“Here’s to the pasty
The king of meat pies
They’re tasty and filling
And just the right size”
–Kitty Donohoe, “Ode to the Pasty”
“We ain’t having pasties this year.”
–Reuben Soady (Jeff Daniels) in “Escanaba in da Moonlight” (2001)
Signs can tell you a lot about a place.
All along U.S. Route 2 in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the signs just kept coming at a rapid clip, first at 10:45am and then, within minutes, faster and faster: 11:05am, 11:19am, 11:28am.
Pasties for sale
Fudge, Smoked Fish, Pasties
From Escanaba to Marquette, Ironwood to Iron Mountain, pasty sightings are a common occurrence in the UP, as ubiquitous as Sasquatch cutouts or Dollar General stores. It’s rare that a particular dish can be so strongly identified with a specific region, but up north in Michigan, pasties reign.
Signs mean something beyond mere signage. They are a type of identification, and often a badge of cultural connection, functioning as a short form of communication to outsiders. Pasties got me thinking about identity and how much identity, especially regional identity, often relies on tangible objects, even something as basic as food. Is what we eat who we are? Or who we want to be?
In Michigan, pasties followed us wherever we went. On an autumn weekday afternoon, we were driving north toward Paradise to see the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Whitefish Point when somehow we got turned around in the small town of Trout Lake. There was a fork in the road and we ended up going in a slightly southwesterly direction. We stopped in the tiny hamlet of Rexton, planning to ask for information at the Trailside Pitstop, a combination gas station and general store. And then we saw the sign. “Pasties.” And then another and even better sign: “Pasties and Beer.” Our hopes were dashed when we realized that the shop was closed—not for the season, just for the day.
For a few short years, Chicago had its very own pasty shop, the wonderful but now-closed Bridgeport Pasty at 3142 South Morgan. The husband-and-wife team of Jay Sebastian and Carrie Clark started out with a food truck before moving, in July 2013, into a brick-and-mortar space. Whenever the Bridgeport Pasty truck came downtown—on Thursday afternoons, if I remember correctly—I was there and usually ordered my favorite, the traditional pasty called the Yooper. At the time the word meant nothing to me. I didn’t even know what a Yooper was. (Yooper is, of course, a native or resident of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)
Nowadays, it’s difficult to find pasties at all in Chicago. Owen & Engine in Logan Square offers their version of a Cornish pasty for $16, although it is hardly traditional. It comes with piccalilli (a yellow-colored relish), chutney and greens. Pleasant House Pub in Pilsen offers savory pies (steak and ale, mushroom and kale and a vegan option) while Chiya Chai in Logan Square serves its version of an Indian savory pie. Like the pasty, the pies at Barangaroos Aussie Pies—there are locations in Lakeview, the Loop and the West Loop—are intended to be eaten by hand but since they are served piping hot and come with equally piping hot gravy, it can be, well, sloppy. When I bit into the flavorful crust, the gravy gushed down one side of my mouth, leaving such a mess that I had to request additional napkins. It tasted fine, but a pasty it was not.
The word “pasty” came up in a recent conversation I had with a former neighbor, Sandy, who is of Polish descent and has since moved to Michigan, and another neighbor who never heard of the word. “It’s like a pierogi,” explained Sandy, matter of factly.
Well, not quite, but I had to laugh.
True, other cultures have their own version of the pasty. Italy’s calzone is an oven-baked folded pizza that originated in Naples in the eighteenth century. In Spain and Latin America, empanadas are baked or fried turnovers consisting of meat, cheese and other fillings while the South Asian samosa is fried with savory fillings. The beef patty has a long history in Jamaica. It resembles the pasty in shape if not in ingredients since it tends to be spicier with curry powder and scotch bonnet peppers. My local Trader Joe’s has started selling frozen varieties of the Jamaican beef patty.
In Scotland, where I’m originally from, we have bridies, which consist of beef and onions in a puff pastry cased in a semicircular shape. Because the bridie originated in the Scottish town of Forfar, the community’s football club, the Loons, have a bridie, Baxter the Bridie, as their mascot.
