Stay Calm and Pasty On: How A Small Virginia Shop Is Keeping The Lifeline Of Cornish Pasties Flowing

Below is my column in BBC.com on The Pure Pasty, a lifeline for many of us who love the Cornish pasty and English items like Digestives. When this column ran, I heard from many readers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan noting that they also have a tradition of pasties. I have personal knowledge of those Michigan pasties from my youth. They were in fact the first pasties that I ever tasted. I would regularly go backpacking at Isle Royale in the Upper Peninsula and I would stop in Hancock for pasties on the way to the island. I believe the establishment was called Jean Kays. The embracing of pasties in the Upper Peninsula was no accident. In Cornwall, pasties were developed by miners as an easy way to bring lunch meats into the mines. The notes from folks in Michigan brought back a flood of crusty but still warm memories.

Here is the column:

The famous Greek physician Hippocrates once said “let food be thy medicine.” In a pandemic, that means comfort foods that transcend feelings of isolation and desolation.

For Anglophiles living near Washington, DC, there is an island of normalcy amidst the uncertainty of life under lockdown. A refuge where one can indulge in such quintessentially English delights as Cadbury’s eggs, McVities digestive biscuits and, of course, the eponymous pasty.

Most Americans are unfamiliar with that Cornish delight. Indeed, you have to be careful to pronounce your love for “PAST-eez” rather than “PAY-stees” or your neighbours will think that you frequent strip joints.

But the flaky handheld meat pie is a staple of British cuisine, earning mentions in Shakespeare. The version we eat today was popularised in the 19th Century in Cornwall, in the southwest of England, amongst labourers who appreciated the portability of this filling lunchtime treat.

So how did the Pure Pasty shop make its way to Vienna, Virginia?

Founder Mike Burgess, 58, says he suffered something like a midlife crisis when he quit his job in IT in his 40s. But while most middle-aged men buy a sports car or take up surfing, Burgess took every dime he had and decided to open a pasty shop across the sea.

Born in Nantwich, Chester, Burgess had heard from his mates that they could not find a pasty in the States to save their soul. Seeing a demand without a supply, he set out to learn how to make the perfect pasty with the same focus as someone venturing on a spiritual journey.

Rather than going to an ashram, Burgess went to Cornwall to learn the essence of the pasty. He continued to work on his technique, even using a local pub in Kent as a laboratory for his culinary creations.

He moved to the United States in 2009 and a year later opened his own shop, with the help of another ex-pat, Nicola Willis-Jones. From Yorkshire, Willis-Jones had once cooked for the Queen as a member of the Air Force but had relocated to the US and was longing for English cuisine.

Shortly before he opened, she rang him and offered her services. She was hired on the spot and he credits her for helping him developing the recipes and for perfecting the crust.

Since then, ex-pats and displaced Brits have flocked to the little shop in Vienna to get their fix of pasties and other English groceries, from British back bacon to Balson’s bangers to Branston’s pickles.

But Burgess would not truly earn the title of “perfect pasty” until he returned to Cornwall to compete in the World Pasty Championship – the Olympics of pasties. In 2018, he shocked the pasty world by winning the top prize – the first for an American pasty shop.

His win, in the open savoury category for his barbeque chicken pasty, caused an uproar over his unconventional use of the ingredient pineapple.

Many denounced the notion as wholly non-traditional, if not heretical. Making matters worse, a local shop had jokingly entered a pastry in the shape of a pineapple. In the ensuring hoopla over the “Hawaiian Pasty,” people assumed that the pineapple pastry was his winning pasty. He received tongue-in-check messages of possible riots and even a threat by one pasty aficionado to secede from Cornwall.

Pineapples aside, Burgess won again in 2019 again in the open savoury category. In 2020, it grabbed the silver medal with a near perfect score of 97 out of 100 points.

These days, Burgess worries about his family and friends back in England. He wants his fellow Brits to hold firm and to know that they will come through this together on both sides of the ocean.

In the meantime, he is committed to keeping the pasties flowing as his way to remaining unbowed to this virus.

