Pasty Festival: A taste of the past

Inaugural event celebrates Range food culture staple, and its mining origins

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Marlise Riffel folds a crimps a filled pasty, readying it for the oven, the weekend before the inaugural Iron Range Pasty Festival.

To the tune of “Pop Goes the Weasel”: All around the Iron Range, the miners ate their pasties. They tasted good and stayed so hot, gulp went the pasties!

MOUNTAIN IRON — “I didn’t know about pasties until I moved to the Iron Range,” recalled Marlise Riffel, chair of the Iron Range Pasty Festival planning committee and a board member of the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability (IRPS). “I remember going to my first Iron Range wedding and the tables were full of Iron Range classics like pasties, polish, sarmas, porchetta and potica. There was so much good food!”

It was the IRPS’s idea to find a way to highlight the local food favorite and the Iron Range’s history. That idea spawned the inaugural Iron Range Pasty Festival on Oct. 5 at the Mountain Iron Community Center.

“Showcasing this first annual event which will highlight local traditions and foods is what I’m most excited about,” said Bobbi Zenner, a member of the festival’s planning committee, over the phone last month. “Pasties are unique but also this event will be unique as the only other pasty festival is in Michigan.”

The Iron Range Pasty Festival was an event to “celebrate the lunch-pail staple that fueled Iron Range miners,” and not only included pasties made from locally grown ingredients, but also craft beer, games, music and the radio call-in quiz show Green Cheese.

“Pasties are a pastry filled with hearty meat and vegetables that miners brought to our region when they immigrated,” explained Zenner. “Miners would bring pasties for lunch as they are a self-contained meal.”

The pasties were homemade by the pasty crew at the Common Ground Community Kitchen located at Messiah Lutheran Church, with all locally-grown ingredients.

Ingredients included: pork from Fox Farm, beef from Willow Sage Farm, rutabagas and carrots from Elm Creek Farm, onions from Fat Chicken Farm, potatoes from from Skunk Creek Farm in Meadowlands and harvest from the Community Garden, flour from Homestead Mills in Cook, lard from Bear Creek Acres, butter and milk from Dahl’s Sunrise Dairy, ketchup from Kudrle Farms, cabbage from Skunk Creek Farm and Miller-Mohawk Bean coffee from The Hive. Beer will be available from Boomtown, Boathouse and Fulton Beer.

“It is so wonderful to be able to demonstrate to people that we can create a pasty through the whole process right here in our region — from growing and processing the ingredients to making pasties,” said Janna Goerdt, board member of the IRPS, member of the festival’s planning committee and Fat Chicken Farm owner, in a phone interview.

All proceeds from the Iron Range Pasty Festival went to benefit the Iron Range Partnership for Sustainability (IRPS). More information on the IRPS can be found on their website at www.IRPSmn.org.

IRPS pasty making

Laughter flowed down the hallway from the community kitchen at Messiah Lutheran Church early one Saturday morning at the end of September.

Members of IRPS stood at stations throughout the kitchen. The previous weekend they had learned to make pasties from the event’s head chef, Bryan Morcom of Ely’s pop-up restaurant Bear Moose Wolf.

“None of us have ever made pasties before so we are all learning,” said Goerdt, motioning to the small group.

“We are going to make 500 pasties today,” Riffel added, already at work measuring out premixed ingredients. “We made 300 last weekend.”

Recalling their fun the previous weekend, the group was already comfortable and conversation flowed.

“You learn a lot about someone while baking together,” Dahl said. This day, they took turns telling their life stories — each intertwined with pasties.

Sneaking in and straight to work, IRPS board member Mike Maleska had on a white stocking cap billowing off the top of his head.

Malesak’s grandfather, Ralph O’Donnell, owned and operated the O'Donnell's Sweet Shop in the Duluth community of Lakeside. Always a food-oriented family, Malesak recalled his grandfather's abilities in pastry and candy making.

