A Brief and Tasty History of the Pasty, Butte's Favorite Dish

Mining implements

By the mid 19th century, the mining industry in Cornwall, England, was in dire straits. The area, once rich in copper, was nearly mined out, and mining was the principle Cornish occupation. Then the coup-de-grace came; enormous loads of copper were discovered in the New World, in places like Michigan and New Mexico. Placest that, to a Cornish miner, must have seemed as strange and distant as Timbuktu. Then, in 1882, after semi-succesful attempts at mining silver and gold, folks in Butte, Montana discovered that they were sitting on "the richest hill on Earth." Within five years, Butte was producing more copper than anywhere else in the United States. The Cornish, rightly regarded as some of the finest hard-rock miners in the world, considered the prospects of seeking employment in Butte.  

Cornish miners were known as Cousin Jacks - some say because they were always asking their cousins where they could find a job, and Jack was both a popular name at the time as well as a nickname for any Englishman, not unlike "average Joe" in America. Cousin Jacks moved to Butte in droves - but not just the Cornish. They were accompanied, famously, by the Irish, who would leave their own mark on Butte's history that is more than evident today. 

But those first Cornish miners brought with them a delicacy that many Montanans still treasure, a simple hand-pie that continues to nourish and fuel hard-working folks today - the Cousin Jack pasty.  

Cornish pasty

Copper Camp coverAs William A. Burke, author of the classic Copper Camp: The Lusty Story of Butte, Montana, the Richest Hill on Earth, writes, "each nationality brought its favorite dish from the old country and through fraternization between nationalities, many of them were soon adopted by the entire community. The best example is that epicurian masterpiece of pie crust, beef and vegetables which Butte, with pardonable pride, claims as its very own-- the Cousin Jack pasty."  

He continues, with toothsome description, to say that "[t]he pasty, as prepared here, is beyond description in mere words... it is both a thing of beauty and nourishment to body and soul. No earthly mortal could delineate for a moment on its delights without waxing eloquent."

The Cornish can't lay claim to having invented the pasty - indeed, the first mention of the savory hand pie is in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the treat, filled with venison, was a particular favorite in the court of Henry VIII. But the Cousin Jack variety, out of which evolved the modern Butte variant, is as Cornish as cream tea, figgy 'obbin, or whortleberry pie.

The traditional pasty, still enjoyed in Cornwall to this day, would have contained diced beefsteak and rutabaga, called "swede" in England. Perhaps this is one of the innovations on the formula introduced by Butte's Irish population - over here, potatoes (Irish potatoes) are much preferred. Burke adds that there is one more ingredient - "a breathed prayer or two..."

Beef pasties

The advantage of the pasty to Butte's working class went beyond a simple taste of home. The hand pies were very portable, easy to tote in a tin lunch pail, relatively easy to make, and they stayed warm for hours. Should they get cold in the depths of the mine, all you had to do was put one in your shovel and heat the shovel over coals or a fire. However, you did have to remember that you were doing so - apparently, they were the cause of a fire at least once in the history of American mining when, left unattended, a pasty overloaded with combustible lard and suet burst into flame. Of course, this wasn't likely to happen, as the average miner eyed their pasty closely, snatching it when it was warm enough to eat. And there are some, including the aforementioned William A. Burke, who say that "[s]erved cold as a midnight snack, or at luncheon, a pasty always speaks for itself."

Skyline of old Butte
Source: Montana Memory Project

In the poorly lit depths of Butte's copper mines, one pasty looked a lot like another. Naturally, it then became a problem of identification - which pasty is mine? To that end, the miner's wives would often scratch their husband's initials into the crust - sometimes on both ends, lest someone eat half of their pasty and set it aside. And while many American pasties today are not made with a crimped ridge like a pie crust, the historical Cornish Jack pasty usually was. This way, the miner, whose hands were black with soot, or worse, arsenic, had a convenient handle to hold the pasty by. Others maintain that the Cornish, occasionally given to superstition, would "sacrifice" the crimped handle as an offering to the hungry ghosts and goblins that live in the caverns of the earth.  

Still others, like the Cornish food historian Glyn Hughes, say that the notion of the crimped edge being a handle is hogwash. He told the host of a popular English television program, "We've been back through literally thousands and thousands of newspapers and magazines going back to the 18th Century and we can find absolutely no mention of it anywhere." Instead he maintains, miners were more likely to eat their pasties out of cloth bags brought for that purpose. 

It might be noted that another major difference between the Irish pasty and the English version, is that while the English one contains cubed beef, the Irish one contains sliced beef. In this way the Irish managed to distinguish themselves from their hated ancestral enemies, the English.

Today there are many places to get a pasty in Butte. There's Joe's Pasty Shop, Nancy's Pasty Shop, Truzzolino Tamales, and Gamer's Cafe, which serves a famously massive version absolutely smothered in gravy. And of course, no survey of the modern western American pasty could possibly exclude Wind's Pasties, made in Anaconda, Montana, but available in hundreds of locations through Montana, Washington, Idaho, and Oregon.  

