A Tale of Two Michigans

A Troll explores the Upper Peninsula, one pasty at a time

Despite having lived in Michigan my whole life, I made it nearly 30 years before ever setting foot in the Upper Peninsula. Nevertheless, I was always aware of certain undeniable cultural differences between the two peninsulas.

I knew people from the U.P. are “Yoopers” while people from downstate are “Trolls” (because we’re “under the bridge”). We speak with different accents: a popular bumper sticker reads “Say yah to da U.P., eh!” I knew that given their proximity to Wisconsin, U.P. football fans are more likely to root for the Green Bay Packers than the Detroit Lions. And then, of course, there’s something of a regional U.P. delicacy — the pasty.

To clueless Trolls, the pasty (that’s “PAST-ee,”not “pastey”) is a baked dough pocket filled with a mix of ground beef, potatoes, carrots, and rutabaga (or “rutabeggie” as Yoopers like to say, as I will learn). It’s not that we don’t have pasties down here, but in the U.P., the pasty is something special.

That’s why I knew that my first pasty had to come from the U.P.

My first stop in the U.P. is at Wildwood’s Pasties outside of Brevort, not far from the bridge. The shop is presided over by Mark Spencer, a U.P. native and Navy vet who has owned the place for eight years.

During his 21-year career in the Navy, Spencer says he’s encountered pasties all over the country. “You find them anywhere there’s underground mines,” he says. “Then the loggers got a hold of it, and the Finnish added the rutabeggie, and a few other odds and ends.”

Spencer explains that to the miners, the appeal of the pasty was its portability. According to local lore, the folded dough creates a crust that a miner could presumably hold with dirty hands, and miners could reheat their pasties on a shovel over a flame.

Photographs by Joe Vaughn

The pasties arrive at our table in a few minutes. I pour the provided cup of gravy over the top of mine and dig in with a fork and knife. For what it’s worth, I decide that my first-ever pasty is good, the filling containing a flavorful mix of spices I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a hearty meal, and I can’t imagine eating it gracefully with my hands, especially with the gravy on top. After washing it down with a Vernors, I’m stuffed and ready to hit the road.

A few hours later we’re hungry again, and decide to stop in Munising, a city along the shore of Lake Superior, for our second pasty of the day. We stop at Muldoon’s, a storefront house notable not just for the sasquatch statue on its front lawn, but also for having the No. 1 pasty in the U.P. — at least according to a plaque from Marquette’s Mining Journal, the U.P.’s largest newspaper.

Despite the fact that it is mid-May, the weather feels more like November. Muldoon’s doesn’t have any indoor seating, so we take our pasties out to a picnic table on the porch. This time, I cover mine in ketchup, and cut into it. Muldoon’s crust is flakier, almost like a dessert, and pleasantly cuts in half with ease — though its filling is a bit more bland than Wildwood’s. It releases a little cloud of steam into the cold air.

Huddled outside on what is more than likely a statistically average Michigan day, I become acutely aware of the appeal of the pasty: It’s hot, it’s quick, it’s six bucks — and it’s very filling.

To better appreciate the pasty, we decide to head 365 feet underground.

We’re at the Quincy Mine. It’s a now-defunct copper mine in the U.P.’s northernmost Keweenaw Peninsula. Quincy was just one of many mines that cropped up during the U.P.’s 19th century mineral rush, but it was one of the most successful, earning it the nickname “Old Reliable.” In its heyday the mine’s No. 2 shaft was the world’s deepest, creating an ant farm-like network of some 300 miles of tunnels burrowing 9,260 feet down into the earth.

The mines attracted workers from all over the world working together to create something like upside-down tower of Babel, reaching not toward heaven but into the depths of hell. (At the deepest depths of a mine of that size, we’re told temperatures can reach the ungodly 92 degrees Fahrenheit, a combination of humidity, lithostatic pressure, and heat from the earth’s core.)

Notable to our story are the Cornish, or people from Cornwall, England: master miners who brought to the U.P. expertise dating back to the Bronze Age. They also brought the pasty.

Back then, the recipe was different: leaner on meat, with a crust made with a dollop of lard. The meal packed a hefty 5,000 calories, and the grueling work certainly called for every single one.

The Cornish system of mining was ruthlessly efficient. Miners weren’t paid an hourly wage, but paid based on production. The mining company provided the tools workers would need (steels, blasting powder, fuses, and candles) but with a catch: These items would be deducted from the miner’s pay at the end of the month.

Tom Wright, our tour guide, lights a candle to demonstrate. “Now, it is the 1850s,” he says. He flips a switch, turning off the tunnel’s electric lights. We nervously laugh as darkness surrounds us.

“Don’t forget, you’re paying for the candles, ultimately,” he says. “Kind of encourages you to be frugal, doesn’t it?”

Wright explains pre-Industrial Age mining methods: One man held a piece of steel while another used a 12-pound hammer to drive it into the rock — at a rate of about 40 whacks a minute, 10 hours a day, six days a week.. Two-man teams were often familial: father and son, uncle and nephew.

The tunnel is silent except for the sound of dripping water. Then Wright blows out the candle.