Not one to volunteer much information, Maleska did admit to his cooking knowledge after his crimping skills were admired.

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The kitchen crew gets to work on making hundreds of pasties.

In the 1970s, Maleska attend culinary school in Hibbing. Today, his family still gathers in the kitchen.

“My five sisters and I sometimes get together to make pasties,” he said while easily crimping yet another pasty and placing it on the baking sheet.

Meanwhile, Goerdt flips a switch and a loud whirl signifies that the dough machine is ready.

Goerdt is from a mining family; her father worked at Minntac in Mountain Iron, and although he didn’t regularly bring pasties for lunch, the family did eat its fair share.

“What I like to think about while doing this is all of the generations who have made pasties on the Iron Range,” said Goerdt referring to the generations of immigrants and mining families. “To me, a pasty was something you’d buy and groups would make them. I love to cook and bake, but it never occurred to me to make pasties.”

Goerdt, the owner of Fat Chicken Farm, was taking a lead position on the Pasty

Festival planning. “To me, making the pasties is the daunting part — not putting together the festival!”

Pasty making and selling is a common fundraiser for area groups. The men’s group of Messiah Lutheran regularly does so and has acquired a machine that flattens the dough. Goerdt stands in front of it feeding balls of dough that get flatter with each pass through.

“At the beginning, it was the old Finn ladies that made the pasties,” recalled Kristin Foster, former pastor of the church. “Now, 40 years later, it is the men’s group.”

IRPS started as a group of Messiah congregants that quickly grew beyond the church. Now, coming full circle, the group is making their pasties in the community kitchen at Messiah Lutheran Church.

“For a long time, the church had a safe,” recalled Foster. At the time, Messiah had been located across from the Mountain Iron High School, but it burned down in 1998 and the new location was built.

She kneaded a clump of dough, warming it in her hands before handing it to Goerdt. “There was only one thing kept in the safe. Not marriage or baptismal records, but one piece of paper. The church’s secret pasty recipe.”

Foster talked about how the food tradition of pasties cross generational and cultural lines. “Pasties have been a huge way to sustain a sense of identity in our region, across time.” Not only does Messiah have a history selling pasties but so do other area congregations and groups. “Now, there is the MI-B pasty sale where high school students and parents make them together to fund the all-night graduation party.”

The pasty was brought to the Iron Range by miners. Over time, pasties left the lunchbox for less labor intensive meals like sandwiches. But eventually, as groups sold pasties as fundraisers, they sold to co-workers and the pasty reentered the miner’s lunchbox.

“Minntac was down the street from the old Messiah church and congregants would bring pasty orders in from co-workers. This demonstrates the resiliency of this community. These people, Iron Rangers, do not just make do but make and create with local ingredients. This pasty festival is taking that to the next level.”

Foster identifies herself as a packsacker — someone not native to the region even though she has lived on the Iron Range for decades. “I appreciate the spirit of the people here,” she said. “People find a way. The Pasty Festival and IRPS is about needing to find a way and we’ve done that together.”

One goal of the IRPS, and their identified need for the community, is to strengthen the area’s food trail by showing that enough food can be produced in the region to have a healthy diet and encourage buying from local producers.

“We have deep traditions on the Iron Range that we have reworked in ways to address our needs,” she added.

Through the pasty festival, IRPS has shown that the food trail in the region is successful and area citizens can procure what they need to make a family favorite in the pasty.

Recipe

“There is no fear of giving the recipe because no one makes their own,” quipped Goerdt while she fed dough into a machine to flatten before tossing it to the assembly line of cooks.

“Or they have their own recipe and way of doing it,” Riffel agreed. She picked up a disc of dough and added the filling and a slab of butter before crimping the sides and adding it to a cooking sheet waiting for its turn in the oven. “This isn’t just about eating pasties but celebrating them!”

With the blessing of IRPS and pasty festival cooks, the following is their recipe from the Pasty Festival. Each recipe yields 12 pasties. This recipe is credited to Chef Morcomb.

