Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pasties on the Range

In 2003 my family made its first foray into the upper Great Lakes region of Northeast Minnesota and Michigan's Upper Peninsula (UP), beginning our long, continuing affair with the shorelines of the greatest lakes. Possibly the first sign welcoming us to the area hinted at "pasties ahead, 1 mile." Soon the byways were peppered with an assortment of sometimes shambolic roadhouses, neon "open" signs beckoning us to "Get your pasties here." My first thought was of tassels and cheap burlesque. But reality was in truth as tawdry as a senior's night checkers game at a nudist colony. We had stumbled upon a heritage dish, mining's contribution to the world's palate, the pasty (PASS-tee).

The pasty is perhaps the main raison d'être for an otherwise disrespected vegetable, the rutabaga. Other principal components of the standard pasty are beef, potato, onion and spices wrapped in a crimped pastry to form a semicircular pocket sandwich that is then baked to a golden brown. In the Upper Midwest, "spices" refers exclusively to salt and pepper. The pasty is right at home there. Its most scandalous aspect regionally is mild disagreement over the spelling of the singular item, some vendors preferring "pastie."

Variations on the standard pasty for the adventurous crowd might skip the beef altogether or include extra potato, and ketchup is an almost shameful side transaction not discussed between merchant and customer. Hoping no one will see, I've furtively grabbed a few courtesy packs of the condiment like a nervous youth in the prophylactic section of a drugstore. Gravy is a damnable abomination reserved for tourists.

A good pasty doesn't skimp on the stuffing. It is comfort food, meant to be digested in large amounts that fuel hard work or a long nap. And a full-sized pasty keeps its heat, perfect for a day out-of-doors when you can't get to a microwave.

The pasty is in mythological origin Cornish, a people so passionate about their bland fare they trademarked the term "Cornish Pasty" and drafted laborious regulations concerning its proper dimensions, geometry, ingredients, and the strength characteristics of its crust. But with the exhaustion of Cornwall's tin mines, the pasties' true progenitors expatriated their professional know-how and nutrition to far-flung mining districts of the world, and the true pasty is now more global mining culture than Cornish. Descendants of the bakers that remained would likely today scorn even the idea of a soulless, new mine rearranging quaint, local mining heritage landmarks.

Pasty shops are a lot more presentable in the tourist areas of the UP. A local miner probably wouldn't be caught in a "shoppe." And I've wondered how many of the same tourists who go out of the way to try a pasty on vacation would never touch one otherwise.

A sizeable migration of those Cornish miners to the UP in the late 19th century was coincident with the immigration of many Finnish people, who came for familiar weather and soon were working in the region's iron and copper mines. Finns are equally lost on a spice rack. But, a practical folk who know a good thing, they in turn exported the pasty to the nearby Mesabi Range of northern Minnesota, where pasties are partly emblematic of the local Finnish heritage and popular among iron miners there today.

Chewed food isn't the stuff of Good Housekeeping, but it's necessary to show the dense conglomeratic consistency of the filling. The ketchup might be considered sacrilege in the old country.

I was hooked, and I'm not even a Yooper. This small-town Negaunee shop is well-located at a busy intersection that caters to modern-day descendants of the area's first miners.

Janet Jackson and the 2004 Superbowl added some heat to an otherwise insipid dish, and the pasty enjoyed free publicity and a resurgence in interest by association. Now you can find "pasty" shops that offer derivations with apple sauce filling or jalapeño peppers, even gluten-free crust. All things change with time, but the traditional pasty remains--for now--humdrum but satisfying comfort food for generations of miners worldwide.

August 30, 2014