2000s Archive

Summers on a Midwest Ocean

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Calumet, then called Red Jacket, was the epicenter of this wild boom. In its heyday it had 70 saloons, blocks of elegant shops, even an imposing opera house on whose ornate stage Sarah Bernhardt and Caruso himself performed. But the mines petered out, and after the devastation of the Great Depression most never reopened. Today, Calumet, with a population that hovers around 1,000, is a sleepy town. But remnants of its past—sandstone municipal buildings, towering brick smokestacks, the occasional Victorian mansion—give it a charm lacking in most north-woods cities, whatever their size.

History, though, often shows up best not in bricks and mortar, but in everyday habits. In this department, little is more telling than what people eat. The copper boom has passed, but its influence lives on in Cousin Jack cookies, raisin-studded monsters given the nickname attached to Cornish miners, who always had a “Cousin Jack” back in the old country ready to fill the next available job; in sweet, aromatic saffron bread, reflecting the little-known fact that Cornwall has had saffron fields since at least medieval times; in giant cinnamon buns, heritage of the Finnish fondness for sweet breads, which still draw vacationers and residents alike to breakfast at The Pines Restaurant; and, of course, in the pasty.

Highly prized by immigrant Cornish miners as a way of carrying a sustaining midday meal to work in their pockets, the pasty has since become a token of U.P. identity. Like other foods that both reflect and help define a culture (think North Carolina barbecue or Texas chili), pasties are the subject of intense debate over details so minute they baffle outsiders. In this case, the primary issue concerns root vegetables, specifically whether the white non-potato vegetable should be rutabaga or turnip. (Ethel favored rutabaga, although she did allow as how it was actually a bit difficult to tell the difference.)

We visited Ethel every summer after that first foray, and each year our first meal was a pasty. Card tables would be set up in front of the lakefront windows and covered with tablecloths embroidered in Ethel’s color, a vibrant pink just short of scorching. Pickles and bottles of ketchup would be set out, and we would each be served a beautifully browned, steam-venting half-moon of pastry.

Even in those days, many Copper Harbor residents bought pasties rather than make their own, and the question of which shop had the best ones was always an important topic of discussion. After Ethel died, in 1968, and shocked us by leaving her little cottage to our family as a summer retreat, my mother took up the annual search for the ideal pasty. For a number of years she joined other local women as they slipped tentatively into the dim confines of the Paradise, a rough-and-tumble bar in the tiny town of Ahmeek, to pick up their preordered ration of what were then deemed the best pasties in the county, available only on Thursdays. The reigning pasty champion for the past dozen years or so has been the far more respectable Toni’s Country Kitchen, in Laurium.

My father died years ago, but my mother still spends every summer in Copper Harbor, and I visit when I can. Amazingly, the region remains nearly as unspoiled now as it was when I first saw it. Bears still wander into town in the spring, you can still gather sun-warmed blueberries by the side of the road or stop by Jamsen’s Fish Market for trout just out of the water, and when you walk the beaches or follow old logging roads through the forest, it can be hours before you see another human.

The food is still fine too. Just last spring, in the living room of Ethel’s cottage overlooking the lake, I ate a meal that makes me smile whenever I think of it. My mother cooked it on the tiny white enamel range with knobs that still bear the “R” and “F” labels that Ethel applied in fire-engine–red nail polish, and there was nothing fancy about it: just a beautiful little trout sautéed in a black cast-iron skillet swirled with melted butter. But it was as sweet and succulent as can be. In the perfection of its simplicity, that fish was like the U.P., direct and generous with its gifts. As for me, I’ve seen a fair portion of the world since those early days, but I know that to a large extent my concepts of natural beauty, of honest food, and of the reason risks are worth taking were formed in that little town on the great inland sea, where Ethel lived her brave and interesting life.

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