Almost every place has its own comfort food — a local culinary specialty that evokes warm feelings and simple satisfaction. On Minnesota’s Iron Range, it’s the pasty: baked dough filled with potatoes, carrots and ground beef.
It’s a dish usually associated with Cornwall, a county in southwest England, and you’ll find it on menus at British pubs around the world. But in Minnesota, the pasty offers a tie to the Iron Range’s mining past and remains a way to celebrate the region’s unique culture.
Pasties were brought to the Iron Range by Cornish immigrants who came to the region in the early 20th century to work in the iron mines. In short order, the pasty was adopted by other immigrant miners as the perfect lunch for grueling workdays — hearty, portable and relatively cheap. The Finns added rutabaga. Some served the pasties with gravy, while others preferred ketchup. Today, there are Iron Range pasty variations that Cornish miners never would have considered, such as breakfast pasties filled with eggs and sausage, broccoli and cheese pasties, and German-inspired pasties with bratwurst and sauerkraut.
I grew up in Duluth, but pasties were a culinary fixture of my childhood, thanks to my Iron Ranger father. Eventually I introduced them to my husband, Mike, who drizzles his pasties with Sriracha in true millennial fashion. Our shared love of pasties — and a desire to eat our way across the Iron Range — inspired us to plot out a pasty trail through cities along Hwy. 169 in northeastern Minnesota. We set out on our road trip on a crisp October day, with a cooler in the trunk to haul our finds back home to the Twin Cities.
We started our day trip at Italian Bakery (1-855-522-5379; potica.com). Located in downtown Virginia, it’s the quintessential small-town watering hole, complete with locals sipping coffee and perusing the Mesabi Daily News. A neon sign in the window proudly proclaims “POTICA,” referring to a Slovenian sweet bread made by rolling a very thin piece of yeast dough around a walnut filling. According to B.J. Carpenter in “Come, You Taste: Family Recipes from the Iron Range,” potica, pasties and porchetta (a seasoned Italian roast) are the “three essential Iron Range Ps,” reflecting a few cuisines of the immigrants from 43 countries who came to northern Minnesota to work in the mines.
Although ready-to-eat pasties are only available on Thursdays, Italian Bakery stocks beef, sausage, veggie and chicken pasties in the freezer. After selecting a couple to stash in our cooler, we settled in with two more pastries: a cinnamon and Bavarian cream-filled turnover for Mike and a blueberry cream cheese turnover for me. Other goodies in the expansive bakery case include elaborately decorated cookies, doughnuts, muffins and caramel rolls.
Our next stop was the Minnesota Discovery Center (1-218-254-7959; mndiscovery center.com) in Chisholm. We wanted to learn about the lives of the immigrant miners who made the pasty a crucial part of Iron Range culture. The museum’s “Blue-Collar Battleground” permanent exhibit covers 100 years of Iron Range mining and labor history starting in the 1890s. Life for the Iron Range’s early miners was bleak — they struggled to earn a living wage, worked 10- to 12-hour shifts and were forced to pay for their own candles, dynamite and tools. A grim display details the causes of death for the 96 miners who were killed on the job due to unsafe conditions during a one-year span from 1915 to 1916.
In hopes of improving conditions, miners turned to strikes and unionization. While they did eventually achieve an eight-hour workday, fair wages and safety measures, it took decades of effort in the face of intimidation and occasionally violent suppression. Some actions taken by the mining companies — surveillance, blackmail and coded telegrams — seemed more out of a spy novel than history, and the exhibit left us with an appreciation for modern-day workplace protections.
Other exhibits at the Discovery Center explore immigration to Minnesota, daily life on the Iron Range in the early 20th century, and the culture of the area’s Ojibwe residents.
For lunch, we split a pasty at Chisholm’s Black Bear Bakery (1-218-254-4772; blackbear bakery.com). It was stuffed with a hearty mixture of beef, pork, onions, potatoes, carrots and rutabaga and served with a cup of thick gravy. The coiled edging of crust (always my favorite part) was delightfully flaky. In addition to pasties, the bakery serves deli sandwiches, wraps, soup and pastries. As we left, I noticed a poster in the window declaring support for the local United Steelworkers union — a reminder that the mining industry and labor unions remain an important part of life on the Iron Range.
Sunrise Bakery (1-218-263-4985; sunrisebakery.com) in Hibbing has been in business since 1913 and recently moved into a bright new space with plenty of seating, an espresso bar and an expanded lunch and dinner menu. The freezer is stocked with frozen pasties, and the bakery shelves offer rustic Italian breads, rolls, sandwich bread, potica, biscotti and pasta. We treated ourselves to a dessert of chocolate-dipped biscotti and organic coffee. We also picked up a loaf of potica and a pasty to add to our cooler (both were delicious — I ate at least half of the potica single-handedly over the weekend).
Our final stop was Pasties Plus (1-218-398-2994) in Grand Rapids. The tiny shop feels like stepping into owner Ruth Pedley’s kitchen: There’s a single table with four chairs, a rack of pasties cooling by the door, and a handmade “Pasties Plus” potholder hanging on the wall. Pasties are available half-baked for freezing or home-baking, or you can get them hot and ready to eat by calling ahead.
The menu includes the classic beef and vegetable combination, as well as more unusual options like a breakfast pasty and a beef and sauerkraut pasty. I went with the veggie pasty, stuffed with potatoes, carrots, rutabaga, broccoli and cheese; Mike tried the German pasty filled with bratwurst and kraut.
As she headed out the door after a long day of baking, Pedley paused. “I have to ask,” she said. “Is it good?”
Of course it was. A pasty, whether stuffed with broccoli and cheese or the more traditional beef and rutabaga, is a hearty serving of comfort wrapped in crust. That was true for the Iron Range’s hard working immigrant miners a century ago, and it’s still true today.
Stacy Brooks is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer who focuses on food and travel. She blogs at tangledupinfood.com.