Power of the pasty – Nevada County’s heritage reflected in meat-pie contest
To the delight of the area’s Cornish progeny raised on the humble meat and potato pie, reports of the pasty’s death at the Nevada County Fair have been greatly exaggerated.
After just one person entered the pasty-cooking contest in 2002, the competition, with its roots in the gold-mining era, continues a resurgence that would make any hungry Cornish miner proud.
Perhaps it was guilt or the need to re-establish Cornwall’s honor on the left coast that yielded 21 entrants last year and 23 this year.
In any event, the pasty, in all of its utilitarian glory, is back.
Vivian Scofield, who regularly bakes pasties for her family, and Lynda Lasich, who regularly eats pasties made by others, spent part of Wednesday smelling, sampling and contemplating the taste, texture and appearance of pasties at the Fairgrounds.
The tests, conducted in front of a quizzical public, was anything but scientific.
Lasich and Scofield, who happens to be the mother of fair CEO Ed Scofield, agreed on a few things initially.
Though cloaked in a crust that gives it a resemblance to those 10-for-a-dollar fruit pies you can purchase in any convenience store, both judges agreed that the crust on a pasty should not be flaky.
“Because it’s not a dessert, you know,” Scofield intoned.
There are other, more subtle requirements, as well.
“It’s OK, but I wouldn’t want to put ground beef in a pasty,” said Scofield, who, like so many locals who consider the pasty a staple in their diet, traces her lineage back to miners from Cornwall, England, who landed in the Sierra foothills 150 years ago to work the hard-rock mines. Miners could eat it in one hand while wielding a gold-seeking pickax in the other.
The pasty “should taste like a juicy meat pie, and there should be a nice glow to it,” said Lasich, who often helped relatives make them when she was a young girl.
Curious onlookers watched as Scofield and Lasich took turns sampling each of the pies, cutting into each of them with a tiny paring knife, chewing, and then huddling together, extolling the virtues of the marriage of beef, onions and spices wrapped in a coating resembling the atom bomb.
As the judges sampled, a few onlookers debated the merits of pasties served with ketchup or malt vinegar.
“I’d like to see them make pasties with organic beef or vegetables,” said Lisa Smith, who works at Earth Song market in Nevada City, which doesn’t sell pasties of any kind.
“Personally,” she whispered, as if to spare the judges from hearing pasty blasphemy, “I like to put gravy on them.”
Carol Scofield, Vivian’s daughter-in-law, confessed to an occasional hankering for pasties.
“You can eat one of those and a salad, and it’s a meal,” she said.
But she realizes that the wheels of time move faster than dough rises these days, and it’s hard for working adults to find the time to chop, sift and bake for hours.
“It’s a lot of work, and the way we do life is different now,” Carol Scofield said. But, she noted, pasties freeze well.
A pasty baked by Sharon Brown of Grass Valley won first prize and $25. Her pasty was heartily praised by Lasich.
“It’s a wonderful mix of chopped meat, potatoes and onion. There was a good balance,” Lasich said.
Shirley A. Tellam of Grass Valley snagged second place and $15. “This is a nice presentation,” Lasich said. “It’s jam-packed with goodies.”
Greg E. Ludlum’s third-place entry netted $5.
With the pasty competition finished, the descendants of Cornish miners can relax for another year.
“Somebody will keep this alive,” Carol Scofield said. “There are enough traditionalists around.”
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