The snack with the fishy stare
A brief history of stargazy pie
Hello, Snackers. We’re all in the pie, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Also, thanks so much for all the nice comments, tweets, emails, and direct messages about last week’s very personal post on Sport Shakes and chronic illness. I genuinely appreciate the kind words and commiseration.
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And now, on to the pie.
The other day, Maren and the kids and I were at Trader Joe’s to buy snacks when some fish heads caught our attention.
Trader Joe’s has excellent snacks, by the way. Frozen deep-fried cauliflower, bite-size samosas, a dozen varieties of chips, gummi penguins with liquid guts (try not to think about the symbolism, just enjoy the sugar rush), peanut butter filled pretzel nuggets. The frozen chocolate croissants are also not too shabby if you can’t get the real thing from a bakery. It’s a hodgepodge of goods in that store, and all focus-group-tested to appeal to the maximum number of people, and I am absolutely a sucker for it all.
They also give out stickers to kids at the checkout. The young guy who was ringing us up pulled off a long strip of, like, forty of these things for my daughters. The stickers looked like this:
There are some fun visuals here: cereal posing as miniature bagels, a slice of cheese posing as a piece of cheesecake, mashed potatoes posing as vanilla ice cream with caramel/gravy on top. There’s a connection to Trader Joe’s products, specifically or in a sort of vague concept, in every little illustration—except one. Can you spot it?
The one with the fish and the pie.
During the car ride home, the kids tried to work out the jokes embedded in the drawings, and my wife and I helped them make sense of it all, but we got stuck on stargazy pie. Was that a pun we weren’t comprehending?
Naturally, I pulled out my phone and asked Google for some intel, which showed me this:
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Why is it real?!
First thought: Probably British. Probably has some legend.
Correct and correct.
Stargazy pie comes from a village in Cornwall, in the far southwest tip of England. The name of the village is Mousehole, which sounds like something out of a rollicking nursery rhyme from the 1700s.
Wikipedia says Mousehole has a population of 697 and looks like this:
It has a small harbor, perfect for a fleet of small boats catching small fish, enclosed by a wall that would be perfect for children to skip along while singing a rollicking nursery rhyme from the 1700s.
One of the things you’re likely to catch if you head out to sea from Mousehole is pilchards, which you might also know as sardines. Small, oily fish. These are the key ingredients in stargazy pie: whole pilchards, with some of them arranged so that their heads are poking out of the top crust, staring into the heavens, gazing at the stars.
The origin story goes like this: hundreds of years ago—some accounts say the 1500s, others put it at more like the early 1800s, but, you, back in the olden days—Mousehole was suffering from a long famine. The town was starving, suffering. As Christmas approached, there was little hope or joy, just dread and gloom, compounded by a day after day of winter storms that prevented the townsfolk from sailing out to catch fish and feed their families.
Things looked unbearably bleak until a man named Tom Bawcock (and, according to some versions of the tale, his cat, Mowser) bravely set out into the howling seas, his boat tossed by the waves, and somehow managed to bring in a bounty of seven different kinds of fish. Back on shore, the grateful residents of Mousehole celebrated by preparing a feast, including a new kind of pie invented on the spot, like contestants on some kind of disaster-zone version of Iron Chef. (“Your secret ingredient is … pilchards! Also, this is England, so we expect a meat pie.”)
The fish had saved the town, so it was fitting that they be on full display.
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There’s a second legend about stargazy pie, which is somehow even better than the first. Supposedly—and this was repeated in many different newspaper articles I found from the 1800s, so who am I to question them—this fishy dish helped stop the devil from coming to Cornwall.
Here’s one account, from Bristol’s Western Daily Press, in 1865:
Once again, I love this, because it implies that Satan has specific tastes in pie and is weirded out by certain dishes and just generally distrusts any place that has an abundance of food.
How do you stop the the devil? Take Beelzebub to Trader Joe’s and he will absolutely lose his mind at the abundance of choice and the possibility that the next big snack will be Crispy, Spicy Prince of Darkness Sticks.
