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June 29, 2018
Things Are Looking Up for Stargazy Pie

Stargazy pie is one of the most famously weird and gross foods in British cuisine. But it’s actually pretty good.

The Internet is full of quick dopamine fixes. You are in a sour mood. You watch a video of a baby goat jumping over other baby goats. You feel better.

For me personally, there is no rush quite like doing a Google image search for stargazy pie. Like many of history’s great savory pies, it’s British, with origins dating back to the 16th century. It’s comprised of a savory custard baked into a double piecrust, with a ring of whole sardines poking their angelic heads starward through the top crust.

You can’t really look at one without imagining a Busby Berkeley film re-created with fish. Instead of showgirls in sequined swimsuits, silvery little sardines cascade into a pool and create one spinning, kaleidoscopic star with their outstretched tails, while the band plays a swingy, romantic number.

According to local lore, documented in picture books and British magazines over the last hundred years, the pie came about when a local fisherman saved the Cornish town of Mousehole from starvation by hauling in an enormous net of fish in the middle of a storm. Everything he caught was baked into an enormous pie to feed the whole town. Early versions of the pie included a hodgepodge of different types of fish, but it eventually evolved to most commonly hinge on the pilchard (also known as the sardine), poking upward so that the flavorful fishy oils would drain out into the pie’s filling while it bakes.

Today, Mousehole still commemorates the fisherman every December with an annual festival called Tom Bowcock’s Eve. The town is decorated with illuminated pie decorations and sardine-shaped lanterns, and everyone eats stargazy pie by the scoopful.

I recently brought a homemade stargazy pie to a friend’s party. Usually I am the person who shows up at a party with a six-pack of beer and a bag of chips. Well, imagine everyone’s surprise when I showed up with a six-pack of beer and a bag of chips and a terrifying fish pie with seven pairs of eyes peering out.

If this sounds like a lot of effort to expend in order to incite a few shrieks, it really wasn’t. You can use pretty much any buttery pastry crust, and some recipes even suggest using store-bought puff pastry. Fresh sardines are easy to find at upscale fish markets like Citarella or the Lobster Place in New York (just make sure you ask your fishmonger to clean them for you). The filling is just a simple custard, flavored with sauteed onion, mustard, and a bit of parsley. Before setting down the top crust, you sprinkle some cooked bacon and chopped up hard-boiled eggs across the top. The salty bacon and mild custard balance out the fishy taste of the sardines, which cook into rich, flaky bites under the pie’s crispy crust. It’s a whole savory, filling meal built into one centerpiece.

Newspapers that should know better, like the Irish Examiner, have called stargazy pie “disgusting.” In 2002, The New York Times even went so far as to call it “nasty with unpredictability.” But the biggest surprise to me was that it actually tasted pretty good in the end.

Anna Hezel

Anna Hezel is the former senior editor of TASTE.