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2000s Archive

Summers on a Midwest Ocean

Originally Published August 2001
At the top of the country lies an undiscovered land where eagles play in the trees, the lake goes on forever, and the food is fresh and fine.

With her red-orange hair, dramatic scarves, and large, easy laugh, my great-aunt Ethel swooped into our little Iowa town each spring like some exotic migrating bird. A family legend, she had defied convention by abandoning farm life to become a drama teacher in some godforsaken wilderness at the top of the world that was barely part of the United States at all. And each year, just before she drove off in her big, fantailed Buick sedan, she would issue an open invitation to any and all to come visit in her beloved Copper Country.

Not likely. Why, after all, would anyone drive all that way to a place where the snow piled over the doorways in winter, the mines had long been shut down, and you couldn’t even raise a decent crop of corn?

But my father loved fishing, and my mother had inherited a good share of Ethel’s adventurous spirit, so the summer I turned ten we all piled into the family car and somewhat dubiously headed north toward what Ethel called “the U.P.” This, we knew, was shorthand for the geographic anomaly known as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Attached to lower Michigan only by a bridge, this piece of land arcs from Wisconsin to Ontario, forming the southern rim of Lake Superior. And like Superior itself, the U.P. is impressively large and impressively uncrowded. Although Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island could fit inside its borders, even today the peninsula has a mere 300,000 residents. Most of them live in the western part, a hunting and fishing paradise where fertile orchards and fields produce magnificent crops of peaches, cherries, and berries.

Aunt Ethel, as we all called her, had wildness in her soul. Something compelled her to keep going until there was nothing more to be discovered, until she’d reached the end of whatever road she was on. So when we entered the U.P. on our first pilgrimage to visit her, we rolled through the birch forests of the southwestern peninsula and then kept right on going into Keweenaw County, a bony finger of volcanic rock that juts north into the lake. And still we kept on, driving until we reached the place where the highway literally turns around, completing the route it traces across the country from Miami.

When the highway ended, we were at last in Copper Harbor—and even 14 hours of driving did not explain how far we seemed to have traveled from Iowa. Here, adorning the Midwest’s broad chest, was a kind of glittering natural jewel, a vast inland sea where rocky beaches were strewn with agates, and bright blue-green veins of copper ore flashed under the crystal-clear water as it gurgled into mini-fjords. This was a place, we soon found, where black bears routinely wandered into town, eagles soared from the treetops of the island across the harbor, and sleep was punctuated by the lapping of waves, the tolling of buoys, and the recurring flash of a lighthouse beacon. We had come, as my mother said, to “our Midwest ocean.”

We had also come to some fantastic food. Because Aunt Ethel, we discovered, owned a restaurant.

Never married and making do on her salary as a high school teacher in nearby Calumet, Ethel made her first summer home in Copper Harbor on a houseboat that she persuaded a friend to let her tie up to his sheltered dock. By the time we visited, though, she had managed to buy an abandoned general store, move it to a small waterfront lot, and transform it into a homey cottage. The houseboat, in turn, had been hauled up on land at the other end of the village to become a 16-seat restaurant.

The tiny establishment was a perfect expression of Ethel’s sensibilities. Only two entrées were offered: trout pulled from Superior that morning, or a T-bone steak with sautéed mushrooms. Children were allowed hamburgers. With that plus a small crock of French onion soup, a tossed salad, and a sundae created from homemade ice cream and local berry jam, her customers were to be content. And they were. In an era of ubiquitous “Continental cuisine,” overly intricate in preparation and uniformly bland in flavor, this was a foretaste of food that honored its ingredients with simplicity, a kind of intersection of midwestern common sense with an opinionated palate. For both lunch and dinner, the wait was often an hour.

Today, the best food of the area is still true to Ethel’s instinctive credo of seasonality. When the blueberries and bilberries ripen and the giant thimbleberries weigh down the large-leaved bushes that bear them, they are eaten by the handful or made into pies and cobblers and jams. When a lake yields a trout or perch or walleyed pike, the fish is cooked in sweet butter with just a dusting of cornmeal, salt, and pepper.

But these ephemeral treats are the delights of spring and summer, and much of the food of the area reflects the brutally harsh winter. Fierce enough to hold Copper Harbor’s year-round population at around 70, the heavy snows, biting cold, and bone-rattling winds have also helped make the hearty Cornish pasty (pronounced “PASS-tee”) the unquestioned signature dish of the region.

Then, too, the near-talismanic status of the pasty owes much to Copper Country’s history. Despite its present isolation, this region was once the center of an economic expansion so intense that Calumet—only 30 miles closer to Detroit than New York City is—narrowly missed becoming the state capital.

The engine that drove this boom was copper, discovered in the area in 1843 and mined in huge amounts there through the 1920s. Miners came from everywhere to work these rich deposits. First were the Cornish, who found that their traditional toast, “To fish, tin, and copper,” was missing only the middle word in their new home. Later, Finnish miners arrived in such numbers that today their descendants make up the majority of the population.

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.