The Cornish pasty is salvation in times of need. After 14 years in London, I have learned that this is a fact I can trust. This hot pocket of meat and root vegetables in flaky pastry is available all over town, usually from stalls in strategic locations at train stations and busy streets. You may not spend a lot of time thinking about the humble pasty—at first glance it doesn’t appear to be all that remarkable. But then one night you’ll find yourself rushing out of the pub to catch for the last Tube home when a Cornish pasty shop appears as if sent from above, and suddenly it’s your favorite thing in the whole world.
The best place to eat a Cornish pasty (that’s pronounced “pah-stee,” if you’re wondering) is on a sidewalk, approximately four steps away from where you bought it. The hot treat should be edged halfway out of the paper bag as you bite down into the crust, before some sort of satisfied eyeroll ensues—a pasty is rarely bought unless somewhat ravished. Then, as you hug the wall to avoid the rush of pedestrians knocking you over, you eagerly bite down once more, this time for a good chunk of the filling.
The Cornish pasty is also, in my opinion, the ultimate breakfast to grab at the airport. Most flights to London from the US will land very early in the morning, leaving you at an unavoidable disadvantage; your body still thinks it’s in California where it’s midnight, and that quarter cup of coffee and stale sandwich they give you the plane didn’t even touch the sides. I can usually manage to sleep on airplanes but it feels like work, as I wake up every hour to the awareness of being surrounded by hundreds of strangers as we’re hurling through the sky in a tin can.
It’s a strange experience, to be so grateful for the privilege that is flying while at the same time being so profoundly uncomfortable. So it’s usually an undignified mess that tumbles off the plane in London: tired, grumpy, and crumpled, stained by spilled coffee. The customs line at a major London airport is a harsh place anytime, but especially at 8 a.m., so my overwhelming needs are simple: a flat surface, in the dark, alone and undisturbed. But I still have to make it home, which means an hour on various trains in the aggressive company of London commuters. So it’s a feeling of unspeakable relief, every single time, that rushes over me when I remember there’s a Cornish pasty stand at the airport train station. Salvation is waiting in the form of starch, fat, and salt. In the moment when your needs are at their most basic there’s a pasty—the simplest of foods—to satisfy you.
So I step up to the stand—the one I’m talking about is at London Gatwick airport at the train terminal, just to the right as you’re approaching the ticket barriers. I’ll say “one large ‘traditional’ please,” and a pasty angel will reach into the heated glass case with a pair of tongs to get one, putting it into a paper bag and hand it to me, napkin on top. The first bite comes as I fumble for my Oyster travel card ahead of the ticket barriers, the second as the escalator takes me down to the platform. By the time the train arrives, all that’s left of the pasty is a greasy paper bag, and life seems a little more manageable.
Jessica Furseth is a journalist living in London, UK.