Dough

Tip: It is good to have some small lumps of butter and lard in the dough, because while it is baking, this will make the pastry flaky. A secret ingredient recommended, but wasn’t used for the Pasty Festival, is vodka.

5 cups Flour from Homestead Mills in Cook

1 Teaspoon Salt

½ lb. Lard from Bear Creek Acres

½ lb. Butter from Dahl’s Sunrise Dairy

1 cup Ice Water

Mix the first four ingredients in a food processor or by hand. Then, lightly knead in the water, adding more if needed.

Divide the dough into roughly 12 lumps and roll out each for the pasty crust.

Kelly Dahl, vice president of the IRPS board and organizer of the Cook’s Farmer’s Market, said the crust is delicious.

“I told my wife that I have the best crust recipe and the only one I’ll ever use. She asked what is in it. I said, ‘you don’t want to know.’”

Gluten Free Dough

Away from the flying dough and pasties tossed about the kitchen, Wayne Wilberg set up his own station to make the gluten free pasties. With a patient air, Wilberg set about the slower/genterler process in the dining room.

“I was the manager at Natural Harvest Food Coop and got to really understand people who have gluten sensitivities,” said Wilberg, while carefully filling a pasty.

The flour substituted from the original dough recipe (above) is a mixture of gluten free flours and included xanthan gum. After making the dough, refrigerate it for at least one hour. “It seems to condition the dough a little bit making it less sticky and easier to work with.”

The chefs in the kitchen were able to stretch and pull their dough into shape. Gluten free dough is delicate, tearing easily and quickly overworked, and in the time it took Wilberg to make one pasty, three or four were made in the kitchen.

He rolled the dough out on parchment paper, carefully. The coated paper made the sticky dough slide around easier. He put butter inside saying, “We need to make sure that it doesn’t warm up before baking.”

Wilberg crimped a pasty and applied an egg wash to the crust. Without this beaten egg, the gluten free pasty will not cook to a nice, golden brown. Wilberg used a fork to crimp the pasty closed, “It is one less time I have to handle the dough.”

People with gluten sensitivities can easily have their food contaminated. If gluten enters the mixture at any point, some people will have severe reactions. For this reason, Wilberg kept his baking totally separate from the other pasties going so far as not baking them on the same sheet or in the oven at the same time.

“Other than that, the recipe is the same,” said Wilberg before slowly sliding a spatula under the pasty and moving it gently to the baking sheet. “A lot of people don’t like to cook gluten free because it is harder but once you get the basics down it goes smoothly.”

Filling

While putting this uncooked filling into the dough, add a slab of butter before closing and crimping the pastry. The butter will melt during the cooking process and the moisture will help the filling stay moist.

10 cups Potatoes from Skunk Creek Farm in Meadowlands and the community garden.

7 cups Carrots from Elm Creek Farm

1 ½ cups Rutabaga from Elm Creek Farm

1 ½ cups Onion from Fat Chicken Farm

5 cups Meat mixture of Pork from Fox Farm and Beef from Willow Sage Farm

Salt, Pepper and (fresh) Thyme to taste

Using about 1 ⅓ to 1 ½ cups of mixture, put it on half of the crust, folding the other half of the crust over- creating the pasty. After filling, crimp the edge of the pasty and pierce the crust to make steam vents.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes to an hour, depending on the oven. The finished pasty should have an internal temperature of 165 degrees.

The IRPS group used fresh thyme, carefully striping the leaves, until they ran out and then turned to the dried version of the seasoning.

“Do you know how long it takes to strip fresh thyme?” Goerdt asked. “A lot of time — that’s why they call it time.”

Toppings

Great alone or smothered with homemade toppings, the Pasty Festival had a few favorites.

