Rachel Laudan

Do Emigrants Create National (or Regional) Cuisines?

I think in some cases emigrants do create national or regional cuisines. They create them in their new countries. And then they introduce them to their home countries.

Not always, of course.  But this pattern of back migration is one I’ve been thinking about recently because national cuisines are such a tricky issue.

Nations and their cuisines remind me of the story of the croquet match in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Alice has to play, croquet, supposedly a very proper game with strict rules, with the Queen of Hearts.  Since the mallets are flamingos, the balls are hedgehogs, and even the hoops are made of living playing cards, the rules are constantly subverted.

John Teniel’s illustration of Alice with a flamingo mallet and a hedgehog ball.

And nations and their cuisines are a bit like that. In the ideal story, nations are surrounded by nice clear borders, inhabited by a common people who share a history, a language, not to mention flags, stamps, airlines, football teams, and cuisines.

In fact, it’s hard to find a nation with boundaries fixed for all time, without a civil war in its history, without minorities who speak lots of different languages, and without a population that has an unfortunate habit, like Alice’s flamingos, of moving in and out of the field of play by moving back and forth across borders.

So where does the national (or regional) cuisine come from?  Consider the Cornish pasty, which I’ve been thinking and writing about on and off for the past couple of years.

Cornwall’s not a nation but a very distinct area of the British Isles, one of the Celtic areas, the southwestern peninsula that juts out into the north Atlantic.

Until a couple of hundred years ago, the people there spoke their own Celtic language, just like the Scots, the Welsh, the Irish, and the Bretons. Cut off from the rest of the British Isles as much by distance as by the River Tamar, It has its own distinct identity.  “By Tre, Pol and Pen, Ye Shall Know the Cornish Men,” I was taught growing up, referring to the Trethowans, Trelawneys, Tremaynes, Trevithicks, Polkinghornes, Polwheles, Penhaligons, Pentreaths,  Penruddocks and other Cornish last names and place names.

And the Cornish have their own signature dish, the Cornish pasty.  The Cornish pasty that I learned from my mother, who learned it from her Cornish relatives, looks like this.

Beef and potato pasty

A Cornish pasty

Beef is cut in tiny cubes, potato and turnip are whittled to small shards, onion chopped fine, and then mixed together with plenty of salt and pepper and a little water.

Cornish regional dish, the pasty

Vegetables ready for a Cornish pasty

They placed on circles of short crust pastry, enclosed by the folded and crimped dough, brushed with beaten egg, and baked in the oven.

Cornish regional dish, the pasty

Cornish pasty ready to fill

Corn Pasty crimped


And now it’s official. On the 20th July 2011 after a nine-year campaign by the fifty-member-strong trade organization, the Cornish Pasty Association based in Cornwall, the European Commission awarded the pasty Protected Geographical Indication. If the directive was followed, henceforth only pasties prepared in Cornwall could be called Cornish, and, although they did not have to be baked there, it was to be assumed that there were “strong links between pasty production and local suppliers of the ingredients.”

So what about all the other Cornish pasties around Britain and the world?   “Pastes,” the Spanish pronunciation, are made in Real del Monte about fifty miles north of Mexico City and Zacatecas three hundred miles further north.  They are sold in the hangar-sized Central del Norte bus station in Mexico City. They are the signature dish of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, subsequently adopted by other immigrants from Finland in particular, and now sold to homesick retirees in Florida. They are found in Butte, Montana, are the pride of Moonta and surrounding towns in South Australia, and appear in mining towns in South Africa, and possibly in Peru, Bolivia and Chile where they overlap with empanadas.

Since all these pasties have the same half-moon shape, since they are all filled with beef, potatoes, and other root vegetables, the simple story is that they were taken overseas by migrants.

And Cornish migrants there certainly were too. In the early years of the nineteenth century, they went to Mexico, Bolivia, and Peru and Spain itself. In the 1840s, Canada and the United States were the favored destinations, particularly the upper peninsula of Michigan.  In the 1860s, it was south Australia.  And in the 1880s and 1890s, South Africa became the primary destination. 