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When you go looking for books that mention stargazy pie, you’ll find it primarily in two broad categories: British small-town cooking and “wow, that’s gross!” tomes full of “weird” foods.
So it’s worth yet another reminder that—as we’ve discussed many times in this newsletter, and as plenty of other writers have also noted at length—taste is subjective and one person’s delicious is another person’s disgusting. Jiayang Fan wrote an excellent piece on this conundrum, and the xenophobia that often accompanies it, in The New Yorker last year:
To be a new immigrant is to be trapped in a disgusting-food museum, confused by the unfamiliar and unsettled by the familiar-looking. The firm, crumbly white blocks that you mistake for tofu are called feta. The vanilla icing that tastes spoiled is served on top of potatoes and is called sour cream. At a certain point, the trickery of food starts to become mundane. Disgusting foods become regulars in the cafeteria, and at the dinner table.
Stargazy pie doesn’t sound appealing to me, honestly, but that’s fine. Not every food will ever be delicious to every person—that’s not the point, never has been. “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit,” the anthropologist Wade Davis once wrote, and that applies to food as much as to any other marker of a society, no matter how small. The world is not focus-group-approved place curated for your personal pleasure.
Besides which, even if a particular food isn’t your thing, there’s always a story to savor, and that is its own delight.
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Archival newspapers from the 1920s and 1930s are full of stories about Tom Bawcock’s Eve, on December 23, the annual festival commemorating Mousehole’s fisherman of myth. Most term it a “forgotten” celebration being slowly revived. There were pageants reenacting the events of the legend and live radio broadcasts, including one on the BBC, which featured two local men “discussing the fishing of today and yesterday against a background of singing”; another year, the show featured a group called the Mousehole singers.
By the 1980s, according to a 1995 story in The Telegraph, Tom Bawcock’s Eve was a popular event in town once again, or at least at the Ship Inn along the waterfront, where “hundreds of visitors” took part in a party with pie, songs, and plenty of beer. In 1989, a local woman named Anna Murphy put together a lantern procession outside, led by children, in an attempt to make Tom Bawcock’s Eve more of a family-friendly event, with greater involvement from the people who actually live in Mousehole. A year later, another area resident, Antonia Barber, wrote a children’s book called The Mousehole Cat, telling the story of Tom Bawcock and spreading it far beyond the village.
And so the legend continues to this day, along with various festivities.
Stargazy pie is on the menu at the Ship Inn just one night every year, Tom Bawcock’s Eve. They don’t make as many pies as they used to, because the local catch isn’t as robust as it once was, but there’s enough for anyone who wants to try a bit of this dish. It’s not for everyone, but it’s precisely that hyper-local appeal, and the story behind it, that makes it worth celebrating.
Here’s a video
Before you go
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— Doug Mack, Snack Fan
While our oldest son was in college, he brought home a classmate from Korea, studying here on scholarship. It was Thanksgiving weekend and we took Kurt with us to visit family in WI. My sister had planned a basic traditional meal: turkey, potatoes, veggies, rolls, and pie, etc. We had a great conversation with Kurt about traditions and why this particular food. (Of course our sons laughed uproariously when their Aunt asked Kurt how he celebrated Thanksgiving in Korea.) He ate sparingly, unused to most of the food with the exception of potatoes and some of the veggies. After dinner, we enjoyed several types of pies and had whipped cream for topping. Kurt opted out of pie. Later in the day, he returned several times to the kitchen and made himself a dessert of sorts using dinner rolls and whipping cream. It struck some as strange but really, hadn’t he created a cream puff of sorts?
I love this sentiment so much: "It’s not for everyone, but it’s precisely that hyper-local appeal, and the story behind it, that makes it worth celebrating." I'm biased, but I think seafood is a particularly interesting category of food to explore when traveling. Delicious (with caveats for personal preferences, of course), varied and with plenty of great stories.