REPOST: What is a pie barm? In Wigan, it’s a way of life (Guardian)

This is a repost from The Guardian and an article written by David Barnett. You can read the full and original article online by clicking here

Some years ago I brought an entire newsroom to a standstill. This wasn’t, sadly, due to any stunning journalistic achievement. I was simply having my lunch. And it was a pie barm.

I didn’t even know I’d done anything until I became aware of the slow draining away of the hubbub that typifies a local newspaper office at midday. I looked up from what I was doing – tapping at my keyboard with one hand, pie barm in the other – and realised everyone was staring at me. Then they began to leave their desks, to walk over to mine, until I was surrounded by uncomprehending faces. What, they wanted to know, was I eating?

I blinked and looked at the meat-and-potato pie sandwiched between a buttered white roll. It was just a pie barm. I looked behind me to see if there was someone eating something exotic and outrageous. But no. It was me. Me and my pie barm.

In that crowd was a young woman, perhaps the most stunned and nonplussed of all. Despite this … reader, she married me. And educated me in the ways of carbohydrates, calories and other such things. Not very much time passed before I stopped eating pies in barm cakes.

But when you’re from Wigan, you never really stop eating pies. You might be said to be resting, or in remission, or recovering. Eating pies is part of our DNA, our heritage, our birthright. And a pie barm – also fondly known as a Wigan Kebab – is the epitome of our gastronomic culture.

I hadn’t thought deeply about pie barms for a while until this week, when some wag – a scouser, obviously – posted on Twitter part of a press release from the takeaway company Hungry House, released to mark British Pie Week.

Among the many statistics was a “City Pie Off” chart, listing the favourite pie by town or city. London was top with, somewhat bizarrely, banoffee pie. Well, I suppose it goes well with the shandy. In at number four was Wigan with what Hungry House rightly termed “a regional classic”, the pie barm.

“What the f is a pie barm?!!” various people on Twitter asked. Well, let me explain.

Wigan folk have been called pie-eaters for almost a century. The story is that during the general strike of 1926, Wigan miners were the first to cave in and go back to work, meaning they had to eat humble pie and earned the sobriquet. I think that’s rubbish. We just like pies, and we always have done.

The default lunch (and that shows how middle-class I’ve become – in Wigan you have your dinner at noon and your tea at five) is always a pie. If taken at home, on a plate surrounded by a moat of Oxo. I imagine the pie barm was invented to facilitate eating a pie on the hoof. The barm cake – or bap, or roll, depending on where you’re from – not only provides adequate insulation for your hand against the heat of the pie, but serves to soak up any errant gravy or juice – without wasting a drop.

Pies are always fully encased in pastry, none of this slop with a crust only on top. They can be meat and potato or steak. If you’re vegetarian you can have a chicken pie, I suppose. You’re never more than 100 feet from a pie shop in Wigan. Every December, the World Pie Eating Championships are staged in Harry’s Bar on Wallgate, which has not been without controversy. In 2007 a competitor’s dog ate 20 of the pies the night before the event. In 2014 there was a supplier mix-up and the wrong-sized pies were delivered to the bar, with the competition pies instead going to a divorce party. The head of the championships went on Judge Rinder to get recompense, but lost.

Up in the north, we like to identify people by the food they eat. Thus, as mentioned, Liverpudlians are scousers, which is a type of stew. In Wigan’s neighbour, Leigh, people are “lobby gobblers”, because they eat lobbies, which is similar to scouse. God knows what they eat in Wigan’s big rugby league rival St Helens; babies, probably. But Wiganers will always be pie eaters.

How important are pies to Wigan? Listen, when I worked at the Wigan Evening Post I wrote a story about a fire breaking out at the Poole’s pie factory. It damaged the production equipment and they had to bring in emergency pie-makers to work through the night to ensure the pie shops had their deliveries on time. We splashed the story on the front page; I think we might have headlined it “Black Thursday” or something.

Not long after my pie barm lunch incident in the newsroom – and that was in Preston, only 20 miles up the road from Wigan – I moved over to Yorkshire, where you can’t get a decent meat-and-potato pie for love nor money. I might not even have thought about pie barms again, but for the flap on Twitter this week. And now I can’t get the wonderful old Wigan Kebab out of my head.

Even now the horrified mentions of pie barms are still scrolling up my Twitter feed. I hope I’ve been able to provide some answers. Now, do you want to talk about the delights of chips, pea wet and scratchings … ?

 

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