Butter from Dahl’s Sunrise Dairy

Ketchup from Kudrle Farms

Gravy from Mary’s Morsels

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The First Annual Iron Range Pastie Festival wouldn't be complete without a katchup and pastie team mascott.

History of the pasty

Originating in the tin mines in Cornwall, England, the pasty is considered the national dish to the region and was given protected geographical indication (PGI). A PGI protects regional food as part of the European Union legal protection against imitation. The classification was given to the Cornish pasty to protect its quality and reputation.

According to the Cornish Pasty Association, the pasty has been documented since the 14th century. At that time, it was a food of the rich upper classes and royalty.

The pasty appeared during the reign of King Edward III and the Oxford English Dictionary says it was identified around 1300. The word “pasty” came from “the Medieval French Paste or Pasta, a pie containing whatever ingredients you desire without a dish.” It was first mentioned in cookbooks around 1393.

Between the 16-18th centuries the pasty was established as part of the poorer working families diet as filling the pastry with vegetables was cheap. Meat would have been too costly to be regularly part of the recipe.

In the 19th century, with the advent of Cornish mining, the pasty became a staple. Miners, adults and children, would take a pasty into the mines. Its shape was ideal to carry and soon became a staple to their diet.

Working in underground tin mines, miners would not resurface at mealtime and the pasty provided the solution as an all-in-one meal.

“It is thought that the miners gave the pasty its distinctive D shape too,” states the Cornish Pasty Association’s website. “The crust became a handle, which was discarded to prevent contaminating the food with grubby, possibly arsenic-ridden hands. Others will dispute this, arguing that miners ate their pasties wrapped in muslin or paper bags so that they could enjoy every last bit, as we do today.”

Today, the pasty boasts a thriving industry in Cornwall where at least 120 million pasties are made each year and generates around $372.89 million worth of trade and employs at least 2,000 people.

Characteristics of a genuine Cornish Pasty, according to the Cornish Pasty Association are roughly diced or minced beef, sliced or diced potatoes, swede (turnip), onion and seasoning to taste (mainly salt and pepper)

The ingredients must be uncooked when the pasty is assembled and the pastry must be savoury and can be shortcrust, puff or rough puff. It must hold all ingredients through cooking and handling without cracking or breaking. The pasty must be crimped into a D shape, with the crimp towards one side.”

For more information on the Cornish Pasty Association, visit their website at http://www.cornishpastyassociation.co.uk/.

Michigan: Iron and Copper Mines

By the 1840s, the pasty had found a home in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. As mining families immigrated from the tin mines in Cornwall to the iron and copper mines in Michigan, they brought their mining knowledge and their dietary staple.

“Experienced miners from Cornwall immigrated to help develop the mines, bringing pastry-making with them,” states an article on History.com “Miner’s Delight: the history of the Cornish pasty”. “Although Cornish migration was soon supplanted by much larger waves of Finns and Italians, the pasty took hold as a traditional miners’ food.”

Immigrant miners looked to their Cornish supervisors for cues on how to behave in their new country and in their new mining careers. In this way, the pasty became a traditional food of the area with each culture making a recipe specific to their taste. For example, the Finns would substitute carrots for traditional rutabaga.

Minnesota: Iron Mines

“Once mining started up on the Vermilion Range, the companies needed skilled miners and this meant tin miners from Cornwall. They recruited both from Cornwall and the UP [Upper Peninsula of Michigan] for this early mining since they needed workers who had previous experience with difficult ore,” explained Allyse Freeman, curator of the Minnesota Discovery Center over email. “Cornish miners had already been actively mining copper in the UP by this point.”

“Many of the first Cornish and Irish miners emigrated to both the Lake Superior Copper District, and the Minnesota Iron Districts from the Galena and Wisconsin Lead Districts, as well as from the Missouri Lead Mining District,” explained Graham Jaehnig, aMichigan historian and reporter for The Mining Gazette in Houghton, Mich., over email.

Freeman and Jaehnig both agree that many immigrated from Cornwall to Michigan to Minnesota.

