Posted by: trevormeers | July 13, 2011

Pasty-faced

Several years back, Terry Bradshaw starred in a commercial in which someone handed him a plate of sushi, and, in his best good ol’ boy, Bradshaw whispered, “Where I come from, they call this bait!”

After watching this, some snarky commentator wrote, “Where, exactly, would Bradshaw be from? Mars?”

When I saw the commercial, I said, “That’s my people.”

A typical pasty, captured in its native diner habitat. In this shot, the ritual ketchup bath has yet to take place.

My main social circle happens to be Midwesterners who happen to be conservative Christians who happen to be men. With only a few exceptions, that adds up to an ever-narrowing circle of culinary enlightenment, like multiplying the audience of Savuer to the negative third. When I carry casserole dishes into a church potluck, it’s with full awareness that adding onion is enough to raise suspicion that you just might be listening to NPR on the sly, too. Show up with something like sushi, and there’s going to be some whispering about whether you’re really the kind of person we want in the living nativity this year.

Naturally, this leaves me a little on the sketchy side of the potluck equation, since I like to consider the human palette a frontier worth exploring. When traveling, I try to avoid anything that came in a cardboard box from a distribution center or has a national advertising campaign. I look for foods that reflect something of the place I’m visiting. In most of America, that still leaves you deep within a safe boundary (unless you’re one of those folks who considers it unnecessarily exotic to eat any protein that didn’t once have four cloven hooves).

When you want a real pasty, this is the kind of place you're looking for. (Well, actually I'm not sure what other kind of place sells pasties.)

But there’s one place that equally serves the culinary traveler and meat-and-potatoes man: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The UP is the kind of place that makes me want to buy a pair of steel-toed boots, grow a mullet and talk wistfully about friends lost at sea as I stare out on Lake Superior. Yoopers, as they’re often called, are a pragmatic bunch that, I imagine, would sooner buy lunch for a good chainsaw repairman than a movie star. That means eating local here is fairly risk-free for those of narrow palette. The brightest star in this local food firmament is a handy meal-in-your-hand known as a pasty. (That’s PASS-tee, not PASTE-tee. You don’t want to go around telling people you’re a big fan of PASTE-tees.)

Pasties came to the UP from the United Kingdom’s Cornwall region, carried over by miners arriving to work copper mines booming around the turn of the 20th century. Pasties belong to the general taxonomic category Pocketus Sandwichus, which pops up in seemingly every culture in the form of things like calzones, pupusas and Runzas. Pasties consist of cubed potatoes, cubed beef and a variety of veggies like carrots and rutabaga, all tucked into a flaky crust. Miners stuffed them into their pockets each morning, then heated them up over fires in buckets for lunch.

Durable and hearty, they’re the ultimate working man’s sandwich. And Yoopers still consume untold baker’s trays of them each year, regardless of their activity level. Much like the country cookin’ that Midwest folk still enjoy even though they’re not working in fields for 12 straight hours, most pasties now probably just fuel the waistlines of folks who get a big assist from hydraulics at the job site.

Pasties and patriotism go together like peas and carrots.

But that’s not to say pasties don’t still have utilitarian value. They’re huge at deer camps, for example. I once called up a UP pasty shop to order a couple of dozen for a Christmas party at work (you’d have to know my office), and the lady told me, “Good thing you called today, eh. Next week, we’ll be all booked up with da deer camp orders.” A warm pasty makes a pretty decent hand-warmer in the pocket of a hunting coat, a trick translated as a warm Runza at Huskers games when I was growing up.

When my family rode along with me on a trip to the UP last month, we naturally made a couple of stops for pasties. A truly memorable pasty features a buttery crust that’s worth savoring all on its own. The inner ingredients stay on the dry side, even under the tutelage of a master baker. You usually don’t have to ask for a side lube of ketchup or gravy when you order. Everybody knows, and the condiments appear at the same time as your pasty.

But I don’t seek out pasty shops in the UP because I’m craving a somewhat dry lunch that will sit in my stomach like a miner’s boot. It’s about mystique and letting the locals lead the way and doing what it takes to fit in with people you respect. And that, after all, is why I rarely miss a church potluck, either.

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Responses

  1. so…shall we do sushi soon? That’s what I read between the lines.

  2. Oh, Brother, how I miss a potluck with you and Teri in the upper room! Many fond memories of Dave breaking into a cold sweat and pleading for someone to make it a law that everything have a label and ingredients list. And who could forget the evening filled with smoke during “blackened” night in Ceresco??!?!?! This blog had his name all over it. Just as an F.Y.I., our pastor calls it pot-sovereign 🙂

  3. Very entertaining blog. I especially appreciated instruction in the correct pronunciation of this culinary treat!


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