At some point our kids decided that having the same kind of dinner for Christmas that we had at Thanksgiving was not very exciting. When the kids still lived at home, we started a Christmas dinner tradition that has continued ever since when any of the kids (or my sisters’ families) are able to be together for Christmas. The tradition is to choose a different ethnic meal for Christmas dinner for everyone to plan and cook together. I think we started this tradition at my sister’s house with an elaborate Chinese dinner complete with chopsticks.
This year, when we found out one of my son-in-laws had never heard of or eaten a pasty (pronounced past-ee), we decided that would be our Christmas dinner.
What? You’ve never heard of them either?
Pasties are a type of meat pie popular in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. When Cornish miners immigrated to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, they brought with them the tradition of pasties for their lunches in the mines. Many other ethnic groups in that region adopted the pasty, adding their own touches to the recipes.
The pasty became popular with these other ethnic groups because it was small, portable, was very filling, and could stay warm for 8-10 hours. Pasty rivalry occurred between the Finns, Swedes, Irish, Poles, Germans, Scots, Italians and French with each group contributing something in the way of seasoning and other ingredients. All groups agree that pasties must contain two things, potatoes and onions.
The portability of the pasty not only made it easy to carry, but if it should get cold it would be relatively easy to heat up. This was done by putting the pasty on a shovel and holding it over a head-lamp candle. Miners never ate a pasty with a fork, they ate it end to end, and held it upright to keep the juices in. Since entire Cornish families worked in mines and each member of the family wanted different ingredients in the pasty, the Cornish wife would stamp the bottom corner of each pasty with an initial. According to the Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern, “The true Cornish way to eat a pasty is to hold it in the hand, and begin to bite it from the opposite end to the initial, so that, should any of it be uneaten, it may be consumed later by its rightful owner. And woe betide anyone who take’s another person’s corner!”
There was a superstition among the Cornish miner’s that the initial corner should not be eaten, instead it was dropped on the ground for the mining gremlins to eat. These “gremlins” caused mischief in mines, causing accidents and mine collapses, feeding them supposedly kept them out of trouble. There is some truth to this rumor, because the early Cornish tin mines had large amounts of arsenic, by not eating the corner which the miners held, they kept themselves from consuming large amounts of arsenic.
(Read more history of the pasty here.)
My husband grew up in northern Wisconsin eating pasties made by his grandmother. For years she always made sure he had them for his birthday. A few years ago, while visiting the northland, Tom and I stopped at Betty’s Pies along the north shore of Lake Superior. It had been a long time since we had eaten pasties and were excited to see them on the menu. What a yummy treat!
We decided to find a recipe and try making them at home. We made big batches and froze them so we could enjoy them often. They can easily be reheated in the oven and are delicious with gravy or ketchup. Here was our first batch:For our Christmas dinner, we plan to let everyone stuff their pasty with the fillings of their choice since we have family members with various allergies and food preferences. I guess we will follow the Cornish wives’ tradition of marking the corner of our pasties with our initials so we will know who the rightful owner is.
If you would like to make pasties, here are some recipes for you to try.
What Christmas food tradition does your family have?