Freeman directly linked miners moving to the Iron Range resulting from the 1913-1914 Copper Strike in the UP. “When that strike ended, the copper industry took a major downturn so many came to Minnesota looking for iron ore mining jobs.”

She went on to explain that once the softer ore was discovered on the Iron Range, extraction was easier and unskilled laborers could be used.

“That meant the floodgates were opened for a wide spectrum of immigrants. The largest immigrant groups on the Range were Finns, Italians, and Eastern Europeans (normally listed as ‘Austrians’ in the censuses at the time, but this basically translates to Eastern Europeans like Slovenians, Croatians, Montenegrins etc.),” Freeman said. “Normally the pattern went that a family would save up for one individual (usually the male) to come to Minnesota first and then make enough money to bring the rest of the family over. Another common pattern was that immigrants would come over, stay for a bit to earn money, and then head back home.”

The Finnish immigrants were closely tied to their working class newspapers and would have been well informed on the happenings both on the Iron Range and UP copper country.

Freeman sites a book by Gary Kaunonen where he tracked workers.

“He talks about the triangular pattern of workers working in the open pits here for summer/spring, the Dakota wheat fields for the fall, and then going into the woods for the logging industry in the winter,” she said. “He references workers from Minnesota, Montana and Michigan often became itinerant workers between all these major hubs.”

As workers moved, they brought a little bit of home along in the foods they cooked. As Cornish immigrants moved from Michigan to Minnesota to work in the mines, they brought their beloved food. By now, pasty eaters were not just of Cornish descent, but every ethnicity who found work in the mining industry. This has resulted in a strong food tradition on the Mesabi Iron Range with classics such as pasties.

“My father’s side were from the old countries of Italy and Slovenia,” recalled Roger Kochevar, an Eveleth native and area historian, over the phone recently. “They moved here after working in the mines of Wakefeild, Michigan, like many of the mining bosses and employees.”

Kochevar fondly remembers eating pasties his whole life. They were homemade by his mother and a special recipe of an aunt included soot and a lot of butter. “I always have to have my pasty with oil and vinegar coleslaw,” he said.

Kochevar doesn’t like frozen pasties, but loves those available fresh at Mary’s Morsels.

“You can tell a good pasty because it has rutabagas in it,” he declared.

Pasties were a favorite meal of miners because they remained hot, Kochevar explained. However, Kochevar’s father didn’t always pack a pasty in his lunchbox, instead opting for sandwiches. This elder Kochevar was an open-pit miner near Biwabik.

In an area rich with history, it is no surprise that the idea of a pasty festival, first found in Calumet, Mich., also found its way to the Iron Range.

Pasties and Politics

“Pasties are a beloved tradition on the Range, one that has been passed down from generation to generation. Meat pasties were a regular staple in the lunch bucket my Grandpa Mike carried to work in the Zenith Mine,” said U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., over email.

In 2013, during the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, Klobuchar’s Senate office held an open house featuring foods from across Minnesota. Among the offerings were pasties from Mary’s Morsels in Eveleth.

“Mary’s Morsels is one of the many family-owned businesses we have across Minnesota that places a high value on being part of the local community,” Klobuchar said at the time. “I’m looking forward to serving their hearty meat and vegetable pasties from Eveleth to our guests to enjoy at this open house.”

Klobuchar learned to love pasties the honest way, at the family kitchen table. Her grandfather was a miner and her father, Jim Klobuchar, was a well-known journalist with the Star Tribune.

In a Sept. 24, 1984 column, Jim Klobuchar wrote about pasties.

“Pasties are for everybody who either migrated from the Iron Range or who feels deprived at not having been born there,” he said. “No, I didn’t use ketchup. Would you put peanut butter on caviar?”

When asked how she prefers her pasties, Sen. Klobuchar responded, “I enjoy my pasties plain, they already have everything that’s good for you on the inside.”

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