The reason they went was that the tin mines of Cornwall, worked since Roman times, were now so deep they were flooded.  In spite of investment in steam-driven pumps and other cutting edge technology, the mines could no longer compete with the new ones opening up around the world.  So the miners and engineers who were some of the best in the world took their skills with them and left. “A mine is a hole anywhere in the world with a Cornishman at the bottom,” the saying went. All in all, a quarter of a million emigrated in the last forty years of the nineteenth century.  It was not until after World War II that the population of Cornwall itself climbed again to the 350,000 it had been in the mid-nineteenth century.

With the miners and engineers went ministers, teachers, bakers and other tradespeople, and in some cases, wives. They sought a better life with time off to play football on the weekends, to march with their brass bands, and to eat the food they aspired to. They earned better wages than their relatives back in depressed Cornwall. Those in South Africa sent over a million pounds in remittances to impoverished Cornwall in the late nineteenth century. 

The problem is that the migration slowed at the end of the nineteenth century. with this simple story is that, in spite of determined research by proud Cornish and assertions by the Cornish pasty industry, there is no positive evidence that “the” Cornish pasty defined above existed prior to the 1920s and 30s. The first Cornish cookbook, which appeared in 1929, had multiple pasties all right: apple, broccoli, chicken, dates, bacon and eggs, jam, mackerel, mutton and parsley, pork, rabbit, rice and turnips, but only one with some unspecified meat and potatoes that bears any resemblance to ‘the’ Cornish pasty.

So, I ask, in an article that’s just been published in Petits Propos Culinaires, could it be that it was the wealthier overseas Cornish who created the fairly luxurious beef Cornish pasty?

And was it then popularized with their movements from one mining area to another and, frequently, back to Cornwall itself?

After all, Cornwall was not traditionally an area that ate wheat flour products. Its chilly wet climate was better suited to barley.  Nor was it a beef producing area but better suited to sheep.

Consider the Italian case. Here’s the distinguished food historian, Massimo Montanari, talking about the creation of Italian cuisine.

“It was in America that many southern peasants became “macaroni-eaters”.  . . thanks to the integration that occurred between domestic customs and the business of groceries and restaurants. It was in those communities . . . that an Italian style of eating arose, which in many cases preceded similar experiences in the home country.” (And I would add that this was true of Argentina and perhaps Brazil as well).

There are lots of examples, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, where emigrants moved to countries where they were able to enjoy a higher standard of living than in their home country.

That in turn meant that they were able to enjoy the kind of dishes formerly limited to the rich and wealthy and, as such, identified more with class than with the nation.

These emigrants were often mobile, traveling from one overseas destination to another, and back and forth to the home country.  We know very well that emigrants returning to their home countries like to show how they have made good.  And what better way than eating like the rich?  And then this becomes the expectation among their stay-at-home relatives as well.

Here are few more examples.

Japanese plantation workers in Hawaii counted on white rice and meat long before their families in Japan could afford such luxuries.

Japanese migrants in Brazil were responsible for introducing and marketing coffee to the Japanese in Japan in the early twentieth century. It’s now the national drink (not tea).

And what about Indians and Chinese in the nineteenth century?  Vietnamese and Filipinos today?

In short, what I want to argue is that we should beware of assuming that cuisines are created within national boundaries and then disseminated overseas.

And furthermore, I’d like to ask why only those who stay within national boundaries are allowed to call their food “Cornish” or “Italian?”

After all there are now 6 million Cornish descendants overseas, vastly more than are found in Cornwall itself.  Do they need to look to the decision of European bureaucrats promoted by business interests in Cornwall?


For more details and documentation, see my “From a Pasty in Cornwall to the Cornish Pasty,” Petits Propos Culinaires, 100 (2104), 140-148.

On the EU designation of the pasty. Wikipedia contributors, ‘Pasty’, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., 2012) <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Pasty&oldid=509852937> [accessed 14 September 2012].

On pasties in Michigan. Y. Lockwood & W. G. Lockwood, “Pasties in Michigan: Foodways, Interethnic Relations and Cultural Dynamics,”Creative Ethnicity, eds. Stephen Stern and John Allan Cicala. Logan: Utah State University Press. pp. 3-20.

‘The Cornish Pasty Presents: The First Printed CORNISH RECIPE BOOK’ [accessed 21 September 2012].

