"By the shores of Gitche Gumee, by the shining Big-Sea-Water," Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in The Song of Hiawatha. We recalled that epic poem last October as we drove beside that same Big-Sea-Water—the Chippewa moniker for Lake Superior. We were wending our way up Michigan's Upper Peninsula on U.S. Highway 41 through a blaze of autumn leaves toward the highway's terminus at Copper Harbor.
Longfellow's Hiawatha came here to fast, but we had come to feast on the region's unique road foods. One sign that we were in the right place? The prevalence on myriad tavern and café menus of the Cornish pasty (pronounced PASS-tee). The emblematic regional food—an all-in-one meal of beef, potatoes, rutabagas, and onion that's baked inside a crimped half-circle pastry pocket—is a legacy of mid-19th-century British settlers who flocked here to work the iron and copper mines. While ore mining is history in these parts, locals remain fiercely loyal to pasties, which are far more common than even hamburgers.
Marquette's Crossroads Lounge sells a guaranteed one-pounder made of pork and beef, but we found ourselves nearby at Jean Kay's Pasties & Subs, a tiny eatery with just a few tables and a big take-out trade. Sitting there, we watched as one customer picked up $171.45 worth of pasties for his coworkers at a nearby auto mall, followed shortly by a woman who planned to ship a dozen to her homesick son in Mississippi.
The restaurant is named after Jean Kay Harsch, who opened a small bakery in Iron Mountain in 1975 with her husband and their son, Brian. The family sold that location in 1983, but Brian keeps his parents' traditions alive in the store he runs in Marquette. "We make our pasties the old-fashioned way—with suet," Brian explains. Given the pasty's origins as a portable lunch for miners, durability is a signal virtue, and the beef fat helps the crusts stay flaky.
Our next stop, just a mile and a half away, was Thill's Fish House, where we went to exalt in one of the best offerings of the Upper Peninsula: fresh fish. This waterside seafood market is family run; the first generation of Thills came to the area half a century ago, and various Thills have been supplying local restaurants with fresh fish ever since. Inside, it smelled deeply of smoke and brine, and on offer were handsome hunks of smoked lake trout, walleye, smelt, and whitefish, all of which just about melt on the tongue. If you can hold out, have the staffers wrap up some slices in white paper—they're perfect for a picnic or, in our case, a road trip.
Fish in the backseat, we headed west on 41 to the old mining town of Ishpeming for a visit to Lawry's Pasty Shop. The cinder block shack has a fluorescent No-Doz ambience, pour-your-own coffee, and a neon "open" sign that blinks on at 7 a.m. Traditional pasties, made using Madelyne Lawry's original recipe, are hefty hand-formed crescents of tender crust loaded with beef and vegetables reminiscent of a portable pot pie. A sign on the cash register admonishes: "It's Not PAY-STREE…It's Not PAY-STEES…IT'S PASS-TEE!!! YOOPER FOOD OF DA GODS!"
"Yooper," derived from U.P. (Upper Peninsula), is the local term for a full-time resident. It also describes the in-your-face bumpkin pride that pervades the region as you travel into the forestland of the Northwest. On the roadside in Ishpeming, a raffish enterprise named Da Yoopers Tourist Trap & Museum sports a sign that reads: "Welcome to Yooperland. Relax—Enjoy—Spend All Your Ca$h. But Please Don't Move up Here." Outdoor museum displays include the world's largest working rifle and a 23-foot-long chain saw. Inside you can buy a glossary of the "Yoopanese language" (e.g., No Hunting means "Shoot This Sign").
A visit is enough to rev you up for a big Yooper meal, and our next stop had us veering north along the Keweenaw Bay to a land that seems ever more remote and separate from the rest of the United States. Indeed, when we sat down at Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant in the town of Houghton, we really did wonder if everyone in the big bakery—café was speaking a foreign language. It took a few moments to recognize their tongue as English; Yooper English is a curious blend that sounds Finnish, German, and Canadian all at once, and it's especially strong northwest of Marquette.
In fact, there are more people of Finnish descent in the U.P. than anywhere else outside of Europe, so the Suomi menu's headline of "Tervetuloa! Welcome!" and its bilingual listings are hardly affectations. You can get familiar voileipiä (sandwiches) for lunch and rice pudding for jälkiruoka (dessert), but we recommend aamiainen (breakfast), served all day, for which braided nisu—or wheat—bread perfumed with cardamom is made into Finnish French toast, and pannukakku is the star attraction. The waiter described it as a Finnish pancake, but we found it to be more like a crustless egg custard pie—sweet, creamy, fundamental. One large cake is about a half-inch thick and is served in four-by-four-inch squares with a side of warm raspberry sauce.
One of the best tips we got on this trip came from a customer at Suomi who told us that his wife used to make nisu and saffron bread at home until they discovered Toni's Country Kitchen up in Laurium. What a find! As we entered the one-room diner, which buzzed with chatter, we looked left into a kitchen where bakers were rolling dough on a floured table and another woman was forearm-deep in a pan of ingredients, hand-mixing pasty filling. Toni's pasty is a beaut, its crust fine, light, and savory, the rutabaga and potato sliced wafer-thin, the hunky beef shot through with sweet onion flavor. For dessert, we munched on some lovely sticky buns and cinnamon-bread French toast, but the real knockout was the nut-rich povitica. The name for this babka-like loaf comes from the Croatian word for "swaddled" and indeed, swaddled by fluffy bread in each slice was a buttery swirl of cinnamon-walnut filling. It put run-of-the-mill cinnamon breads to shame, and we packed some to go.
Our goal as we headed ever northward and approached the end of Highway 41 was Jampot, a fairy-tale hut in the Eagle Harbor forest where monks of the Society of St. John make and sell breads, muffins, cookies, and jam. Simply stepping out of the car in the parking lot by Jampot can be a religious experience, thanks to the warm smells of baking bread and sourdough cakes filled with fruits marinated in wine and rum. We grabbed a banana-walnut bread packed with blueberries, a bag of molasses-rich gingerbread cookies, and a lemon-frosted pumpkin muffin, then drove to a nearby snacking spot overlooking beautiful Lake Medora, just five miles short of Copper Harbor. Gazing at the opposite shore, where autumn trees were perfectly mirrored on the blue waters, we were thankful our teachers had made us read all of that lengthy Song of Hiawatha. We thought of the last canto, of the lines that read:
Bright above him shone the
Level spread the lake before him;
From its bosom leaped the
Sparkling, flashing in the sunshine;
On its margin the great forest
Stood reflected in the water,
Every tree-top had its shadow,
Motionless beneath the water.
We saw no sturgeon, but otherwise, there we were with Hiawatha. Not so bad with a slice of povitica in hand.
900 County Road 480, Marquette; 906/249-8912.
Da Yoopers Tourist Trap & Museum
490 North Steel Street, Ishpeming; 800/628-9978.
6500 State Highway M26, Eagle Harbor; no phone.
Jean Kay's Pasties & Subs
1635 Presque Isle, Marquette; 906/228-5310.
Lawry's Pasty Shop
2381 U.S. 41, Ishpeming; 906/485-5589.
Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant
54 Huron Street, Houghton; 906/482-3220.
Thill's Fish House
250 East Main Street, Marquette; 906/226-9851.
Toni's Country Kitchen
79 Third Street, Laurium; 906/337-0611.