By Wally Cekala
As the sandwich celebrates its 250th birthday this year, you may have been hearing trivia about its origin. Legend has it that the Earl of Sandwich, an avid card player, wanted an easy way to have something to eat without having to put his cards down. He asked for a piece of beef between two pieces of bread, and the “sandwich” was born. According to our research, it was a similar desire to eat a filling lunch easily which may have led to the origin of the chicken pot pie that we know today.
The Cornish Pasty – Parent to the Pot Pie?
One of the earliest and most popular versions of a chicken pie hails from Cornwall in Great Britain. To this day it is referred to as a Cornish “pasty,” and appears more similar to an Italian calzone, encased in a thick, closed crust. Unlike a calzone or more modern variations on the pasty, it’s filled with savory meat, vegetables and spices but no sauce or gravy as that would make it too messy to eat by hand. Pasties were a very popular lunch with Cornish miners, because they stay warm for a long time in a lunch pail and are easy to reheat by placing on a shovel and holding over a flame. Pasties also require no cutlery to eat, and could be held by their thick crusts by miners with dirty hands who would discard the crust after eating the rest. Today, pasties are Cornwall’s national dish and account for 6% of the food economy.
While the ingredients of any savory meat pie have been available for centuries in various countries, there are references in cookbooks from France dating back to the 1300s. Pasties are also referred to in correspondence related to high ranking officials, the clergy, and royalty of the 1200s. It may not have been until the 17th and 18th centuries, however, that pasties became common fare among the working class. With such an important place in Cornish lore and as a “national dish” of Cornwall, the neighboring county of Devon sometimes competes for a role in pasty history.
Cornish Miners Take the Recipe on the Road
As tin mining was on the decline in Cornwall, the miners traveled for work to other parts of the world in the 1800s, and brought their hearty lunch recipe with them. They settled in areas such as Australia, Mexico, the mid-western United States, and Pennsylvania. While these areas are still eating the pasty in a more authentic form, some regions have done away with the more utilitarian features, like the thick crust and lack of sauce.
Modern “Pot” Pies
The original savory pie makers of Europe would use a pot, and include a top and bottom crust to help the pie keep its shape. Some American variations over the years have done away with the bottom crust as it was no longer deemed necessary to eat this dish “on the fly” without cutlery. A more casserole-like dish which features a generous filling, including gravy, has become more popular. Also, the “pot” pie is usually associated with vegetables in addition to chicken meat.
While the recipe and “use” may have changed over the years, chicken pies are still seen as a wholesome, stick-to-your ribs meal for the end of a long work day. Also, as our fans know, similar to Cornish pasties, Willow Tree chicken pies are one of the few main courses that will still be warm when you go back for seconds!
Sources: Rick Steve’s Europe, Wikipedia