History of the Pasty
When one thinks of gifts from other cultures that carry with them great historical significance, one usually doesn't think of food. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan there is a food delicacy that has gone ethnic to multi-ethnic and finally to regional. To many people in the Upper Peninsula, the pasty is much more than food, it is an identifying cultural mark that gives them their own identity. While it is a source of great pride to this region, the pasty itself, especially its ancient history is shrouded in mystery.
The easiest way to describe a pasty, is a pot pie without the pot. Nobody knows for sure where and when the pasty originated. It's thought to have been invented when the preparation of food became an art rather than roasting a hunk of meat on a stick. The pasty came to the Upper Peninsula through Cornwall England. When tin mining started going bad in England during the 1800's the Cornish miners immigrated to America hoping to earn there fortunes in newly developing mines. No one knows for sure though whether the Cornish invented the pasty, or whether they picked it up from some other group. Mrs. R.F. Ellis of Cornwall insist that the Cornish invented it and that it is a diminutive of the star gazed pie, which is a type of pie baked with fish, such that the fish heads stick out of the pie. Others think the Vikings may have brought the pasty to the British Isles when they invaded. And another theory states that it may have been derived from the Italian "pasta", since the Cornish were considered to be great seamen.
Textually, the earliest known reference to the pasty contribute it to the Cornish. From 1150 to 1190 a man by the name of Chretien de Troyes wrote several Arthurian romances for the Countess of Champagne. In one of them, Eric and Enide, it mentions pasties: "Next Guivret opened a chest and took out two pasties. "my friend," says he, "now try a little of these cold pasties And you shall drink wine mixed with water...." " Both Guivret and Eric came from various parts of what today is considered Cornwall.
Pasties are also mentioned in the Robin Hood ballads of the 1300's "Bred on chese, butre and milk, pastees and flaunes." and "Thys knight swolewed, in throte noght pering/ More then doth a pastay in onen tryly!" The pasty was not unique to England by this time, a French Chronicler, Jean Froissart (1337-1414) wrote "with botelles of wyne trusses at their sadelles, and pastyes of samonde, troutes, and eyls, wrapped in towels" Today the French call the pasty, tourtiere. The pasty has even shown up in a William Shakespeare play. In the Merry Wives of Windsor (1600) "come, we have a hot pasty to dinner".
When the Cornish came to the copper mines of the Upper Peninsula, they brought with them a lot of mining knowledge which the other ethnic groups did not have. The other ethnic groups looked up to the Cornish and wanted to emulate their mining successes. Many Cornish practices were then copied by the other ethnic groups, including the pasty as the standard lunch for miners. The pasty became popular with these other ethnic groups because it was small, portable, was very filling, and could stay warm for 8-10 hours. Pasty rivalry occurred between the Finns, Swedes, Irish, Poles, Germans, Scots, Italians and French with each group contributing something in the way of seasoning and other ingredients. All groups agree that pasties must contain two things, potatoes and onions. The portability of the pasty not only made it easy to carry, but if it should get cold it would be relatively easy to heat up. This was done by putting the pasty on a shovel and holding it over a head-lamp candle. Miners never ate a pasty with a fork, they ate it end to end, and held it upright to keep the juices in. Since entire Cornish families worked in mines and each member of the family wanted different ingredients in the pasty, the Cornish wife would stamp the bottom corner of each pasty with an initial. According to the Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern, "The true Cornish way to eat a pasty is to hold it in the hand, and begin to bite it from the opposite end to the initial, so that, should any of it be uneaten, it may be consumed later by its rightful owner. And woe betide anyone who take's another person's corner!" There was a superstition among the Cornish miner's that the initial corner should not be eaten, instead it was dropped on the ground for the mining gremlins to eat. These "gremlins" caused mischief in mines, causing accidents and mine collapses, feeding them supposedly kept them out of trouble. There is some truth to this rumor, because the early Cornish tin mines had large amounts of arsenic, by not eating the corner which the miners held, they kept themselves from consuming large amounts of arsenic.
The pasty survived the collapse of mining because it became extremely popular with the major ethnic group to remain after the mines closed, the Fins. In 1864 a small wave of Fins came to the UP, well after the Cornish were established, when the big mining wave of Fins came 30 years later, they probably learned pasty making from the older Fins, not the Cornish. The pasty resembles the Finish foods, piiraat and kuuko, so when the new Fins saw their countrymen carrying it in a pail, they thought that it was the Fins who invented the pasty. Since there was a similar food in Finland, it was easier for the new Fins to adopt it. During Finish "ethnic" celebrations the pasty is often featured as a "Finnish" specialty.
The pasty remains relatively unchanged today, a few places have put in healthier vegetable shortening instead of lard, and a couple of other minor changes like the cut of meat used. It's importance in this area can be seen at local fund raisers for local groups and charities. Local food businesses make and sell anywhere from 50 to 100 pasties every day!