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SAVAGE: A Yooper vacation: How the pasty saved Michigan from invasion

• Oct 10, 2017 at 1:00 PM

After two years in Michigan, we finally made it to the Upper Peninsula last week. This story is about pasties, the handheld meat pie brought to the U.P. by Cornish miners.

After a leisurely sail across Lake Michigan in the stately SS Badger, the Great Lakes’ only remaining coal-powered passenger ship, we drove through eastern Wisconsin. Take the high ground, fellow Michiganders — you might see fall color, but it’s not one bit prettier than what you’ll find in your own Michigan backyard.

The Wisconsin cheese hat is a good idea, though. Perhaps we could appropriate a version of it for Michiganders — a big foam hat in the shape of a beer mug. We could call ourselves “lagerheads,” “brewheads,” “aleheads” or any one of the other many synonyms for beer. The voting is open.

With our goldendoodles Roses and Lucy in tow, we visited Pictured Rocks, Lake Superior and Tahquamenon Falls, all of which did not disappoint and were worth the trip. Lesser-known must-see stops include Lakenenland, a marvelous junk-iron sculpture park near Marquette, and a glass-bottom boat shipwreck tour in Munising. If you leave now, the weather should still be great.

Upper Peninsula residents have a solid and admirable regional identity, considering themselves Yoopers first and Michiganders second. And it’s no wonder: unaware of its vast iron and copper ore resources, Michigan once took the Upper Peninsula as a consolation prize, believing the area to be worthless.

The U.P. is a rich mix of cultures — French Canadian, Finnish, Swedish, Cornish and Italian — and they all contribute to the lovely fabric of the place.

One thing they all have in common is the pasty. Everyone loves pasties. So, of course, we knew we would, too.

Yoopers are genuine and friendly. I heard the term “Uff-da” straight out of someone’s mouth for the first time and saw tater tots on every menu. Camouflage clothing is always in style and appropriate for every occasion. Dress codes don’t exist and the people are warm and welcoming. What’s not to love?

But I digress. Back to the pasty.

Every region of our country has its version of the pasty. I have eaten burritos in California, Polish pirozhki in Chicago, the natchitoches meat pie of Louisiana, Mexican empanadas, and my personal favorite, German bierocks in the Midwest — all of which I have sorrowfully concluded have more flavor than the pasty.

We tried pasties in every town and for every meal, and I learned that Yoopers are insulted when you ask for mustard or hot sauce for their regional treasure. Apparently the four ingredients — rutabaga, potato, meat and onion — are a sacred and unalterable combination. I admire that kind of devotion and just wish it had some kick. While I have worked hard to become a Michigander, my taste buds still live in California.

The rutabaga in particular seems to be just a filler. It is a tasteless vegetable for sturdy people, bred to survive cold winters and hard times. Europeans considered it a sustenance of last resort, as it was often the only food to withstand their too-frequent famines.

In the British Isles, rutabagas have long been used to ward off evil spirits. Although I am not superstitious, I do believe they would ward off anything. After the nuclear apocalypse, only the rutabaga will survive. It is the cockroach of vegetables.

Napoleon Bonaparte said, “An army marches on its stomach.” I submit that the culinary inferiority of the pasty is the reason that Cornwall was so rarely invaded. In fact, prior to Cornwall’s annexation by England, the only people to invade Cornwall were the English themselves.

England has been invaded only twice in the past 200 years, both times by the Germans during World War II. Contrast this with Britain’s numerous neighbors, who have all been invaded multiple times, and it boils down to only one logical conclusion: the food. England has terrible food.

Contrast this with France and Italy, where the food is glorious and foreign armies were constantly storming the gates. If you were a general standing at the border and sniffing across, which country would you invade? The lands of boeuf bourguignon and bouillabaisse, of osso bucco and lasagna, of every delicious meal you can dream of, or the country of rutabaga pies? No brainer, that one. Israel also has a history of constant intruders at the border, because who doesn’t want a great knish?

Italy even invaded itself once, proving that those Italians know not to stray too far from home where great cuisine is concerned.

My theory is that the pasty singlehandedly protected Cornwall from invasion. If you think that’s far-fetched, note that since the Cornish arrived in the Upper Peninsula in the 1840s, Michigan has not been invaded once. Except by the zebra mussel, and it’s not here for the pasties. I rest my case.

Lake Superior whitefish is another thing altogether, a magical food whose uses and flavor far outweigh its lowly name. We ate it fresh, smoked, grilled, baked and pan fried, and never tired of the delicate taste and lovely texture.

Somewhere in the U.P. there is a bar that serves a whitefish martini, and when I find it, I’ll bundle up and head north once again.

— By Shari Savage, Tribune community columnist

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