Dining like Yoopers

I’ve no idea whether or not it’s actually true but, if you spend enough time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, somebody will eventually tell you that it’s part of the U.S. because Benjamin Franklin had heard rumors of vast copper and iron deposits there, and so he drove a hard bargain with France to make certain they belonged to the new country.

Certainly, it is believable that Franklin had heard rumors. America’s aboriginals were mining copper from hand-dug pits on the Keweenaw Peninsula more than two millennia before Gilgamesh was written, more than three millennia before the Assyrian city-state system collapsed and the Jewish tribe formed-up, about five millennia before Jesus’ preaching drew a crowd. And, archaeologists have shown, they traded copper and silver with tribes in what is now Central America. They worshiped on the edge of Lake Superior at the famous rock outcrop now known as Miner’s Castle, and made-up tales to explain the northern lights, millennia before an Akkadian stoneworker chiseled the tale of AtrahasisGenesis’ antecedent — into a slab of granite.

It wasn’t until the mid-1800s. though, that Boston financiers decided there was real money to be made in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and once they got going they earned obscene amounts of money. On January 1, 1900, more millionaires lived on what is now College Avenue, in Houghton, Michigan, than lived on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

As was then a commonplace, the mining companies imported labor from throughout Europe and, especially, because they had experience working in deep hard-rock mines, tin miners from Cornwall. That labor rented company-owned homes on company-owned land, and they bought their food from company-owned stores; they earned less than $3.00 per day, and raised families in homes no larger than small apartments. They arrived poor, heavily burdened by the contracts they signed in order to work in the Keweenaw’s mines, and they died poor.

They ate poor, too. The Cornish miners brought with them something known as a ‘pasty’ — past-ee — a very dry meat pie that a miner could wrap in paper and carry in his pocket. Basically, it’s a thin bread-like flour-and-water shell over the cheapest (therefore, toughest) meat they could find, minced very finely so that the small rubbery pieces could be chewed, and rutabagas, a cold-climate tuber also used as silage. The miners got up while it was still dark, put one or two pastys in his pocket, and worked until it was dark again — six days a week.

With one thing and another, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I got back to the Upper Peninsula. There was a bit more shopping in the two college towns, but otherwise it is as solitary and breathtakingly beautiful as it was 40-years ago. It is still possible to drive for hours without seeing another car … seeing nothing but pines and wildflowers and wild animals.

There is this, too: The lowly pasty, the almost inedible poor-people food, thanks to some genius marketer, has been transformed into an exotic regional cuisine. Seriously: every 4-stool diner has a sign out front bragging about its pastys. USA Today even surveys its readers for the identity of the best place to get a pasty.

A pasty embraces everything we love about sandwiches: a meal in portable form. Although you could argue it’s not technically a sandwich, it’s got meat (or veggies) surrounded by pie crust (bread-like, right?), and that’s good enough for us! In fact, it was named by Zagat as the state sandwich of Michigan. With historical ties to English miners who immigrated to Michigan in the 1800s, many ethnic groups in Michigan adopted the pasty as a quick meal in the Copper County copper mines. Michigan has so embraced the pasty that there is an Annual Pasty Fest in Calumet every June.

As I said, some marketer is a bona fide genius. We students knew the dining hall budget was on its last legs when pastys were on the menu, and we went and got a cheap burger and fries at one of the town bars.

The modern iteration of the pasty is made with a much better cut of meat, and more and tastier additions, like carrots, onions, potatoes, garlic, on and on. It is still very dry, though, and served with brown gravy on the side.

Well, ever since, I’ve been telling Dawn that she should be getting-up before the sun rises and making a pasty for me. My complaining has done no good whatever, but it entertains me and causes her no distress.

What do you know? After the past few years of marveling that the humble pasty is supposed to be something special, my son John and a buddy — Mike, who loves to cook — came over to the house and made pastys today. They were good, too; I”m planning to have the two extra ones for lunch tomorrow.

Well done.

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