Sunday, February 8, 2009

Underground Tale of the Pasty

The CFWEP hosted a teachers workshop for its Milltown Dam and Clark Fork Virtual Education Portal (formerly "the trunks") this weekend at the Bonner School in Bonner.

We were treated with 27 teachers, eager to learn and very interested in hearing the science, stories and lessons of the Upper Clark Fork.

Upon a few individuals request, below is the recount of the story behind the Cornish pasty: staple food of underground miners for centuries and one of the trademark tastes of The Mining City....enjoy the story, and your next pasty!

When trying to teach kids about subjects that might seem complicated, like science, it always helps to use anecdotes that relate to things they can easily understand. In working with the students of the Upper Clark Fork basin, helping them to learn the health affects of some of the toxic substances found in mining wastes, like arsenic, lead and mercury, I’ve made it a point to use Butte’s hallmark entrĂ©e, the pasty.
Of course, we all like to think of the pasty being as Butte as Butte can be. However, just like the mining that made our town famous, the pasty too hails from some place else. Cornwall, England. The rich tin and copper mines in this southwestern-most region of the Old Country can be traced to 2000 B.C. Mention of the Cornish pasty can be found as far back as the 1200s. Mining’s importance in their culture can be summed up with a common Cornish definition: “A mine is a hole anywhere in the world with at least one Cornishman at the bottom of it.”
When mining began to peter out in Cornwall in the late 1800s, the “Cousin Jacks,” as they were known, emigrated to the mining meccas abroad, like Michigan’s Copper Country and of course, Butte, to carry on their historic skills. They also brought with them the pasty.
So how do you explain the human health affects from heavy metals and arsenic through a hand-held meat and potato pie? It turns out that the Cousin Jacks didn’t eat pasties just because they tasted great and were more filling than most other lunches you could take underground.

Talk to anyone who’s worked below, or take a peak at a historic photo of the working folk from Butte’s heyday: Underground mining is a dirty business, perhaps the dirtiest of them all. A shift underground would cover you from head to toe and then some in the mine’s dirt, dust, muck and mire. And although they were mining copper, silver, tin, whatever the moneymaker happened to be in the rock, there came with it all the other geologic tagalongs not so desirable, like arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, toxins that will eventually wreak havoc on a man’s health.
The two major pathways for these poisons to make it into our bodies is either breathing it in (inhalation) or eating it (consumption). Once a man went underground to work, there wasn’t any coming back up to the surface until the end of his day, unless he came up dead or maimed. In the days before respirators and dust masks, there wasn’t much a miner could do to keep from inhaling the metals-laden dusts, save for holding his breath – an impossibility over an entire shift. Many figured that inhaling the dust through the filter of a cigarette was better than nothing – even though there were “NO SMOKING” signs posted in the Butte mines in 16 different languages. And there certainly weren’t any faucets or trusted methods of washing away the grime from your face or hands before lunchtime.

Prior to the pasty, miners in Cornwall probably ingested an equal amount of poison for every bite of nourishment he ate. Chronic diseases from arsenic, lead, mercury and other heavy metals poisoning like cancer, ulcers and Mad Hatter’s disease were traced to the ingestion of these ubiquitous mining toxins early on. That didn’t mean a miner was going to stop eating underground. Hats off to the wives of Cornwall for fashioning a tasty solution to the problem.
The traditional Cornish pasty had a pinched crust much thicker than the ones on the pasties we eat today. The large, thick crust on the side of the original pasties was put on to serve as a handle, something the miners could hold on to with their filthy hands, while they ate the rest of the pie untouched and therefore, untainted with whatever might be clinging to his fingers.

Another note of difference between today’s pasty and the original is that the first pasties usually had rutabagas or turnips in them along with the standard meat and potatoes. Some wives added an extra treat: a compartment that held a fruit filling at one end to serve as “dessert.” When the miners were finished eating the filling, all they had to do was chuck the crusty handle and go back to work. It was also said that the throwing of the crust into the mines was a token of bribery or maybe even respect to the underground spirits or “knockers.” The knockers were blamed for knocking down big rocks, the “Duggans,” from above, under which many an underground toiler perished. The miners figured the ruthless spirits would be less likely to do so if their presence was acknowledged by the tossing of a tasty scrap of crust and perhaps a quick Hail Mary. There were well over 2,000 men who died in Butte’s underground mines over their operation. Only the knockers know how many pasty crusts were left behind and eaten.

So the next time you don’t have the time or facilities to wash your dirty hands before eating lunch, grab on to a pasty and don’t forget to leave the crust behind. Your body will thank you and so will the knockers.

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