What is a pasty, then? It is a portable, handheld meat pie originally from Cornwall. But over the decades it has become known as the signature dish of the UP, simply called the Michigan pasty, as iconic as the area’s famous natural beauty and its equally renowned Hemingway connections. To some residents, the pasty is the UP.
Pasty recipes have been passed down from generation to generation. Pasties are sold in shops and restaurants, in grocery stores, gas stations, mini-markets and hardware stores. They can be homemade, fresh or frozen. Nylund Pasty in Crystal Falls, for example, mass-produces pasties. Jack’s Fresh Market in Manistique sells frozen pasties as does Reynold’s Pasty Shop way down in Milwaukee. The national grocery-store chain Meijers sells the Quinnesec-based Pasty Oven pasties in some locations.
The pasty has been called the first fast food, the original fast food, the Yooper burrito, and even Yooper soul food. In the UP, it is served at weddings. Pasty sales also are popular at church functions and fundraisers, especially Methodist churches.
The pasty was intended to be a meal in itself but it was also more than just a meal. In “Cornish in Michigan,” UP historian Russell Magnaghi interviewed a local, George Holman, who grew up in a Cornish household. Saturdays were referred to as pasty days, because that’s when Holman’s mother typically made the dish. Young George would take the pasties, wrapped in a newspaper, to his father who worked in the Negaunee mines. Pasties were “the food of the gods,” he told Magnaghi. “My meat and bones are mostly pasties.”
The pasty also has been, rare among food items, the topic of a song. The Ann Arbor-based singer-songwriter Kitty Donohoe wrote “Ode to the Pasty,” a sweet and humorous homage to Michigan’s signature dish, more than thirty years ago. It appeared on her 1987 album “Bunyan and Banjoes: Songs of Michigan and the Great Lakes,” a collection of mostly original compositions that commemorated Michigan’s 150th anniversary as a state. As far as I know and with the possible exception of Robert Burns’ poem “Address to a Haggis,” Donohoe’s song (performed a cappella on the album, by the way), is one of the few songs written about a particular food.
Other places in the Midwest sell pasties. Mineral Point in southwestern Wisconsin not only serves pasties at the Red Rooster Cafe on its main street but also boasts a Cornish museum, Pendarvis, and hosts an annual Cornish festival in September. Traverse City has a bona fide Cornish restaurant, Cousin Jenny’s. Outside of the Midwest, the Cornish Pasty Company has locations in Arizona and Nevada, including Las Vegas. Even so, the pasty remains a staunchly regional dish.
The Michigan pasty can trace its origins back to Cornwall in England.
Cornwall is the peninsula on the southwestern coast of England that juts out into the sea. The Cornish were known for their mining skills. When the mining industry collapsed there in the early nineteenth century, many miners looked elsewhere. Demand rose for copper miners in the UP, especially in the Keweenaw Peninsula, but also in communities along the shore of Lake Superior. Letters back and forth from the New World to Cornwall encouraged other Cousin Jacks and Cousin Jennies, as the Cornish referred to themselves, to come over and start a new life in places like Houghton and Calumet or Ishpeming and Iron Mountain.
The Cornish also migrated to mining communities outside Michigan: to Butte, Montana and Grass Valley, California, to the copper mines of Arizona and Utah and the silver mines of Virginia City, Nevada. Wherever they went, they brought with them to their new homes their distinctive culture and foodways, including the Cornish pasty. And when later waves of immigrants from Finland and Italy came to Michigan, they also took up the Cornish pasty tradition, adding their own ethnic touches. (The Finnish, for example, tend to use rutabaga rather than the traditional carrots.) Eventually, the pasty became the unofficial state dish. In 1968, Governor George Romney (Mitt’s father), declared May 24 the first statewide Michigan Pasty Day.
