This is a contentious issue among the pasty congnoscenti in Cornwall. When it comes to sealing your pie, should the seam run down the center of the thing, or along the side? Top crimp advocates maintain that if the seam isn’t running down the middle, above the filling, you lose too much of the gravy during baking. Side crimpers claim their method is more authentic, as the extra dough was once used for a “handle” by Cornish miners, so their dust-covered hands wouldn’t dirty their lunch. I’m not sure about that, since I’ve heard different stories from two different Cornish pasty makers, both of whose fathers worked in the tin mines. One told me her father and his fellow miners did indeed hold their pasty by the crimp when they ate — and they ate almost the whole thing, save for the dirty scrap that was left, which they cast aside for the knockers (more on them later). The other said her father didn’t eat much of the crust, since it got dirty on the outside no matter where you held it. Plus, because pasties tended to be very large by our current standards (a foot or more, because let’s face it, mining is hard work), the crust was usually very thick and tough. For this woman’s father, the crust was just the container, like a lunch pail. The real money was the filling, which he tipped up into his mouth after he’d chewed off one end. They’re both probably right, since I’m sure there were different customs in different parts of the county.
Personally, I’m not sure how much this debate matters, since it’s my guess that no matter where the miner (or the field worker, or day laborer, or sailor) held their pasty, the crusts of old weren’t very appetizing. Pies were like that. Once, people never ate pie crusts. They were gritty and hard as a rock, not much more than a baking vessel. It was only later, as flours got finer and bakers started adding things like sweet cream butter, that they got really interesting.
In my (modern) experience as a student in Devon, the different crimps usually provided an indication of what was inside. Top crimps tended to be traditional fillings like steak and potato, whereas side crimps were more often exotic fillings like mutton or curry. In other words, they had a completely different purpose than they once did: to provide information to a consumer with a choice. Personally, when I think of a traditional Cornish pasty, it’s top-crimped, if only because top crimping distinguishes a pasty from, say, and empanada, which is side crimped. A top crimp, to me, says Corwall. Which is why I like to do mine that way.