With the chronic shortage of toilet paper and sanitisers due to panic buying, Burgess will not allow hoarding of pasties. He limits purchases to just eight per customer for curbside pickup.

Locked in a home with one’s children for a couple months, a supply of pasties is essential. Indeed, it should be listed under the Defense Production Act for pandemic necessities.

After all, pasties have long been featured in history’s most trying times. When Falstaff seeks to comfort weary travellers in The Merry Wives of Windsor, what does he offer with the ale “to drink down all unkindness”? Venison pasties, of course.

In our own unkind times, pasties serve the same Falstaffian function for all wanting a taste of normalcy.

As an American who fell in love with pasties and digestives when visiting England, The Pure Pasty converted my family faster than Beckham could bend it.

Returning with our precious load, the kids eagerly grabbed their favourite pasties from Leslie’s Moroccan Lamb to Madie’s Chicken Masala to Aidan’s Chicken Cordon Bleu to Jack’s Traditional Beef. We sat in reverential silence; each alone with his or her pasty panacea.

After all, there are some things that simply transcend words.

As Parolles stated in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, “if ye pinch me like a pasty, I can say no more”.

Jonathan Turley is a legal analyst for the BBC and the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University

P.S.: Here are some of the photos of the staff and shop of The Pure Pasty from Mike Burgess.

23 thoughts on “Stay Calm and Pasty On: How A Small Virginia Shop Is Keeping The Lifeline Of Cornish Pasties Flowing”

  1. I read this on the BBC app and loved your article. Being born in the Uk and living abroad for more than half of my life, I totally understand the euphoria of biting into a childhood delight from one’s roots. Even more rewarding and pleasing is the gratification of seeing a non-natal Brit eyes open wide with a “not bad at all” when having a taste of something we would drive miles for!
    Good on Burgess and the hundreds of passionate people who start living their real life!

  2. Not really a pastry fan. Tend more towards the salty. Now find me a baker who can whip up a multi-layer red velvet cake, real lattice crust peach pie or a coconut cream cake and I’m all in.

    1. I miss pastry. Gotta stay away from the carbs.

      Too much sugar in everything you named.

  3. Shameless Darren Smith, who is afraid of feedback probably, should stop writing here. Johnny Turtle should think hard before letting this idiot spew nonsense agan. It is amazing how good a job Jay Inslee has done. Compare that with the backup president who sat on his behind for 70 days doing nothing.

  4. OT: Darren is sick and tired of hearing from all of us, so he’s closed comments on his posts.

    The supply chain back ups are a major problem right now. If we can get protective equipment in everyone’s hands (and make it mandatory on subways and the like), people under 50 who do not have chronic respiratory problems or a compromised immune system might be able to return to work. People between 50 and 6t0 who do not have those problem and do not have a BMI over a certain thresh-hold might also return to work. We segregate the elderly and some of their housemates until the 1st phase blows over, and then re-segregate when the second wave arrives.

      1. Estovir – ambrosia is the nectar of the gods (liquid). Cuban Pastelitos de Guayaba is solid food. I do not think any of us has actually tasted ambrosia. 😉

  5. Instead of saying Corona virus, we should drop the Latin word and say crown virus.

    When you get the virus folks will say: There’s a crown on your head!

  6. Awesome. Good to hear of these guys checking into the realm beyond words and a bit of normalcy every day with these wild pasties. Good on them.

  7. Thank you, Prof. Turley, for the story. I’m actually going to place an order! I think they’ll ship to Texas…….we’ll see.
    The last time I was in Vienna Va was spring of 1972. Friends of mine were in the local theater’s production of The Mouse Trap.

  8. If large, open supermarkets aren’t making people sick why can’t small “Mom and Pop” businesses institute the same sanitizing procedures and be open?

    Keep the door locked, allow only one customer at a time. Would it be a major inconvenience to wait a minute or two for someone to come out so that you can go in? If there are a few people waiting then maintain social distancing.

    Spring-breakers notwithstanding, the people are smarter than the government gives them credit for.

  9. I think the word was spulled wrong. A “patsie” is kind of like a chump who adheres to a bad person.

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