The European Union granted the Cornish pasty protected status in 2011: that is, only pasties made in Cornwall could legally be called Cornish pasties. Pasties are so important to the Cornish economy that they even have their own association. According to the Cornish Pasty Association, at least 120 million Cornish pasties are made each year. Cornish pasty producers generate around £300 million ($367 million) worth annually.
Humor is an important character trait of the UP. Yoopers love making fun of themselves. And probably no place in the UP is as self-deprecating as Yooperland, which bills itself as Da Yoopers Tourist Trap. Located in Ishpeming, Yooperland is the Wall Drug of Michigan. The shop stocks everything Yooper: shirts, T-shirts, hoodies, stickers, coasters, novelty and gag items, and plenty of pasty gifts too: magnets, buttons, mugs, even pasty earrings.
The first thing you hear when you enter Yooperland is the sound of laughter. Yooperland promises an “authentic” Yooper experience. A big part of the experience revolves around crude humor (think outhouses, toilets and scatological references). Male briefs, for example, attached to a makeshift handle become, presto, a “Yooper briefcase.” “Da Yoopers,” a painting by local artist Kathrine Savu, depicts Yoopers at a deer camp. A hunter wears a goofy grin while two men lie on a set of bunk beds: the one on top seems to be snoring—and loudly at that. The other stares into space, perhaps unable to sleep because of his noisy companion. Scattered around the camp is a six-pack of Blatz (empty); a Lotto ticket; a dog, a pair of socks hanging from a clothesline, a Hills Bros. coffee container, milk of magnesia, beans, a boot, two cards, and a box of pasties. “Da Yoopers” plays up the region’s rural bumpkin persona and the natives’ simple tastes: Yoopers jokingly refer to a pasty and a six-pack of beer as fine dining, for example.
The day we came, several busloads of tourists were strolling the aisles. Some of them got the joke; others were clueless. Poker-faced Anna, standing by the cash register, took it all in stride. She told me later that her favorite part of running the shop “is meeting people from all over the world and listening to people laugh and giggle.” But locals like it too. “Since we’ve been here for thirty-one years, it’s cool to meet people who have been coming since they were a kid and are now bringing their kids.”
The UP consists of more than 16,000 square miles, or more than one-third of the state’s land mass but, with only 300,000 inhabitants, it contains a mere three percent of its population. The region borders Wisconsin on the southwest and is mostly surrounded by three of the Great Lakes: Superior, Michigan and Huron. For much of its existence, the residents have been separated from their fellow Michiganders to the south, allowing the time and space to develop their own distinctive culture and folkways. It wasn’t until 1957 that the Mackinac Bridge was completed, a five-mile suspension bridge connecting the UP with the Lower Peninsula (Yoopers refer to people who live “beneath” the bridge as “trolls”). A former Michigander from the Detroit area recalls that growing up, people in the lower half of the state had a somewhat negative perception of the UP “as in if you didn’t do well in school, you might be destined to attend college in the UP, as if exiled to the nether regions.” After decades of feeling neglected and ignored by residents of the Lower Peninsula—and peeved when the UP is left off maps and graphics, as often happens—resentment built and built, culminating in talk of secession. Separatists were also concerned that proposed environmental laws might pose an economic threat to the local economy. As recently as the mid-1970s, the movement seemed to be gaining steam only to eventually peter out. But it got far enough along for the supporters to come up with a new name for the proposed state: Superior.
The Yooper dialect, often referred to as “Yoopanese,” is fundamental to the region’s sense of identity. Words like “da” (“the”), “yah” (“yes”), and especially the all-purpose “eh” are part and parcel of the Yooper character. One of the most popular bumper stickers puts them all together: “Say yah to da U.P., eh!”
At Yooperland, I picked up a copy of the “Da Yoopers Glossary,” a small, sixteen-page pamphlet of Yooper words and slang. As it turns out, the word “Yooper” is of fairly recent vintage. In August 1979, the Escanaba Daily Press held a contest for readers to come up with a name for the UP although some reports indicate the first use of the word occurred a few years earlier, in 1975. Either way, Brett Crawford of Bark River submitted the word “Yooper” and won the contest. “Yooper” was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2014.