“Kind of hard to get any work done now, isn’t it?” he says. “You probably don’t want your buddy winding up on that 12-pound hammer.”

Miners with their lunch buckets pose in the man car, Quincy Mining Co. (Credit: Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections)

Despite the Yoopers’ near-unanimous love for pasties, they are no monolith. Informal polling reveals around half prefer ketchup as the condiment, while the other prefers gravy. Both sides think the other is wrong. (Some avoid the great debate altogether: Wright says he prefers “half a stick of butter melted over the top.”)

According to pasty connoisseurs, there are other details that can make or break a pasty. Owner Roy Nahri of Roy’s Pasties and Bakery in Houghton says his pasties are derived from his father’s award-winning recipe, using a combination of beef and pork for the meat filling. But the secret, he says, is in the perfect balance of seasonings.

“Anyone can put those ingredients together,” Nahri says. “But if you don’t have the right spices, it’s awful.” (While Roy’s serves a formidable standard pasty, they’ve also experimented with other varieties, such as veggie with cream cheese and turkey cranberry.)

For Brian Harsch of Jean Kay’s Pasties and Subs in Marquette, the magic is in the crust. Harsch uses his mother’s secret recipe, who in turn learned it from her mother. Harsch says he uses a European-style butter — not the traditional lard — mixed with beef suet. The result is a crust that looks and feels homemade. “Lard hardens everything up,” he says. “It’s great for pies, but for pasties, the jury’s out. Some people will yell and scream at me because I don’t use lard. But if you look at what a pasty is, the whole thing’s got to be edible.”

Harsch says the texture of the crust is the crux of the great gravy versus ketchup debate. “The gravy thing is a lower Michigan deal,” he says. “How that came about is a lot of bad pasties near the bridge. They were very dry. The only way they could control that is to throw gravy on them.” (Jean Kay’s serves their pasties with a signature housemade spicy jalapeno ketchup.)

Harsch says an increasing part of his business is exporting half-baked pasties to customers not just in the Lower Peninsula, but across the country and beyond: once people have one, they get hooked.

“We have our own culture here,” he says. “When you come to the U.P., it’s a culture you really don’t understand until you’re there.”

An oft-repeated local legend states at one time, the U.P. copper mining town of Calumet was once considered as a possible location Michigan’s state capital, losing out to Lansing by just one vote. The myth has been debunked (the vote happened in 1847, and Calumet didn’t exist until 1864), but it’s understandable why it has persisted.

At its peak at the turn of the century, “Copper Town” boasted 70,000 residents (then, Detroit had around 200,000). The mining industry would lose workers following the announcement of Henry Ford’s “$5 work day” in 1914, and copper mining would further decline into the 20th century, grinding to a halt in the early ’30s. Today, Calumet has a population of just 700.

A hot topic for many is the imminent closing of the Empire Mine in nearby Ishpeming, one of the U.P.’s last remaining iron ore mines. When the mine closes, some 400 union workers will be out of a job. “It’s going to be the next Flint,” a woman named Tara says over a beer at Marquette’s Blackrocks Brewery.

In a sense, it’s easy to see Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas as two sides of the same coin — both places have ridden the waves of the boom and bust of capitalism. But still, the differences remain. We ask people at the brewer’s bar what they think about Trolls.

“You guys are too busy,” a woman named Tara says. “You guys need to chill out.”

“A lot of people are kind of uppity. They think we’re uneducated bumpkins up here,” a woman named Sarah says. “I get really ticked about that.”

Given this cultural gulf, it’s perhaps unsurprising that at various points from 1858 to as recently as the 1970s, Yoopers have considered seceding and forming a new state—the so-called “State of Superior.” The proposal never really got any traction, and with good reason: with some 320,000 current-day residents, Superior would have the smallest population in the Union. (For perspective: Metro Detroit has four area codes. The entirety of the U.P. has just one.)

But can Yoopers be blamed for feeling left out? Sarah shows us a Facebook page that collects various modern-day maps in which the U.P. has been erroneously omitted from Michigan, and sometimes even from the entire U.S. On TV, you almost never see or hear anything about the U.P. unless it’s a Pure Michigan ad. And with “the Mitten,” what has become a cutesy shorthand for Michigan ignores the fact that there’s an entire other half of the state up there.

For Sue Manson, a native Marquette resident who lived in Detroit for a few years in the 1960s, the biggest difference between the two Michigans is that people from the U.P. look each other in the eyes, even if they’re strangers. “You go to a gate at an airport that’s eventually going to end up in Marquette, and you look all around because you think you’ll know someone,” she says. “We look for connections, and I think we find a lot of them because we look for them.”

We ask Manson for other “Yooper-isms,” and she winces. “You’ll hear it from me and not from many others, but I hate the term ‘Yooper,’ ” she says. “I find it very derogatory. ‘Yooper’ implies that you have a chainsaw and wear flannel.”

What about “Troll?” Is that supposed to be derogatory?

“No,” Manson says with a warm smile. “You’re under the bridge.”

That may be.

But no matter how different the two Michigans may be, the pasty is a shared state treasure for both Yoopers and Trolls — even if we can’t agree on gravy or ketchup.

Part of our 2016 Food Issue series on iconic Michigan dishes.