am ready to cook something else.
“Could I have a pound of buffalo meat?” I ask with a shrug. Of course the kids haven’t ever tried it and neither has Adam, and I have no idea what I’ll do with it, but at least it’s different. By the time I reach the checkout line, I have a plan.
I throw together an easy short-crust dough when I get home — cutting the butter into the flour, dashing some water in, and wrapping the well-formed ball in plastic wrap and stashing it on the cold windowsill in the kitchen. Then I get to cooking the meat, which I do in a big pan with chopped-up onions and a bit of salt and pepper. I take from the fridge some leftover mashed potatoes. From the freezer I take a bag of corn and a bag of peas.
“Are you making hamburger, macaroni, and peas?” Jamie asks, longing for the great blend of salty meat, easy elbow macaroni, and the sweet, toothy peas.
“No, but I can see why you’d think that,” I say to him, and keep moving the meat so it doesn’t get too brown
“What is it, then?” Daniel dashes in, his hat and mittens still on.
“Take your hat and mittens to the basket, please,” I tell him. In a last-ditch effort for winter organization, we have one single catch-all basket in the entryway where the kids are supposed to toss hats, mittens, and gloves immediately upon arriving home. Daniel shouts from there, and I rush to shush him. “Don’t wake Will!”
“Then tell us what it is!”
“So, you know I used to live in England.”
“And there’s a lot of different foods there.”
Daniel rubs his belly. “I love those Jammy Dodger cookies. Can we have those?”
“No. Anyway, there’s a place in England called Cornwall, and there’s a thing they make there called Cornish pasties.”
Daniel is wide-eyed. “Pastries?”
“Pasties,” I repeat, knowing this word mix-up could result in a huge meltdown.
“Paste-eze?” Jamie says, clarifying.
“Pasties, like the past,” I tell them. “A long time ago, there were a lot of people whose job it was to work in a mine . . . " I start, wondering if it’s worth the history lesson.
Jamie interrupts. “Getting stuff like ore or coal.”
“Right. In this case, it was tin. Tin mines. And the workers would head off early in the morning for a long day of work.” I mime this like I’m in a drama skit, and they watch, half-amused, half-bored. “They needed to take lunch with them, and they needed to keep warm.”
“So just . . . what are you making?” Daniel taps his foot on the rung of his chair.
“I’m getting to that. Hold on.” I turn off the heat. “Jamie can you turn the oven to 350?” He does it, proud he’s allowed (with supervision) to do so.
“So these guys went off to work in the tin mines . . . " I say, remembering when my mom explained the backstory to me.
“And got black lung!” Jamie announces, always glad to pull from his well of random knowledge. “I read all about this. It’s really bad. You get really, really sick, Daniel.” Dan looks worried.
“I’m not serving anything that will make you sick. OK? So, these pasties are pretty big . . . " Daniel lights up again. Big is good. “And also warm. Some people used to tuck their pasty into their overalls and keep warm way down in the tin mines.” I clean and then flour part of the soapstone counter, which is great for pastry-making because it stays cold. “They used to get tin all over their hands, and tin is really bad to eat. Even then they knew this would be dangerous. So” — I roll the dough, lay a saucer on top of it, cut out a circle, and repeat until I have five of them — “when it was time for lunch, and they needed a big lunch because they worked long hours at a very hard job, they had a pasty.”
I scoop up some mashed potato. Traditionally, Swede was used in the mash. Swede is also known as Swedish turnip. It’s rutabaga, or yellow turnip. During World War I, Swede was one of the few vegetables around. As you can imagine, people grew quite tired of it, and its reputation is not stellar. However, it is still, like most of the roots, a workhorse that’s hard to mess up in the kitchen. Some people mixed mushed-up Swede into jams during World War II when anything sweet was hard to come by. The mash stretched out the pot of jam. In Sweden, the vegetable is sometimes known as cabbage root; in Scotland, sometimes “neep,” as in short for turn-eep; in other parts of the world it’s called “snadgies.” The point is, pasties call for a winter root vegetable that is not expensive, and easily mashed. I don’t have any Swede handy, but I do have leftover potatoes. I show the kids how to layer the potato into the center of the circle, add on the meat and onions, and then the vegetables.
“Oh, no! Please, no peas in mine!” Daniel shrieks. Will wakes up.
“I’m putting broccoli in yours, Daniel. Don’t worry.” I go back to layering, putting one final dollop of mash on top of the vegetables to keep them from falling out. “Now, see how I’m bringing the edges together here? This makes a kind of envelope. With a crust.”
“I love crust,” Jamie says.
“Well, the reason Cornish pasties have a crust is because the workers had nowhere to wash their hands, so they gripped their pasties like this.” I demonstrate. “They held the thick crust with their tin-covered hands, ate their way through a nice warm meal of meat, starch, and veg, and then they dropped the dirty, tinny crust to the ground without ever eating a bite of it.”
“So they were healthy!” Jamie said. “That is so smart.”
“I would want to eat the crust.” Daniel shakes his head.
“Good thing you’re not a Cornish miner,” I say. I finish the rest of the pasties and slide them into the oven for a while, tucking the newly formed and perhaps first-ever wild buffalo pasties away someplace warm.
Related recipe: Cornish Pasties
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