As Michiganders, we put onions on hot dogs, olives on hamburgers, and snack on Polish donuts in February. But have you ever wondered why? In our Michigan Moments: Food series, we’re checking out the history behind iconic Michigan foods and beverages. This is the eighth article of the series. Look for a new one every Wednesday!
MICHIGAN — Though it may come as a surprise to you, food from the Midwest might be considered unusual by our coastal neighbors. Midwestern cooking often combines culinary traditions from our families’ immigrant backgrounds, locally grown and produced ingredients, and the foods of Indigenous tribes. And in Michigan especially, our home cookin’ includes provisions that were concocted, bottled, and packaged by mitten-state entrepreneurs. If you’re curious about the history of some of your favorite foods and beverages, read on to discover how Michigan history creates Michigan culture.
Cuisine of the Upper Peninsula is synonymous with the pasty (pronounced PASS-tee), which are folded pocket pies available at a variety of roadside Yooper pit stops. These handheld meals come packed with savory fillings, usually meats and/or vegetables—and only sometimes smothered in ketchup or gravy.
The pasty is also sometimes called the Cornish pasty, because its origins lie in Cornwall, England. The cuisine started as a cut of meat wrapped in pastry dough and eventually evolved to include a mix of potatoes, rutabagas, and onions. It was a popular, on-the-go meal for everyone from farmers to fishermen, but it was most common among miners in Cornwall’s tin mines.
The pasty came to the Michigan in the 1840s when Cornish miners immigrated to the Upper Peninsula for its developing mines and bountiful iron and copper deposits. And for nearly two centuries, those pasties have endured Up North as a traditional miners’ food. Different ethnic groups, though, had different ideas about the “best” way to make the pasty. Finnish immigrants substituted carrots for rutabaga—and the carrots-versus-rutabagas debate still continues among Yoopers today.
The pasties of today are still as traditional as the pasties of Michigan’s mining heyday, but other adaptations exist too. Nowadays, pasty makers now craft a wide assortment of variations with ingredients such as cheese, jalapeños, and even special pasties for breakfast or dessert.
Ready to try them for yourself? Check out blogger The Pasty Guy’s Pasty Trail.