We'll close with more pretty words from William A. Burke, the poet of the pasty: 

"That is all there is to it. Sounds simple - but in the hands of the inept - or if sufficient prayers are forgotten - the result might turn out to be but a soggy mess. Expertly handled, however, the finished product is something to cause the true gourmet to contemplate on thoughts, ethereal and otherworldly. A real pasty does those things to a human."

Beef pasties

Leave a Comment Here

Larry Henrie (not verified) , Wed, 02/10/2021 - 07:23
I am from Butte and I remember being told a lot of this by my father, Joe Henrie.
They are still my favorite dish. My father was a hard rock miner, both under ground and in the Pit. I truly miss Butte.
Barbara Watson (not verified) , Wed, 02/10/2021 - 14:12
A friend of my parents, Tilly, devised the pasty recipe Gamers Cafe used for years. Wonder if they still do?
Mary Kuehn (not verified) , Sun, 04/11/2021 - 05:15
Sadly, Gamerrs not only doesn’t serve pasties, it’s been turned into a casino. I wept at the thought of the whole interior being gutted and replaced with poker machines.
Joe Corak (not verified) , Tue, 04/13/2021 - 17:05
Gamers still serves excellent pasties, along with many other faves!! The casino was actually added next door.
Lynn Don Glock (not verified) , Thu, 02/11/2021 - 10:18
First time I had one was in Lead, SD at a little grocery store that is gone now. They were very popular there because of the gold mine.
Larry Hoffman (not verified) , Thu, 02/11/2021 - 13:46
I agree with Glyn Hughes on the crimp and am going further to call hogwash, even horse puckey on heating them in a shovel over coals. The pasty was always on the bottom of the lunch pail, which was set on top of 3 nails driven into a plank (lagging) with a candle in the center. There were no intentional coals or fire underground!
Ron Jobbes (not verified) , Thu, 02/11/2021 - 16:23
Born in Butte, raised in California, Grandpapa was an electician on the HILL;
I miss the pasty's and pork chop sanwichs and the christmas tamales
Carol Cooper (not verified) , Thu, 02/11/2021 - 17:48
My grandparents lived on the Wisconsin/UP (Michigan) border. Pasty’s were a favorite dish. Noticed that there are variations between the ethnic groups besides the traditional vs Cornish versions. The Italians added a pastry crust. THEY are all good!
Steve Crowley (not verified) , Sun, 02/14/2021 - 10:52
I grew up eating my Mom's and Grandma's pasties in San Francisco (they came out from Butte in the 50's). When I finally got to Montana I was asked a question that never occurred to me growing up: "ketchup or gravy?". Ketchup, of course!
Rodger Rio (not verified) , Fri, 02/19/2021 - 08:16
My grandfather was born in Butte. Both of his parents were Irish. He married my grandmother, who was born in Butte. Her parents were Welsh. Since his father and father-in-law were both killed young mining in Butte, my grandfather fled Butte to the Bay Area twice, once in the 20s and again during WW II. He always used ketchup on his pasties, something that disgusted my mother who, in her teens, would spend Sunday afternoons after church with the Welsh side of the family making pasties. I inherited my grandfather's preference of ketchup on pasties.
Robin Denison (not verified) , Fri, 03/19/2021 - 13:15
Only recently have I experienced a pastie with gravy. We always had them with ketchup.
Carol Cade (not verified) , Fri, 03/19/2021 - 10:54
Please post your best recipe!
Marilyn Burke (not verified) , Fri, 03/19/2021 - 17:06
My Grandmother's family came from Cornwall, England . After coming West, her father followed work at various mines . My grandmother, Eva, was born at Cherry Creek,Nevada in 1882. Her father passed away at the age of 36 years old in what is now Park City, Utah.
Following his death, my great grandmother married again and they ended up eventually in Silver City, Idaho where at the age of 16 my grandmother, Eva, met my grandfather, Gerard Adams (also English) and they were married. My father, Walter Riley Adams, was born in Silver City in 1901. He lived to be 94 years old. My grandmother used to make this pastie and put it in one of the old high top enameled lunch buckets for my grandfather who worked in the mill. I was told that the English miners (most coming from Cornwall, England) were called "Cousin Jacks" and the women were known as "Cousin Jenny". They endured many hardships along the way but they were strong willed. I am 86 years old now and remember my grandma who lived to be 90.
Susan Clizbe (not verified) , Sat, 04/10/2021 - 08:43
I was in Cornwall for a quick day trip last year, right before the pandemic. I rode the train out to Penzance, and got two pasties at the shop billing itself as the oldest. Sadly, it was only an hour to closing, and I think that’s why the pasties were a huge disappointment. Dry and barely seasoned. Although no ketchup! They were food, but that’s about it. Now my next goal is a road trip to both the UP and Butte to try the descendants!
Barbara (not verified) , Thu, 06/03/2021 - 08:53
The Uptown Cafe in Butte makes the best pasty I have ever eaten! A close second is Town Talk Bakery. Maybe we should have a blind taste test of all the different pasties.
Linda (not verified) , Wed, 08/11/2021 - 11:02
are these only available in restaurants i parts of Montana? I would’ve enjoyed to make this . Montana is such a beautiful state.I lived in Kalispell in the early 90s for a couple years beautiful.
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