On the cuisine of Italians at home and abroad in the nineteenth century. Carol F. Helstosky, Garlic and Oil: Food and Politics in Italy, 1st edn (Berg Publishers, 2006); Hasia R. Diner, Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration (Harvard University Press, 2003), chap. 2 and 3; Samuel L. Baily, Immigrants in the Lands of Promise: Italians in Buenos Aires and New York City, 1870-1914 (Cornell University Press, 2004), chap. 1–4.

On the creation of Italian food. Massimo Montanari, Italian Identity in the Kitchen, or Food and the Nation. Trans Beth Archer Brombert (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 45.

On the Japanese and white rice. Rachel Laudan, The Food of Paradise Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996), p. 127.

On the Japanese and coffee. Merry White, Coffee LIfe in Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), 45-47.




Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

20 thoughts on “Do Emigrants Create National (or Regional) Cuisines?

  1. Gary Gillman

    Very interesting, and persuasive. I just did a quick search in Google Books for “Cornwall + pasty”, limited to the 19th century. One reference is to a labourer’s “pasty”, described as a turned-over “crust” filled with potato and a “little meat” (type not stated).

    Other pasty types are described as well with a broad range of ingredients, from conger to mackerel to turnip.

    I think you are probably right that the modern understanding of a Cornish pasty developed in emigre locations especially the U.S. As always, one would use less, or dispense with the starch element in favour of butcher’s meat. (By the way in Merry Wives of Windsor there is reference to a venison pasty, perhaps this was the gentry version). And cheap beef was a U.S. characteristic early on.

    Same thing I think with pastrami. The meat-laden sandwiches of New York lore surely did not exist in straightened Romania where most Jews lived in poverty or very modest circumstances. A little “pastrama” (aka pasturma and other variants) would have added relish to a starch-based diet. Pastrama is I understand still eaten in Romania but not in the American way and can be made with any type of meat.

    I would add to your catalogue of export pasties Rachel the Caribbean pasty, it is very similar to the Cornish one, at bottom. Probably the sailing connection explains it.

    A last example: the American burgoo aka burghul aka bulgar wheat. A British seaman’s gruel ends up as a meat-rich party dish – the communal origins – in Kentucky and a number of adjacent states. What sounds exotic at least, possibly indigenous in origin, proves to be English, as so much of the American food tradition. (Yet Kentucky burgoo does still retain its starchy base, which shows some things have a tenacious hold).


    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Gary,

      Thanks for the long and helpful comment. Venison pasty was very common in the eighteenth and nineteenth century among the upper classes. It appears to have been a very large, perhaps raised, pie, not a small handheld one at all. And it would have been unavailable to the working and even the middle classes since hunting was the prerogative of the large landowners. I’m sure you’re right about pastrami. And the Caribbean pasty is just one more of this vast range of savory pies that have been forgotten in America. Latin American empanadas are very similar.

  2. lambsearsandhoney

    Wow – great piece, Rachel, and pleased to see my home (South Australia) get a mention! I can’t help but agree with your final statements about who gets to nominate national dishes. On the Yorke Peninsula of South Australia, where the old mining towns of Kadina, Moonta and Wallaroo are situated, they hold a festival every 2 years called the Kernewek Lowender which is now the largest Cornish festival in the world. The region is known as “Little Cornwall” because of the immigration of thousands of Cornish miners and it is said that there are more people of Cornish heritage living in South Australia than there are in Cornwall. There are no prizes for guessing that Cornish pasties – both the baking and the eating of – take pride of place on the menu at this biennial festival.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Amanda, the south Australians should get together with the people in the mining towns in Hidalgo, Mexico who also have a festival that features the Cornish pasty.

  3. Sally

    Fascinating concept. Where my shop is in Peckham in South London most of the population is migrant, and some fascinating new food concepts are emerging. The most significant example of your article though is surely the hybrid recipes engendered by the slave trade. African recipes travelled to the Americas, were transformed (and in many cases improved) and then slowly travelled back to East Africa.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      These are Persian food concepts? I’d love to know more. And I’m a bit puzzled by the slave trade comment. These recipes traveled back to East Africa? or West Africa? And which recipes did you have in mind?

