Some say our nation is the most divided it’s ever been with Republicans and Democrats seemingly not able to agree on anything. But regardless of one’s creed or political leanings — or even whether one happens to fall into the ketchup school or the gravy school — one thing that’s sure to bring everyone together in Butte is the little pocket of joy known as the pasty.
On Saturday, the Butte Chamber of Commerce and the National Center for Appropriate Technology hopes to bring people together by throwing what the center hopes to make an annual event: a pasty cooking competition.
The event, called Summer Sosten Fest & Great Pasty Throwdown, will feature food vendors, music, family-friendly activities, and more and is intended to draw attention to NCAT’s mission. Sosten, meanwhile, is the Cornish word for sustenance.
Started in the 1970s, NCAT is a national nonprofit focused on helping primarily small towns and rural communities find local solutions to economy-, food-, and energy-related issues.
With its headquarters in the former Silver Bow County Poor Farm Hospital on Continental Drive, the organization has a host of programs geared toward its sustainability-driven mission, including an annual electronics recycling drive and its yearly Butte Bloom Plant and Seeds Sale, which features locally grown plant starts and seeds.
In previous years, said Steven Thompson, the organization’s executive director, NCAT also hosted a sustainability fair.
Thompson has been with the organization for about six months, and he says, since he’s taken on his new role, he has wanted to reinstate the sustainability fair and somehow combine it with Butte Bloom.
Then it dawned on him: why not draw attention to the importance of buying local food by hosting a pasty festival?
“It sort of connects this idea of our heritage, what we’re really proud of, (and) what really makes Butte distinctive,” said Thompson of the festival. After all, “pasties are really a big part of the Butte story,” he said.
Indeed. Perhaps no other food, aside from the ubiquitous pork chop sandwich, is as culturally important in Butte as the pasty.
The dish has its origins in Cornwall, though one historian in Devon begs to differ, telling multiple media outlets in 2006 that the first written account of the pasty appeared in Devon and not in Cornwall. However, one person’s account is far from definitive.
Nonetheless, regardless of when or where the first pasty came into existence, it’s generally regarded as a Cornish dish consisting of meat and root vegetables.
It’s often said that the pasty has a long and storied history as a favorite among miners because of its durability. Miners purportedly ate crescent-shaped pasties, which allowed them to hold each end of the food pocket without getting the belly — or the precious contents inside — dirty with their fingers.
According to Thompson, lore has it that miners discarded the ends of their pasties by dropping them into the mines, which served as an offering to the Tommyknockers.
Believe it or not, there’s actually an organization that governs the sanctity of the pasty. Each year, the organization, the Cornish Pasty Association, hosts a world pasty championship. NCAT officials drew from a few of the association’s guidelines for the Butte cook-off.
About 22 entrants will compete Saturday. They’ll be competing in three categories: commercial pasties, traditional home-cooked pasties, and home-cooked “creative” pasties.
Creative cooks can go off the beaten path and draw inspiration from similar bread or dough-based pockets, like empanadas, Indian samosas, or Brazilian pastels.
Judging the pasties will be a panel of local “celebrities” that include county officials, members of the media, and economic development officials. One of the judges is an actual judge, Butte District Court Judge Robert Whelan.
The judges will be considering a number of variables, including the quality and appearance of the crust and interior.
“The pasty has to stand on its own,” said NCAT employee Heather Lingle of the requirements for the crust, noting that the pasty can’t fall apart when lifted.
In keeping with the organization’s mission, NCAT is requiring each contestant to use at least one Montana-made ingredient in his or her pasty, and they get bonus points if they use more.
The intent behind the rule is to expose cooks and festival-goers to local producers.
One of the tenets of buy-local movements, Thompson pointed out, is that creating local food saves energy and improves community resilience.
“We are really into supporting local business,” said Thompson. “That’s really a big part of what sustainability is all about.”