Strange British Festivals: The World Custard Pie Championship

To prove that the pandemic is nothing to mess around with, the 2020 World Custard Pie Championship–like so many other non-essential events–was canceled.

But was the contest truly non-essential or was that just the decision of some self-serving, soulless sort with a scrub brush for a brain? Did they consider its obvious cultural, political, and academic importance? 

Ah, well, let’s not be too hard on self-serving, soulless scrub brushes. It’s been a rough year for everyone.

And it doesn’t matter anymore, because barring a major step backward in the U.K.–that’s pandemically speaking, of course–the competition will take place in 2021, so let’s learn what we can about the details, quick before it’s too late to enter. 

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, I think. In fact, I’m reasonably sure. Of course it’s a camellia. What else would it be? A snowmobile?

The World Custard Pie Championships fits nicely into the category of strange traditional festivals that England (or maybe that’s Britain) is so good at, even though this particular tradition is no older than fifty or so years. That makes it modern, at least by British history standards, but it’s a good enough imitation to fool my filing system. 

And if someone would help me sort out whether these festivals are a particularly British thing or a particularly English one, I’d be grateful. I’m sure it would help me understand the country better. Are people this strange in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland?

 

Origins, rules, & important stuff

The origins of most truly traditional traditions have been lost by now, but since this one’s a newcomer–a nontraditional tradition–we can document it: Coxheath, Kent, needed to raise money for a village hall and came up with the idea of inventing a tradition. Or at least that’s my interpretation. I’m reasonably sure no one put it that way when they were sitting around the pub figuring out what to do.

The pub’s also my interpretation. I’m convinced that these traditions all started in the pub. Even before pubs were invented.

How does the championship raise money? It costs £60 for a team to compete and £40 to set up a stall. Unless you’re selling food and drink, in which case that’ll be £80, thanks. If a town can keep its festival going for a few years and get itself some publicity, it’ll raise enough to buy a bucket of paint or three. 

By now the custard festival’s had enough publicity for teams to fly in from around the world. Or so the website says. They manage not to say how many teams have flown in. Two’s enough to justify a plural.

The rules are simple. Each team’s made up of four people and they line up and throw pies at someone–I assume it’s another team. Using their left hands. I’ll go out on a twig and guess that if you’re left handed you throw with your right. If you’re ambidextrous, you’re disqualified. If you’re amphibious, you can throw from under water, but it won’t be an advantage–at least not in terms of scoring. You’ll be a hit with the crowd, though.

Scoring? Your points depend on where your pie hits your opponent–six points for a pie in the face, three if it hits from the shoulder up, and one for any other body part. 

If you miss three times, you lose a point. 

The judges’ decisions are final. 

Throwing pies at the judges when you don’t like their decision is frowned upon, but they don’t say that for fear of putting the idea in some suggestible person’s empty little head. And yes, having to throw with your nondominant arm is a perfect excuse for not being good at it.

Unlike dwile flonking, you don’t have to be drunk to do this, but this being England (or should I say, “This being Britain”?), you’re more than welcome to show up dressed in something silly. Or as they put it in British, in fancy dress. Don’t wear anything you’re attached to, though, because by the end of the day everyone’s wearing custard.

And now the bad news: They don’t use real custard–it’s not the right consistency–and the formula for whatever they do use is a closely guarded secret. Presumably, neighboring towns are just dying to poach the festival and that’s all that stops them. The only ingredients they’ll admit to are flour and water. The Calendar Customs website recommends not eating whatever it is.

The contest’s usually held in May or June, but this year, with the number of vaccinated people going up and the number of Covid cases (“so far,” she said nervously) staying low, it’s been rescheduled for September 21. 

They’re expecting 2,000 pies to be thrown. The day begins around noon with a wet sponge competition for kids, who as any fool knows can’t be trusted with pies.

*

Some time ago Autolycus suggested that I might want to write about another great British tradition, rhubarb thrashing, and I did try, but I couldn’t find enough information to go on. Besides, it’s a perfectly sensible game where two people stand inside trash cans and whack at each other with rhubarb  sticks, and where’s the laugh in that?

