The pasty has a long-standing tradition of nourishing people and community

The pasty, a traditional meat and vegetable pie, has sustained miners, families, tourist businesses and community life in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula since the 1860s.

The pasty is a generic term for a D-shaped pocket of pastry dough filled with meat and vegetables. The filling may consist of beef, pork, chicken or venison. Some controversy exists about what ingredients constitute an “authentic” pasty; however many pasty recipes suggest vegetables such as potato, carrot, onion, turnip or rutabaga. They are lightly seasoned and baked to retain a savory, chunky texture.

Pasties were popular in Cornwall, Great Britain where tin miners found the pasty to be a meal easily carried into the mines and eaten without cutlery. Cornish and Finnish immigrants settled in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) in the 1860s to mine copper and iron ore. The tradition of taking pasties down into the mines continued. At the turn of the century, Finnish immigration to upper Michigan increased and the pasty became associated with the Finnish culture of the U.P.

“The first pasties available outside the home were sold at church pasty sales which are still very popular today,” according to historian, Yvonne Lockwood. “The first commercial pasty shops appeared just before World War II. As far as we can ascertain, an Italian American entrepreneur in Hurley, Wisconsin (on the Michigan border) baked pasties in his kitchen, peddled them from bar to bar in the early morning hours. In about 1938, he opened a pasty shop. After the war, other shops appeared across the border in Ironwood.”

After the Mackinac Bridge linking Michigan’s lower and upper peninsulas opened in 1957, tourism became an important contributor to the U.P. economy. Numerous pasty stands developed and the pasty became synonymous with the U.P.

Consumer demand has resulted in the proliferation of pasty sales and fresh or frozen pasties can be purchased in many parts of the country. Through the fall and winter, pasties are sold on-line by companies such as Pasty Central. According to their website, “During the summer months, Pasty Central suspends on-line orders and express shipping to concentrate on local demand” generated by tourists.

Pasties have nurtured community pride across the U.P., especially in the town of Calumet located in the far north and west of the U.P. Every summer in late June, Calumet celebrates PastyFest. Local residents and tourists alike enjoy food (pasties, of course), games, music, crafters and a parade. This is an excellent example of how a community can capitalize on an historic food tradition and claim a reputation as a tourism destination.

Historian Lockwood again writes, “[The] Pasty has always been a link between generations and different groups. But since the 1960s it has emerged with new meaning as a public, regional symbol that recalls the past, speaks of the present, and implies the future. References[s] to its history, to its multiple ethnic associations, to its occupational and regional functions—as well as descriptions of its aesthetic effects—have bestowed new status on [the] pasty. Serving [the] pasty to outsiders is a conscious act intended to impress and persuade them about the good quality of U.P. life.”

Michigan State University Extension provides Community Food Systems educational programming and technical assistance.

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