Michigan brewers also like the word. Although owned by Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo, Upper Hand Brewery in Escanaba makes a Yooper pale ale. “Yooper is pretty much a love letter to the Upper Peninsula,” says Alex Smith, senior graphic designer at Bell’s. “That’s why it’s [only] available to Yoopers and visitors who venture north of the bridge.” Smith’s design is a lovely homage to all things UP, Michigan and the Great Lakes: the wild waves of Lake Superior, the red navigational buoys, the Mackinac Bridge, a facsimile of the Michigan tartan (yes, Michigan has its own tartan), and, or so I thought, pasties, but Smith gently burst my pasty bubble by telling me they were not pasties but rather the big, black rocks “that stud the coast of Lake Superior.”
Pasty-making is a cottage industry in Michigan. The pasty has transcended its Cornish roots so much so that anyone can enjoy and make pasties. Antonio’s in Iron Mountain is a family-owned take-out restaurant that specializes in homemade pizza, pasta… and homemade pasties “freshly made every day.” Whether Cornish, Finnish, Italian or any other ethnic group, everyone and their mother (and father) in the UP seems to have a pasty recipe as part of their family tradition.
While it is clear Yoopers take pride in their pasties, perhaps no one feels more passionate about the subject than the Pasty Guy. In 2016, he created a website devoted to Michigan pasties when “I probably had a little too much free time,” he tells me. Since then, he has visited countless pasty shops and places in Michigan. He says he has “zero connection” with the local tourist industry although surmises they probably know of him and recognize his moniker.
The Pasty Guy website provides a list of pasty shops throughout Michigan, rates pasties, and even includes a self-guided Pasty Trail. When asked the number of pasty shops in the UP he guesstimates close to 200, including mini-marts, gas stations, and pasty shacks.
“Really?” I ask.
“There are so many back roads,” he says, as well as what he calls “little pockets of places.”
Since the pasty is such a regional dish, many misconceptions about it abound. One of them, he notes, is “that they’re boring and not very good.” Some Lower Peninsula residents, he suggests, think they are “overrated.”
But the most common and persistent error is the pronunciation of the word itself. It is not “paasty” and certainly has nothing to do with the coverings worn by strippers. Shopkeepers in the UP are used to it being butchered by visitors but that doesn’t mean they don’t cringe. When asked about it, a staffer at one of the gift shops on Marquette’s main street shrugged it off as if to say, “what can you do?” To avoid the irksome mispronunciation altogether, some pasty makers have started calling them “hand pies” instead.
Several pasty shops in the UP have been in business for decades; a few opened after the end of World War II. Among the oldest is Lawry’s, with locations in Ishpeming and Marquette. The original branch in Ishpeming opened in 1946. Lehto’s Pasties, in St. Ignace, opened a year later, in 1947. (There is also a downtown location in St. Ignace.)
Joe’s Pasty Shop in Ironwood opened in 1946 and sells both Cornish and Finnish-style pasties. Of more recent vintage, Muldoon’s in Munising opened in 1989. Alas, one of the longest-running pasty shops, Jean Kay’s Pasties in Marquette, closed last December after being in business for forty-seven years. After owner Brian Harsch made the announcement, the pasties flew off the shelves. The shop was named after Brian’s mother, Jean Kay Harsch. The business started as a small bakery in Iron Mountain in December 1975; the Marquette location opened a few years later in 1979 but it was the pasties (“just like Grandma used to make”) that Jean Kay was known for (she passed away in 2003). For Harsch, it was a personal decision to close. There is another Jean Kay’s location in Iron Mountain under different ownership that remains open.
Everyone has their own opinion on how to make a pasty. In much the same way that a stereotypical Chicagoan might refuse to put ketchup on a hot dog, there are debates and controversy among Michigan pasty eaters as to what goes into it and what goes on top of it. The traditional Michigan pasty consists of diced or ground beef, potatoes and onions. The addition of rutabagas or carrots can raise eyebrows in some circles. (In Cornwall, it is sacrilege to add carrots to a pasty.) Gravy on the side? How about ketchup? More controversy. Then there is the issue of whether the dough should be made with lard or suet and whether the crimp should be at the top or along the side.
