Local Food Travels: Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

We spend time in far northern Michigan every summer. Much of upper Michigan is a wild and remote place; small towns are separated by forests, lakes, and incredible stretches of natural beauty. The regional culture is one of resilience, creativity, and intense local pride. Not surprisingly, local foods are also a special part of the region.

“Local” isn’t anything new in the U.P. – those who live through the long winters and brilliant, brief summers have always turned to native plants, fish, and wildlife to sustain themselves.

Upper Michigan has a wealth of natural resources, including mineral deposits; native American tribes mined copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula between 5000 BCE and 1200 BCE.  Mining has long defined this region; in the 19th and 20th centuries, industrial mining brought immigrants from all over Europe to find copper for a rapidly-industrializing American economy. Some of those immigrants were from Cornwall, and they brought with them the Cornish meat pie – the pasty. U.P. pasties traditionally have minced meat and root vegetables (usually rutabaga), and in a restaurant you’ll be asked if you want gravy or ketchup with your meal. (Note: Gravy is for tourists.) Today, locals and tourists alike enjoy pasties with an impressive array of craft beer produced in local microbreweries.

Lake Superior is the deepest of the Great Lakes, and it is better understood for what it is: an inland, freshwater sea. Local fish is prized for its abundance and clean flavor. Lake Superior whitefish can be found on nearly every menu. I loved the ubiquitous fish taco when I was visiting Southern California, but modern Yooper cooks have mastered the Lake Superior whitefish taco:

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Tourists come to the U.P., and to Copper Harbor, in particular, to hike, kayak, hunt, ski, and snowmobile. Recently, the U.P. has become well-known for world-class mountain bike trails (initially, this was our reason for visiting). We go back to Copper Harbor every summer because we can’t get enough of this quiet town on the very northern point of the Keweenaw Penninsula.

We also truly appreciate the unaffected attitude towards local foods, too. In summertime, thimbleberries are prolific in the woods and fields all around town, and you will find jams for sale at the shops – be sure to pick up some thimbleberry jam. (If you’re really into jam, a visit to The Jampot is utterly necessary.)  In Copper Harbor, Jamson’s Bakery makes exceptional fruit turnovers and muffins with these local berries early every morning for mountain bikers and trekkers waiting to board the ferry to Isle Royale.

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Until next year, Copper Harbor.

 

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The rocky shoreline.

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