I was standing at a bus stop in Brighton, England, hunching my shoulders against the wind and wondering which of my limbs would freeze and fall to the ground before the No. 25 bus made its next appearance. “You going to the match?” a wide-eyed man in a faded Brighton & Hove Albion F.C. hat asked. I nodded. “Follow me then,” he said. “I’m Bob.”
During the 20-minute ride to the AmEx Stadium, Bob told me that he was already nervous about England’s chances in the World Cup, and also that he felt like he played a part in Brighton’s recent promotion to the Premier League. “Last season, I started every match by taking a walk around the stadium – every single match – and, I’m not saying that’s what got us up, but…” he shrugged and locked eyes with me, until I acknowledged the connection. But mostly, Bob talked about pies.
Pies, like savory steak and kidney or the classic meat and potato, are big business at socce– um, football matches in England, and are a go-to match-day food for supporters of nearly every club, from the top of the Premier League to the bottom of the National League’s lowest tier of pros. In his book, The Game of Our Lives: The Meaning and Making of British Football, David Goldblatt quoted one major pie manufacturer as stating that at least 20% of supporters bought pies at a match; in 2014, he estimated that match-day pies were a £3-million-per-season business.
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No one really knows why pies and football are “are as inextricably connected as Hart to Hart” as football podcasters and NBC Sports personalities Men in Blazers once put it, but it’s a relationship that has flourished for more than a century. It could be as simple as the fact that a lot of those football fixtures are played in the fall and winter, and a hot pie in your hand or in your coat pocket is extra satisfying on a cold, wet Wednesday night in Stoke.
In addition to pies, the other foods on offer might vary slightly based on the club and the region you’re in, but most of them tend to fit into one of four major football food groups: 1. Pies; 2. Burgers, Hot Dogs and Thematically Similar Handhelds (I see you, sausage rolls); 3. Oversized Candy Bars; and 4. Bovril, a satisfying hot drink made from beef extract that tastes like you’re tongue-kissing a standing rib roast.
“The fellas I encountered and observed this week were all pie, dog and candy men, classic football ground food consumers,” writer and longtime football supporter Jeff Bogle said. The Philadelphia native just finished a 750-plus mile trip through England that included binging on five matches in five days and visits to some 20 football grounds. “I enjoyed the idea of a special turkey and cranberry Christmas Day Pie, and [Manchester United’s] Old Trafford had a special tonight of Cottage Pie. It’s neat that even within the narrow stadium food parameters and U.K. cultural norms there exists a bit of envelope pushing. Of course, that experimentation pales to American stadium sushi and lobster rolls.”
Bogle makes a good point because, if you’ve been to an NFL game, Premier League concourse foods will be confusing at best, underwhelming at worst. There are no Frosted Flakes-encrusted chicken breasts served on apple fritters, no bruise-purple pancakes filled with tater tots, and no 12-pound cheeseburger-stuffed cheeseburgers served on the hood of a Trans-Am. The menus don’t deviate far from the classics, and they don’t often change from season to season, other than an annual increase in the price of a pie (although the average cost is still under $5). There are high-dollar hospitality levels – famously derided as the “prawn sandwich” seats – with five-star meals at most Premier League clubs, but the majority of supporters are shifting their weight from foot to foot on freezing concrete concourses, hoping the best hot foods won’t sell out before they reach the cashier.
Also, unlike American football gamedays, there’s no tailgating before kickoff – unless you count cheerfully shoving fries into your face on the walk to the football ground – so you’re either standing in line for concessions, getting a pre-match bite at a pub or fish-and-chips shop (the humble chippy) or getting to-go grub from an on-the-way food stand.
Roger Bennett, the co-host of Men In Blazers, says it’s hard to pass up the Everpool Diner, for example, just outside Anfield Stadium in Liverpool. (Bennett is a lifelong supporter of Everton, Liverpool’s other football club, and the front half of that questionable portmanteau). “This place is the quintessential stop on Derby Day, as you head toward the ground fueled with liquid courage and realize, last minute, it might be wise to take in some solids,” he said. “Ignore all Yelp reviews and dive in. The cheeseburger is heaven [and] the service is peerless. Countless times, I have squeezed the ketchup directly from the bottle, missing my burger and instead squirting it directly down my pants leg.”
Back on the No. 25 bus, when Bob told me that there wasn’t a better match-day pie than the ones on offer at the AmEx, the woman sitting in front of him looked over her shoulder and said, “He’s right, you know.” They both excitedly told me the story of Piglets Pantry, a local piemaker that started in founder Joanna Hunter’s own home and out-pied the U.K.’s major pie players to become the official vendor for Brighton’s football club.
“In 2011, on a trip to the stadium to renew her son’s season ticket, [Hunter] spotted that the club was looking for a great local pie to serve to the fans,” Piglets Pantry client manager Louise Moore said. “After rustling up some samples in her kitchen, we beat over 100 – yes, really! – pie people in the U.K. and won several pie-offs to get the contract to hand-make 2,500 pies per game.”
In the past six years, Piglets Pantry has upped its production to 10,000 pies per game, has collected countless awards and is routinely recognized as serving the best pie in the Premier League. (In addition to Brighton, it provides small batch sustenance to eight other football clubs).
“In the 1980s at Goldstone, Brighton’s beloved former home, my granddad would always buy a hot pie to put in his pocket and a cup of Bovril to keep him warm. The smell of Bovril in the stands always brings a smile to my face as a nod to my granddad.”
Maybe Moore just provided the simplest explanation for why these traditions have persisted – and why they probably won’t change. Football supporters eat pies and drink beef juice because that’s what their parents and grandparents did and what they hope their children will do too. There are memories attached to those foods (or foods attached to those memories), whether they accompany crucial wins and hard-fought promotion or a string of disappointing losses.
“[The burger] is not the point,” Bennett explained. “You are freezing. It is warm. Grease is exactly what the doctor ordered. Breathe deeply, ingest the smell of spilled lager, piss, and police horse turd which surrounds the ground. Then stagger on to meet your fate as stoically as you just stared down the threat of botulism.”
I was ready to push through the turnstiles and wrap my mostly frozen fingers around a hot cup of Bovril when I heard someone shouting “Hey, American! Hey!” I turned around and saw Bob yelling from the top of a short staircase.
“Don’t forget about the pie!” he shouted through his cupped hands.
I nodded and waved, just before he turned the corner, starting one more walk around the stadium.