Of Times Past(y)

Iron Range history inside a portable meat pie

illustration by lars leetaru

Wrapped in aluminum foil, each one the size and heft of a thick paperback novel, pasties appeared in my grandmother’s kitchen several times a year on special occasions. I don’t mean, of course, the fringed tassels worn by Vegas showgirls, but rather the edible variety that rhymes with “nasty,” not “tasty.” Imagine a kind of shepherd’s pie made magically portable by rolling steak, potato, onion, and rutabaga into a thick pastry.

A recipe that evolved from medieval meat pies, the pasty took off during the 18th- and 19th-century tin-and-copper boom in Cornwall, England, by solving both a lunchtime and basic engineering problem. During backbreaking 12-hour shifts in deep underground pits, miners needed a filling meal that could be eaten by hand—and sturdy enough to make the dramatic descent in a pail or a pocket without breaking open.

As Cornish miners fled the collapse of the mining industry for the Upper Midwest, pasties became a staple along Minnesota’s Iron Range, when the discovery of iron ore brought the Industrial Revolution to this then-remote region.

A second-generation Swede born in the tiny Iron Range town of Biwabik, my Nana is now in her nineties. Like many men and women who came of age during WWII, she radiates a kind of invincibility. And yet, of course, she is not invincible. It is probably high time that I learn from her, among a vast list of other things, how to make those pasties.

The first question I ask Nana is more cultural than culinary: As the daughter of two Swedes, who taught her to make Cornish pasties? Other than a rogue Slovenian cake called potica, most of her special-occasion recipes that appear on her family’s table are Swedish, like the handmade sausage my Great Uncle John still makes in Hibbing and sends, frozen, through the postal service. I assume her recipe had been handed down on my grandfather’s Cornish side.

There is a pause. “Oh, the recipe is from Hetty Bone.”

“Hetty Bone?” This sounds promising—a name straight out of vaudeville. I immediately picture her: bright-eyed and wrist-thin, her hat set at a rakish angle.

“She was our neighbor in Biwabik, an English lady who taught my mother to make pasties,” Nana explains. “Everybody in town made pasties, no matter where you were from—Finns, Italians, Hungarians.”

I carefully copy the ingredients on a sheet of lined paper. Hetty Bone’s recipe, for reasons that will never be known—a suitor allergic to root vegetables?—does not include rutabaga.

There is a surprising twinge of disappointment. The family tree on my grandfather’s side, beginning with five brothers from Cornwall who came to the Midwest to make their fortunes in the mines, is marked by glory and mystery. Perhaps I was hoping that tracing the provenance of this recipe would uncover their history, too.

But if the recipe dead-ended at Hetty Bone’s kitchen, I at least possess the all-seeing internet.

A search of 1850s English census records reveals an entry for my great-great grandfather, Richard, who would become a mine superintendent in Eveleth. His listed occupation, at age 5, is “scholar.” Four years later, at the age of nine, it reads: “occupation, tin miner.”

I picture him, small boned and nimble, lowering himself down a ladder into the mine shaft. A generation later, he might have spent his days in a schoolhouse. Fate dictated otherwise. He doesn’t know it yet, but the plummeting price of tin will trigger starvation and mass migration across Cornwall. As he descends into that bottomless dark, perhaps he is comforted by the weight of a pasty, shaped by his mother’s hands and wrapped carefully in newspaper, still warm in his pocket.