  4. Adam Balic

    Rachel – have you looked at the National Library of Australia TROVE site? Is very useful for searching newspaper texts:

    As you can see by the 1880’s there was a “Cornish Pastie” section in some Australia agricultural show competitive cooking. What is interesting is that there seems to be a clarification required for what is meant by a “Cornish Pastie” in Australia.

    Burra Record (SA : 1878 – 1954) Tuesday 20 July 1886 p 2 Article
    Sir— What is a Cornish pastv? Does it contains only meat, or meat and vegetables, or would a fruit pasty be considered a “Cornish pasty.” If you are not up in pastry please consult someone that is and let all interested in the coming “Cake Fair” as competitors start fair by knowing what they have to make. I am, Sir, &c, X.
    [We are informed that the crust must be made with beef suet and the contents must be meat and potatoes with turnips or onions ac-cording to taste. — Ed.]

  5. Andrew Fung

    Love the article Rachel. So interesting. I was told that the Cornish Pasty arose (shape at least) so tin miners could grasp the thick pleated edge when eating them and so avoid contaminating the rest with toxic mining residues. Is there any truth in this?

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      It’s a frequently told story. Being a generally skeptical person, I have my doubts about it (I assume they were wrapped in a piece of cloth). But I don’t have any direct evidence one way or the other.

  6. NiCk Trachet

    Hello Rachel.

    I was thinking “pizza” all the way through your post. It is certainly a typical exemple. In Italy I frequently heared American tourists complain: “Well, these italians certainly don’t know how to make a genuine …”pizza/insalata mista/spaghetti carbonara (pick any).

    There’s also a parallel with colonial dishes; The Dutch associate their “rijsttafel” with the Dutch Indies (now Indonesia) and the Belgians have their “moambe” which is not common in Congo. Then of course: the British “curries”…

  7. Rhizowen Radix

    Then there’s the small matter of saffron, which features in several Cornish recipes. Glad to see you got Cornwall’s climate about right – chilly and wet, certainly not ideal saffron growing country. I wonder when it started to appear in Cornish recipes? I’ve heard it was once cultivated near Bude, but knowing that area reasonably well, it hardly seems ideal.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Yes, indeed saffron. Though I don’t see it in any Cornish pasty recipes. I’ve no idea when it started to appear in recipes and I think that might well be hard to investigate. I agree about the far from ideal climate. Perhaps it was imported from East Anglia and the Bude venture was an effort at import substitution.

  8. Bob Lucky

    Hi, Rachel.

    Nick’s comments about pizza jarred my memory. In the 1970s the anthropologist Agehananda Bharati dubbed this process the Pizza Effect. Of course, it applies to cultural elements beyond food. I’m sure there are more technical terms, but this is certainly an easy way to think of it.

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Bob, So glad to see you popping up. I don’t know this anthropologist but will certainly look it up. And it is a great short name.

  9. Irish writer Mel Healy

    Hi Rachel,

    A lovely post with much food for thought. Re saffron growing in Cornwall, in the 18th and 19th centuries the region had a great export trade in saffron to Ireland. It was mainly used as a dye for our saffron tweed, but also for baking. Hence an old saffron cake called (in Irish) císte cróch, which was probably based on Cornwall’s legendary saffron cake.

    You might also want to check out the website of the town of Saffron Walden in Cornwall (the name is a bit of a giveaway) at http://www.visitsaffronwalden.gov.uk/books-souvenirs.htm – they mention a (presumably local) book on “The Saffron Crocus – History and Cookery”.

    – Mel

    1. Rachel Laudan Post author

      Hi Mel, first and foremost, I’ve subscribed to your blog (thanks for the mention) and ordered one of your books. And second, my, saffron is an expensive dye for tweed. And I look forward at some point to looking in to the issue of saffron cookery in Cornwall and in the British Isles more generally.

  10. Irish writer Mel Healy

    Hi Rachel,

    Thanks very much for that – I’ll be ordering your book too (I think I’ll go for the Kindle version), and have your blog on the RSS feed.

    Keep up the good work,

    – Mel

  11. Pingback: Should food names be protected? | not a glutton

%d bloggers like this: