Dinner in the Upper Peninsula
Beef & Lamb Pasties with Ale Onion Gravy
The pasty is one of the most well-known and ubiquitous of UP food traditions - you can buy them at gas stations and corner markets, and in many restaurants. Pasties are handheld meat pies, with a definitive history. The tin and copper mining industries collapsed in Cornwall, UK just as copper and iron mining entered into a boom period in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Cornish miners brought their mining expertise to mining locations in the US - initially in Michigan and Wisconsin, and later to the western US - and along with that expertise, they brought their food traditions. The pasty evolved in Cornwall as a perfect miner’s lunch - hearty, warming, inexpensive, and portable. In the UP, pasties are typically only made with beef, but the lamb we’ve included is a nod to the Cornish origins of this beloved food. This pasty is a rustic mixture of lamb, beef, potatoes, rutabaga, carrots, peas, and onion - all wrapped in a flaky pastry dough that is braided along the rounded edge to create the perfect handle! We fully acknowledge that we’re dipping our toes into shark-infested waters by including a housemade gravy with your pasty… the pasty is a food that incites great debate over ingredients, condiments, and even the way the crust is crimped. If you want to see for yourself, just google “pasty debate” - but brace yourself for the fiery exchanges you’ll encounter. As the lower peninsula food lovers that we are, we think all of these options are delicious, but we also recognize that not everyone feels the same way. Feel free to ignore the gravy (it’s really good though!) and get yourself a big bowl of ketchup if you must! (Just this past summer, Governor Whitmer triggered an outpouring of public opinion by conducting a Twitter poll on this great condiment debate!) (Contains gluten, dairy, egg.)
Mushroom Barley Soup
As we wrote for Dinner on Saginaw Bay, there is a long tradition of duck hunting in Michigan. The inland lakes and swamps on autumn duck migration paths are a great source of food for Michigan hunters. For this soup, we simmered pearl barley and root vegetables in a housemade duck stock for a simple, yet rich bowl of warmth. Root vegetables (celery root and carrot in this case) feature heavily in UP cookery as they’re generally cold-hardy and filling. Barley is one of the oldest cultivated grains in the world (along with einkorn and emmer wheat), first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent region of Western Asia around 10,000 years ago. Its cultivation spread into Europe, and it was brought to America with the first colonists, who mainly raised it to produce beer. Michigan barley production declined dramatically in the 1980s, but the recent burst of interest in craft beer brewing has sparked a new interest in barley production. (Contains gluten, dairy in sour cream garnish only.)
Wild Game Chili
Long ago, the Upper Peninsula did not have much of a white-tailed deer population, as the environment was too densely wooded (with very little edible undergrowth) for deer to flourish. After the timber companies clearcut much of the UP during the late 1800s, though, the habitat became prime for the whitetails, and their population promptly exploded. Today, white-tailed deer hunting is both a sport and a source of food for many Michiganders (on both peninsulas). The Upper Peninsula (and the lower peninsula to a lesser degree) has a longstanding tradition of “deer camp,” when hunters head to prime deer-hunting locations for a week or two, often with a group of friends; the tradition is often the source of highly romanticized and nostalgic writing, and quite a bit of ridiculous humor (e.g., Jeff Daniels’ 2001 movie Escanaba in da Moonlight) poking fun at UP lore, traditions, slang, and dialect. Deer hunting is a pretty common pastime in the UP, and firearm deer hunting season opened on November 15. The meat in this chili is a combination of elk, venison, and beef. We’ve sourced the elk and venison from the venerable Country Smoke House in Almont, Michigan - we highly recommend them if you’re looking for Michigan-produced and processed meats! This chili combines the meat with chorizo sausage, black beans, a mixture of four different dried chiles, spices, dark molasses, and black coffee for incredible depth of flavor. (Contains dairy in cheese garnish only; no gluten.)
Celeriac Slaw with Tarragon Dijon Remoulade
More root vegetables! In this dish, we combine shredded celeriac, carrot, and celery with an herby remoulade for a light and crunchy side to complement the richer dishes in this menu. This is not a traditional UP recipe, but the root vegetables are certainly part of the cold-weather cooking repertoire of the UP. Celeriac (also called celery root) is the root of a variety of celery cultivated for its edible bulb, rather than its shoots. It has a celery-like flavor, but brings a distinctly earthy taste to dishes as well. It is native to the Mediterranean, but has spread widely because of its culinary versatility and long shelf life. (Contains egg, dairy, soy; no gluten, vegetarian.)
Cheddar Beer Bread
The Upper Peninsula has a disproportionate number of beer breweries - only 20 compared with the lower peninsula’s 350, but considering the population difference, the UP has one brewery per 15,000 people, while the lower peninsula has one brewery per 30,000 people. The beer in this recipe creates a light and fluffy roll, and the cheddar adds a salty, savory note. We’ve used Bell’s Amber from Bell’s Brewery in Kalamazoo for this recipe. Bell’s Brewery is Michigan’s oldest craft brewery, founded in 1983. (Contains gluten, dairy; vegetarian.)
Cherry and Riesling Poached Pears with Mascarpone Cream
Agriculture is one of the three most important industries in the UP (along with mining and tourism), but the climate is generally too harsh for most fruit crops. The unique combination of sandy glacial soils, lake-effect humidity, and hot summers/cold winters makes the northern and western regions (along Lake Michigan) of the lower peninsula ideal for fruit production. Apples are Michigan’s primary fruit product, but pears, cherries, and grapes are also grown with great success. The rolling topography of the Leelanau Peninsula and Old Mission Peninsula (just west and east of Traverse City, respectively) are especially famous for grape and wine production. For this autumnal dessert, we’ve poached pears in cherry juice and a sweet riesling from Chateau Grand Traverse winery on Old Mission Peninsula. A dollop of sweetened mascarpone cream makes this the perfect luscious ending to a Michigan meal! (Contains dairy; no gluten, vegetarian.)
Arbor Farms has a great selection of Michigan beers!
With over 350 unique breweries across two peninsulas and $7 billion in sales, Michigan is currently ranked 5th in the country in terms of breweries and microbreweries. In 1849 a German immigrant named Christoph Kustere opened the first brewery in the state - City Brewery in Grand Rapids (which was known as “Beer City” at the time). Prohibition decimated the flourishing industry, which remained stunted well through the 1980s. That all changed with the craft brewing revolution. Utilizing the German and British traditions, Michigan beer companies began experimenting with IPAs, stouts, different wheats and hops. Now you can walk into just about any grocery store and see a whole fridge full of Michigan-based beers. Brands like Short’s, Bell’s and Founders are even looking to expand internationally. This menu utilizes Bell’s Amber Ale for both the gravy and the beer bread (making it a great pairing for the menu), but any fuller-bodied beer would pair exceptionally well.
Bel Lago Red
Available at Arbor Farms
While most of us think of the American wine scene as being primarily driven by West-coast producers, the state of Michigan produces an incredible array of delicious and sophisticated cool-weather wines - its relatively nascent wine industry continues to grow in quality and reputation. The Bel Lago winery (which means “beautiful lake” in Italian) started in 1992 and grows an impressive array of grapes, over 100 vinifera and lambrusca varieties in total, on the Leelanau Peninsula, arguably one of Michigan’s best AVAs. While the region is primarily known for its riesling (like in our poached pears), Chardonnay, and Ice Wines (do try these!), the red blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and 12 other varieties pairs best with the pasties and wild game chili on this menu. This wine has notes of red cherries, raspberries, black pepper, and herbs and stands out as one of the best reds we’ve had from the region!
Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is veritably awash with legends and lore - stories of its history, its people, its wild forests and rivers, its wildlife, its spectacular coastlines, and its food. If you’ve never been to the Upper Peninsula (the UP), then you likely can’t fathom just how immense it is - it takes hours to drive from one city to another (sometimes without a single small town en route), and a full five-and-a-half hours to drive from historic Sault Ste. Marie at the eastern edge, to Copper Harbor on the northwestern tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The UP makes up 30% of Michigan’s landmass, but is home to only 3% of the state’s population. And those residents (Yoopers) are fiercely proud of their home; Yooper identity is tied to the land, and to a shared sentiment that no adult lives in the UP by accident - living there requires independence and stoicism, and a conscious choice of the Yooper lifestyle.
The UP is surrounded by the three largest of the five Great Lakes - Lake Huron to the southeast, Lake Michigan to the south, and Lake Superior to the north. Its only connection to the lower peninsula of Michigan (you know - The Mitten!) is the Mackinac Bridge, which opened to traffic in 1957. Prior to that, the only way to reach the UP was by ferry. The UP does share a land border with Wisconsin, and there is a common misconception that it should be (or was at some point) part of Wisconsin. In fact, when Michigan was granted statehood in 1837, the Territory of Wisconsin was still a decade from reaching the population numbers required for statehood. The UP was never part of Wisconsin, though prior to its inclusion in Michigan, it was alternately claimed by the French, the Canadians, and the British. While the UP is part of Michigan, many Yoopers feel a cultural divide from the Lower Peninsula, so much so that throughout the state’s history, there have been multiple proposals (some serious, some less so) for the UP to secede from Michigan and become a 51st state, named the state of Superior (the name is partly a reference to Lake Superior, and partly a nod to the aforementioned Yooper pride).
As we described for Dinner on Saginaw Bay, most of what is now Michigan (both peninsulas) was occupied by Native American tribes of the Anishinaabe cultural group, which includes the Ojibwe (Chippewa), Ottawa, and Potawatomi, along with several other tribes outside of Michigan. The first Europeans to enter what is now Michigan were French fur traders and missionaries, who crossed the St. Mary’s River from Canada and established Sault Ste. Marie (est. 1668), the oldest city in Michigan. The Anishinaabeg of the Upper Peninsula had largely amicable relationships with the French, but tense and often violent interactions with the British, who followed the French into the area. In 1805, the Territory of Michigan was established as part of the United States of America, and Michigan was granted statehood in 1837. Very shortly thereafter, copper ore was discovered on the Keweenaw Peninsula, along with iron ore in the central Upper Peninsula, and a mining boom ensued - ultimately producing more mineral wealth than the California Gold Rush. Immigrants flocked to the remote peninsula, bringing their traditions and food with them. Between the mid-1800s and the early 1900s, there were waves of Cornish, German, Italian, Irish, Finnish, Scandinavian, Polish, Russian, and Chinese immigrants. By 1915, over 75% of the population was foreign-born, and many of these immigrant populations left strong impressions upon what is now considered Yooper culture - the language, the food, and the identity of the people of the UP. The mining industry waned, and the timber industry gained strength, continuing to bolster the 20th century prosperity of the area. Ultimately, though, the extractive nature of these industries meant that the ore, the pine, and the hardwood became less plentiful, and the population began to decline. Today, tourism, along with ongoing mining and agriculture, accounts for a large portion of the Upper Peninsula’s GDP.
The spectacular wild beauty and historic sites of the UP draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. There are the famous sites - the Soo Locks, Tahquamenon Falls, Pictured Rocks, Marquette’s Ore Dock, the lighthouses and historic villages; but there is so much more to the UP - dramatic waterfalls, hiking trails, shipwrecks, museums, abandoned mines and mills, freshwater springs, jagged cliffs, and seemingly endless beaches. Tourists also come specifically for the food. It is a hearty and warming food that is a combination of locally available ingredients and immigrant recipes and traditions that have evolved over the centuries. Freshwater fish, wild game, waterfowl, and beef marry with root vegetables, breads, and local dairy products to create a food culture that causes people to wax poetically nostalgic. Food businesses that specialize in pasties, smoked whitefish, venison chili, and Trenary toast ship their products all over the world to people longing for a taste of the Upper Peninsula.
This menu features the traditional foods that have evolved in the UP over the last 200 years, since the onset of European exploration and immigration. At the same time, this food is very much tied to the land and climate of the UP. It is a quintessential example of the way food culture evolves as immigrant populations carve out new lives in new lands - fusing influences from their homelands with practical and locally available materials. In some ways, this gets to the heart of what we have aspired to at The White Pine Kitchen: illustrate the ways in which food brings us together - via curiosity regarding ingredients and their origins, the cultural roots of food traditions, and of course, through shared meals. We hope that you have enjoyed the journey as much as we have, and thank you for joining us on it!
Featured Recipe: Cherry & Riesling Poached Pears with Mascarpone Cream
For the poached pears:
6 ripe, but firm, Anjou pears, peeled, cored, and cut in half lengthwise
4 cups unsweetened cherry juice (or you can use a mix of cherry and cranberry juice)
2 cups sweet Riesling (ideally from Michigan)
6g cinnamon stick
For the mascarpone cream:
1 cup heavy cream, kept in the refrigerator until ready to use
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
⅓ cup mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon sugar
Fresh mint sprigs
Freshly grated nutmeg
Pour the cherry juice, wine, and cinnamon stick into a large saucepan that is large enough to hold the pears in a single layer. Add the pears and bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes, turning the pears over halfway through. You should easily be able to pierce the pear with a fork.
Transfer the pears to a large shallow bowl and cover with the poaching liquid. Serve the pears either at room temperature or chilled.
To make the whipped cream, combine the cold cream and vanilla in a medium bowl and beat on medium-high speed with an electric mixer to firm peaks. Add the mascarpone cheese and sugar and continue beating on medium speed until well combined.
To serve, place a pear in a serving bowl and spoon some of the poaching liquid over the top. Add a large dollop of the whipped cream and garnish with mint springs and nutmeg.
Recipes Inspired By:
Honestly one of the best food blogs out there, Hank Shaw’s Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook website is perfect for learning to cook with game and foraged foods. He’s a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, chef, and does a podcast as well.
The Lake Michigan Cottage Cookbook is a fantastic resource to learn about culinary traditions from all over Lake Michigan, from Wisconsin, down to Chicago and back up to the UP!
The State of Michigan’s Pure Michigan tourism campaign includes great information on Upper Peninsula destinations - an overview of the hotspots, and then greater detail by region of the peninsula.
This fantastic 2019 Northern Michigan University exhibit documents much of the history of the Upper Peninsula, and its periodic movements to become an independent state.
A tribute to the Northwoods tradition of deer camp.
Here is a deep dive into the history of the pasty.
This article explains, in great historical detail, how the Upper Peninsula came to be part of Michigan.