Driving through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, you can’t miss the famous meat pies known as pasties. Born out of necessity, the savory little bundles are now a source of pride for Michiganders.
Like many regional American dishes, there’s a deeper history here than what’s on the surface. From Cornwall, England, to Copper Harbor, Michigan, folks have eaten pasties further back than you think.
Join us as we dig down into the fascinating history of the pasty.
Let’s check it out!
Are Pasties a Michigan Thing?
Stuffed with beef, rutabaga, potatoes, and onions, the pasty is the perfect hand-held meal for cold Michigan winters. And Michiganders are quick to correct mispronunciations of their state’s most famous dish. Even though it’s tasty, the word is pronounced pah-stee, and don’t you forget it.
The origin of this meat and vegetable hand pie doesn’t begin on the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan. To discover where the pasty comes from, we’ve got to go a little further, all the way to Cornwall, England. Miners there, as far back as the 13th century, carried pasties into the mines because they were filling and easy to eat.
Filled with cheap cuts of beef and root vegetables, pasties were an affordable option for hard-working folks. Centuries later, the pasty made the trip to the United States in the pockets of miners headed for the iron and copper mines of Michigan.
In the 1840s, there was an influx of northern European immigrants looking for a better life. As Finnish and Italian immigrants mixed with the Cornish miners, they adopted the pasty too. The popularity of the meat pie exploded, and by the early 20th century, pasties became Michigan’s most famous to-go meal.
What Do They Taste Like?
For such a popular meal, the taste of a pasty is surprisingly simple. Imagine a slightly bland beef stew encased in pastry dough, and you’ve got a pasty.
Pasties are traditionally made from ground beef, carrots, potatoes, and rutabagas. When it comes to seasoning, there isn’t anything special in the mix. Salt and pepper are traditional, but adding ketchup or gravy seems a necessity.
Purists stick with just salt and pepper and describe the taste as “filling.” Not a mouthwatering description, but it gets the job done. And remembering the working-class roots of the hand pie, you can’t blame it for stopping there. Miners needed something functional, and pasties fit the bill.
Pro Tip: Grab a Michigan pasty and head to one of these 7 Underrated Michigan Tourist Attractions.
Where Can You Try the Best Pasties in Michigan?
Crossing the Mackinac Bridge into the U.P. brings you right into the heart of pasty country. Billboards spring up like trees hawking the ever-present meat pie. With so many to choose from, we’ve got a short list of the best to help you.
If you stop at only one pasty shop in the U.P., you’ve got to make it Lehto’s Pasties. They’ve enjoyed being one of the most loved shops in Michigan since 1947. Mr. Lehto opened his pasty shop after he left the Army in 1946.
Since then, Lehto’s Pasties have enjoyed universal success, mainly because they still use the original recipe. Longer than most other pasties, Lehto’s have a uniform texture and are served with ketchup for free. Gravy is extra.
The original location is open seasonally, but their downtown location in St. Ignace is open every day of the week.
Muldoon’s Pasties and Gifts
Muldoon’s Pasties opened in 1989 to share the traditional Cornish meat pie with Michigan locals and tourists alike. Founders Dale and Sally Beckwith worked hard to establish their shop in Munising, Michigan, with a range of flavors and a gift shop. Beef, chicken, and veggie pies are complimented by a few dessert options like apple, blueberry, and cherry.
In 2001, Muldoon’s won the People’s Choice Award from the U.P. Tourism Conference. In 2011, Dale and Sally sold Muldoon’s, and the current owners continue the tradition today. They’re open seven days a week.
The Pasty Oven
In Quinnesec, Michigan, Gene Carollo shares his mother’s recipe with the world. The Pasty Oven is a large-scale producer with a family touch. After achieving local popularity with the family recipe, Carollo wanted to go further. So in 2000, Gene opened a wholesale plant in Wisconsin that allows the company to share mom’s recipe at scale. You can order online for delivery and get your pasty fix at home!
Now The Pasty Oven features several varieties, including the traditional (pork, beef, and onion), breakfast versions with sausage and cheese, and calzones.
They’re open Monday through Friday with varying hours and closed on weekends. Their restaurant also has truck and RV parking available.
What Is the Pasty Fest?
Regional food fests are hugely popular with tourists, and the U.P. pasty is no different. Each year in Calumet, Michigan, folks gather to celebrate the Cornish staple. Held annually in August, the Calumet Pasty Fest draws visitors from around the region for food and fun.
Some of the events feature the beloved meat pie, like the pasty bake-off and pasty eating contest. In the bake-off, competitors pit their family recipes against each other in traditional and non-traditional categories. Vendors are also onsite to satisfy your pasty cravings and offer arts and crafts.
Other events, like the antique car show, celebrate the culture of the region in a different way. So whether you’re there for the pasties or just to soak up some Yooper vibes, you’ll have a great time.
Pro Tip: Exploring Michigan on a budget? No problem! We found the 6 Best Free Camping Spots in Michigan.
Are These Michigan Meat Pies Better With Ketchup or Gravy?
For a food that’s been made the same since the 13th century, it’s no surprise that there’s some controversy. Pasty aficionados can’t agree on the best way to enjoy the crumbly-textured treat.
Closer to the Mackinac Bridge is where you’ll find the gravy purists. Beef-based pasties served with a rich beef gravy are the favorite in this area. Usually eaten with a knife and fork, the humble pasty takes on a bougie feel when eaten this way.
Further north, you’ll find pasties mainly served with ketchup, although gravy isn’t totally uncommon. Folks who prefer ketchup think that the tangy zip adds to the flavor of pasties. It’s easy to take a pasty with ketchup on the go. And up by Copper Harbor, you’ll only find ketchup offered.
Some shops are flexible and will serve pasties with both, but meat pie buyers beware. In the northern part of the U.P., you might get laughed out of the shop if you ask for gravy.
It all comes down to preference, especially if you make your own. So try it both ways and let us know your favorite.
A Meal in a Pastry Pocket
Comfort foods like pasties are the heartbeat of working-class communities. Filling and portable, the Cornish pasty in Michigan is a part of the culture. Small, large, beef, or chicken, they all have something unique to offer.
So head up to the U.P. for an authentic taste of America, and don’t let the trolls (lower Michiganders) keep you away. As the Yoopers like to think, it’s better up there!
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