Few meals have roots as deep as the Cornish pasty, a hand-held meat-and-vegetable pie developed as a lunch for workers in the ancient English tin mining region of Cornwall. With its characteristic semicircular shape and an insulating crust that does double-duty as a handle, the humble pasty—which, perhaps unfortunately, rhymes with “nasty” rather than “tasty”—today receives special designation, along with Champagne and Parma ham, as a protected regional food by the European Union. In Michigan, where 19th-century Cornish immigrants brought the pasty into the iron mines of the Upper Peninsula, the pasty has been celebrated with local festivals and statewide proclamations.
The Cornish pasty descends from a broader family of medieval English meat pies. The earliest literary reference to pasties is likely from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Legal records from 13th-century Norwich describe pastry-makers accused of reheating three-day-old pasties for sale as fresh. In London, a 1350 regulation barred cooks—on pain of imprisonment—from charging more than a penny for putting a rabbit in a pasty. These pasties (and the alleged venison pasty 1660s London diarist Samuel Pepys suspected was actually beef) were little more than cuts of meat wrapped in pastry dough. By then the Cornish pasty—made from chipped beef, potatoes, swedes (rutabagas) and onions—had already taken its place in Cornwall’s regional cuisine.
The Cornish pasty was a food for families, fishermen and farmers, but it shone in the closed-in darkness of Cornwall’s mines. Tin had been gathered in Cornwall—first from rivers and then from ever-deeper pits and shafts—since prehistoric times. In ancient Europe, Cornish tin was likely traded via intermediaries with the Phoenicians, who controlled the Mediterranean trade of the metal. Mining continued throughout the Roman and medieval eras and into the early modern period. For Cornish men and boys heading underground, the pasty amounted to a highly efficient food: self-contained, self-insulated and packed with calories. The thick semicircular edge of the crust could be monogrammed with carved-dough initials or toothpick codes to make sure each man and boy took the right pasty as he headed to the mines. The ropelike crust had an additional virtue: miners’ hands were often covered with arsenic-laden dust, so the crust could function as a disposable handle.
The Cornish pasty arrived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.) in the 1840s, just a few years after Michigan’s present-day boundaries were carved out of the former Northwest Territory. Adventurers crossed the Straits of Mackinac to the isolated U.P. to prospect for minerals, discovering significant iron and copper deposits beneath the northern forests. Experienced miners from Cornwall immigrated to help develop the mines, bringing pasty-making with them. Although Cornish migration was soon supplanted by much larger waves of Finns and Italians, the pasty took hold as a traditional miners’ food.
In their seminal study of the Cornish pasty in Northern Michigan, folklorists William and Yvonne Lockwood describe how the pasty was adopted by Finnish and Italian miners, who looked to their Cornish supervisors for cues on how to behave in American culture. By the mid-20th century, the pasty was so firmly entrenched among all the Upper Peninsula’s ethnic groups that it was common to find locals who assumed that the pasty was of Finnish or even Italian origin. Each culture had their own take on the traditional recipe, with the Finns often controversially substituting carrots for the traditional rutabaga. Other locals emphasized the pasty’s true origins, referring to the dish as the “Cousin Jack mouth organ”—that is, a Cornishman’s harmonica.
After the 1957 Mackinac Bridge opened the Upper Peninsula for tourism from southern Michigan, the pasty shifted from being a food mainly cooked at home by U.P. locals (known as “Yoopers”) to one sold at restaurants to visitors from southern Michigan and beyond (playfully derided as “Fudgies” for their preferred dessert). In a moment of Yooper-Fudgie unity, Gov. George Romney declared May 24, 1968 to be the first statewide Michigan Pasty Day.
Today in Michigan and in Cornwall you can find pasties with all sorts of fillings, but since 2011 the European Union’s rules for what constitutes a true Cornish pasty have been much more restrictive: to be a Cornish pasty, you must have potato, swede, onion and beef, with the filling containing at least 25 percent vegetables and at least 12.5 percent meat. Most importantly, the pasty must be made in Cornwall. Cornish tradition, though, allows for a little more variety. A joke the Lockwoods heard repeated during their work in the U.P. says that “the devil never dared to cross the Tamar River from Devonshire to Cornwall for fear of the Cornish women’s habit of putting anything and everything into a pasty.”