Why more isn’t written about it remains a mystery. It’s one of those rare subjects where Lord Google offered me no more than a single page of links, most of which were to a kids’ program, the BBC’s mysteriously named Blue Peter, which decided many and many a year ago that this was what the kiddies needed to know.

Those kiddies have now grown into adults. If you want to know what’s wrong with the world, look no further.

I am, as always, grateful for people’s topic suggestions, even when I don’t end up writing about them. Some–like rhubarb thrashing–just don’t lead anywhere, but you never know. Some are glorious.

45 thoughts on “Strange British Festivals: The World Custard Pie Championship

  1. I guess custard pie throwing would come under English not British. The Kingdom, Principality and Province have more interesting things to throw and older festivals to celebrate. My aesthetic sensibilities would not allow me to take part in a competition that wasn’t real custard…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m with you on that. I was deeply disappointed.

      Thanks for the explanation. You’re sure, though, that England has more interesting things to throw? I’d have though it’s more a question of the willingness to throw them.

      Okay, I’ll never understand this place.

      Like

  2. We have the World Black Pudding Championships near here. You have to throw Lancashire black puddings at Yorkshire puddings to knock them over. We also have the World Pie-Eating Championships, which are always won by someone from Wigan, the world’s pie capital.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. If the main object is to throw a pie into someone else’s face, I suspect that the contents of said pie must be edible, otherwise there are going to be a lot of sick (at best) people around by the end of the contest. It might not taste nice, which is a different matter. On second thoughts, perhaps it tastes dreadful and that’s why people are told not to eat it. That’s still quite risky though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d trust them not to have everyone throwing something toxic, but if it doesn’t taste good I won’t play. I’ll just go sulk in my tent. If I have to get hit in the face with something that looks like custard, I want to find some joy in the experience. And I wouldn’t mind if they sliced bananas into it, thanks, and topped it with whipped cream, creating a banana cream pie. I suppose I should blame my research on the festival, but I’ve been practically hallucinating banana cream pies lately.

      Like

  4. Great stuff!
    Weirdly, None of my students rallied to form a team.. They weren’t too keen to try cheese-rolling and wake, either, but they did like comparing world custards.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The cheese rolling is–well, downright terrifying. I’m with them on not entering. But whatever engages their interest, right? I wouldn’t mind doing some comparative research on world custards. I’ve been getting lonely for a good banana cream pie, myself.

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      • Yes, they had many yummy things to say about world custards- (about 50% in other custard languages).
        Surely you’ve tried Banoffee pie!? omg, that’s now on my “to make this weekend” list.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-to-win-a-hollerin-contest

    Here’s a US tradition that’s already faded, unfortunately. I aspired for awhile, but under the impression it was just general hollering (like “Recess is over ! Get in here you kids ! “)
    Glad to see the British (English ?) are getting back to normal summertime traditions. We are now okayed to go maskless if we’ve had both shots. Not sure I won’t fudge for awhile anyway.
    Rhubarb has a unique smell when the stalks are cut (we had a rhubarb pacth on the farm) so rhubarb thrashing might turn into a real sensory experience.

    I have read that most film pie-fight pies are shaving cream. A real bummer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The hollerin’ sounds a lot like yodeling, although–well, I wasn’t there, so maybe I’ve got that wrong.

      I’m not convinced about going maskless at this point either, but I’ve got an article on it that I haven’t read yet, so maybe it’ll convince me.

      Like

  6. To answer an early question, there are certainly strange people in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as England. There are, of course, regional custard differences, though in recent years received custard has come to dominate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah. I’m beginning to understand. Once the pandemic ends, the only thing to do–obviously–is to take a custard tour of the country (assuming that the borders haven’t shrunk by then and I won’t need multiple visas). I could devote years to this.

      Like

  7. Nothing too mysterious about Blue Peter: it’s the marine sign flag for “ready to sail – all crew and passengers get on board “. The children’s TV programme started way back in the 50s with a title image of a ship in full sail, with said flag (presumably to suggest the programme would be a voyage of discovery). They still give out much-sought-after badges based on the ship design.

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_Peter_badge

    Liked by 1 person

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