I eat my Cornish pasties with a fork and on a plate (generally, the largest one I can find), oven-crisped to a golden brown and flavored with a generous side of ketchup. But every time I bite into one of those flaky, whole meals in a crust, I’m transported a bit to a chillingly damp, upper Peninsula mine, to a picture of miners on a hard-earned break eating their pasties wrapped in the day’s newspaper, heated over a hiss of steam or candle on a headlamp.
I’ve never toted lunch into a mine myself, mind you. My first taste of pasty was in my grandparents’ cozy Michigan kitchen, that homey smell of baking pie crust accompanied by tales of the way my Cornish great-grandfather would head into Painesdale’s Champion no. 4 mine with that one filling reminder of home.
Pasties (pass-tees) were introduced to Michigan in the mid1800s by miners like the young Fred Jose, who came to Michigan at age 29 in the heart of the region’s massive copper boom, toting experience from a nation rich in tin mines, rocky cliffs, legends and practical comfort food. Literary references to a hot pocket-style dish of meat, potatoes and root vegetables in a crust date back to the Arthurian legends of 1100, Robin Hood stories of the 1300s and even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, completed in the year 1400. And if today’s vacationers are not necessarily writing ballads about the dish, they’re still eating plenty.
Toni’s Pasties in the old mining community of Laurium sells about 500 a day in mid-summer, sending some customers home with 30 or more at a time. It’s the same recipe calling for quality beef and wafer-thin slices of rutabaga and potato used when the restaurant opened 60 years ago, says current owner Eric Frimodig. And that the dish is so timeless is not surprising, says Michigan author and food historian Priscilla Massey, because it’s not just tasty; it’s as practical as a food comes.
“The Cornish called it Tiddy Oggie; they’d put them in a bucket, where they would stay warm with their coffee the whole day so they’d have a warm meal in those mines, which were horrible, dark, damp places,” says Massey.
For a particularly vivid picture of mine life, tour Quincy Mine in Hancock, where the reality of the chilling conditions starts with the blast of 45-degree air that hits you as your trolley rolls into the dark of the mine. Hazards of the miners’ routine require little imagination as guides shut out the lights and have you touch the wall and imagine feeling your way back to the entrance — often the only option since the mine was open for 50 years before getting electric lights.
Pasties are specifically mentioned via some whimsical-sounding but particularly practical superstitions, like a belief that the first corner of the pasty crust should be dropped on the floor for the mine’s “little people,” lest the tiny gremlins cause a mining accident — all too common at the time. The practice was actually lifesaving in Cornwall, our guide tells us, where arsenic from the mine might get on the hands, so it made sense to discard the potentially poisonous piece that a miner held.
Today, it’s just a fun way to give nod to the legends surrounding a food quite worthy of one.
This article originally appeared in the 2015 fall/winter issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
No portion of this article or magazine may be reproduced without prior written permission by the publisher.