The Pasty: Staple of the UP

After a few years of being in the Northern Wisconsin/ Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan area, I’ve grown to appreciate pastys. Anyone who has spent any time in or driven through the UP (or, da UP, to be contextual) is aware of the sweeping availability and popularity of pastys and pasty restaurants. During my childhood, my family often drove over the Mighty Mac to vacation in the UP on camping or fishing trips, and I’ve long associated Yoopers with pastys, along with duct tape and blaze orange. Little did I know, until my recent visit to The Pasty Oven, the pasty has more ancient origins than the UP.

The pasty (pronounced past-EEE) arrived in the UP with Cornish immigrants coming to work in the mines. In their homeland, the sturdy food was a staple for miners. Miner’s wives would pack meat, potatos, onions, and rudabaga into a thick crust and send them with their men to the mines. The pasty served several practical purposes: the dense crust protected the miners from the arsenic that may be on their hands from the tin mines. They would hold the pasty by the end of the crust as they ate and cast off the portion held by their hands when they had finished. Also, a hot pasty in the pocket served as a convenient hand-warmer on cold days.

The pasty is, in fact, the national dish of Cornwall, England. History tells that Cornish families used variations in pasty recipes as a means of telling their family story. References to the pasty include a letter from a baker to Jane

Seymour, third wife of Henry VIII, as well as Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well that Ends Well. The town of Great Yarmouth was bound by a charter approved by King Henry III to send 100 herrings baked in 24 pastys yearly to the sherriff of Norwich. Also, monks often lived exclusively on pastys.

The Cornish pasty found its way into verse in the 19th century through Robert Morton Nance’s The Merry Ballad of the Cornish Pasty:

When I view my Country o’er:
Of goodly things the plenteous store:
The Sea and Fish that swim therein
And underground the Copper and Tin:
Let all the World say what it can
Still I hold by the Cornishman,
And that one most especially
That first found out the Cornish Pastie.

I really recommend you read the rest of the ballad.

So the pasty is certainly the dish of Cornwall and cannot be pulled from that heritage. But it has become, indeed, the dish of the UP and now cannot be separated from that.  What other food can measure up to the masculinity of the pasty? What other dish is so sturdy, so hearty, and so palatable? I submit that there is none. Whether you are a miner, a fisherman, outdoorsman, or librarian, if you are a man, the pasty is for you. (And certainly, those of the fairer sex are welcome to partake of this hearty meal as well.)

And, of course, one is left to wonder, with Titangel in Cornwall being the most likely location of Camelot, whether pastys may have been a part of King Arthur’s diet.