Today there are pasties that can appeal to both pasty and non-pasty lovers alike. There are vegan pasties and gluten-free pasties. The Pasty Oven in Quinnesec offers traditional “pastys”—which is their preferred, and trademarked, spelling—with or without rutabaga, but they also serve unconventional choices such as chicken and cheese and pepperoni. Some shops and restaurants offer seasonal pasties such as pumpkin-pie pasties with whipped cream. Some pasties don’t even look like pasties. Lehto’s breaks with tradition with its log-shaped pasty while the pasty at Miners Pasty Kitchen in Munising is round and has the shape of the UP on its top. Irontown Pasties in Negaunee has chicken pot pie pasties and apple turnover mini-pasties as well as the singular Bierocks (ground beef, cabbage, jalapeno and banana peppers, cream cheese and spices that are soaked in beer overnight).
These may not be your parents’ pasties but experimentation allows pasty-shop owners to change with the times and adjust to changing tastes. Paradoxically, the pasty is both immutable and ever changing, even as it retains, at its core, its working-class roots. To Brett Crawford, the pasty is “the perfect food” as well as “one of the most healthy, delicious meals you can eat.”
Needless to say, the pasty looms large in Michigan popular culture. In addition to the array of tchotchkes already mentioned, you can find pasty buttons, pasty T-shirts, pasty magnets, pasty earrings, pasty Christmas ornaments, pasty mints (“cure for pasty breath”), and even fudge pasties. Regarding the latter, Sayklly’s Confectionery & Gifts in Escanaba makes delicious fudgie pasties, as they are called, which look like a pasty as well as the popular Yooper chocolate bars, made in the shape of the UP.
Da Yoopers, a musical and comedic troupe, was founded in 1986 (the Escanaba, Michigan, website refers to them—perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps not––as “the Beatles of the UP”) and they are still going strong. In 2001, Jeff Daniels starred in, wrote and directed his Yooper comedy, “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” based on his own play. The play premiered at Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre in his hometown of Chelsea, Michigan. The movie poster shows Daniels in stereotypical Yooper clothing: long johns and a hunter’s hat, called a “kromer” in Yooper talk.
Some communities host pasty celebrations. The village of Calumet in Houghton County holds a Pasty Fest each August. The festivities include a parade, a Coney Island-style pasty-eating contest, live animals, Finnish dancers (Houghton County is the epicenter of Finnish culture in the UP), and a pasty mascot. Tiny Calumet (population 600) is twinned with Camborne in Cornwall, a former mining town with a much larger population of 21,600.
Despite its popularity, the pasty industry has not been immune to the ravages of the pandemic. Like other employers in the restaurant industry, pasty-shop owners are confronting a challenging work environment. Finding workers has been a pervasive problem. A sign outside Dobber’s Pasties in Iron Mountain reads: “Most businesses in our area are extremely ‘short-staffed’ due to people not wanting to work. Please be considerate of those who made a choice to come to work today to serve you and earn their paychecks.” The word “choice” was highlighted in yellow. In the same town, the Pasty Oven was hiring (“part time/flexible!” “friendly/fun staff!” “competitive pay! $$$!”). Antonio’s in Iron Mountain was looking for pasty makers.
The pasty remains a potent symbol of the region. The pasty not only signifies local identity, it reinforces local identity and reminds area residents what makes them different.
The pasty is more than a simple meat pie. For many, it embodies what it means to be a Yooper. Crawford offers his own take on it. “I wouldn’t say that pasties give the UP a unique identity, I’d say that pasties are the UP. Pasties are literally rooted in the soil of the UP.”
In an increasingly conformist world, the unpretentious pasty stands apart. So next time you’re up north? Try one.
Gravy or ketchup optional.