Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Upper Peninsula Food: Whitefish & Pasties

Maine has its lobster. Louisiana claims Cajun cooking. And, Texas can go with barbeque or Tex-Mex foods. What’s Michigan got? I soon learned about Michigan cuisine on this venture to the Upper Peninsula on the Lake Superior shore. It amounts to whitefish and pasties.

In Sault Ste. Marie on the Michigan side of this Canadian/US city, we sampled whitefish at the “all you can eat” Friday dinner special offered by the VFW Post 3676. For $9 each, Ed and I filled our bellies with Lake Superior whitefish. Every Friday, VFW volunteers cook up over 500 pounds of whitefish. It’s served one way – fried. Don’t be confused like I was when our server Susan asked if I wanted “baked or fried.” She’s not referring to the options for the fish like at an Eat n’ Park back in Pittsburgh. She wants to know if you want your potato baked or served as French fries. Potatoes – baked or fried – fill the plate along with sides - small cups of sweet baked beans and cole slaw are included with the meal. Susan directed us to the beverage bar for our water or coffee. Another server watched over the homemade desserts to b e sure you only took one. I can understand why she policed the deserts. Each homemade choice – brownies, cherry cake, rich Devil’s food cake, and rice pudding with peaches and raisins tucked under a special sauce – tempted you to take more than one. As we returned to our table with drinks and desert, the whitefish came hot and fresh cooked from the VFW kitchen. Susan kept a watchful eye to be sure we had another serving of fish before the last morsel left our plate. Eventually, after two refills, we had to tell her to stop filling our plates. We could eat no more of this local delicacy.

Pasties – pronounced past ees – dates back to the Cornish immigrants who worked in the 19th century copper and iron mines. When men left for a day’s work, they stuffed these sandwiches in their pockets for a lunch later in the day. First, I inquired about a pasty at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum snack bar, the cook showed me one in wrapped cellophane. She offered to microwave it for 3 minutes and serve it to me, I passed. Two days later a road sign in Paradise, Michigan caught my eye. The toy windmills attached to the sign spun in the wind and the words invited me to buy the homemade breads, muffins and pasties. In a private home, in a basement kitchen, I bought an authentic pasty for $5. The pasty steamed from recently having come from the oven. “This is an authentic pasty. My mother-in-law taught me to bake this recipe before she died.” I believed her and handed over a rumpled bill. “Be sure to heat the gravy and eat the pasty smothered in it. It’s best that way.” She knew I’d never eaten a pasty. The pasty is a pie-like pastry crust folded over and filled with onions, rutabagas, potatoes, ground beef, and sausage. Was it good? Yes. Would I long for another? No, one was enough to be able to claim I tried this cultural specialty.

June 19, 2009

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