What is ‘Yooper cuisine?’

A sketch of a native American maple sugar camp is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Numerous friends with puzzled looks on their faces have asked this question. This illustrates the folk tale for many, that the Upper Peninsula does not have a special cuisine. What follows partially answers the question. It shows that even though we are not in a metropolitan area like Detroit or Chicago people, here can and have developed their own special food culture.

The sustenance of the Ojibwe was based on what was found in the natural environment. The basis of their diet — 75% of it — was concentrated on fish, especially whitefish, with deer and caribou distant seconds. Corn, tomatoes and squash, traditional native foods, did not find life in the north country hospitable. Wild rice replaced corn, maple sugar provided an abundance of vitamin-C, berries — blueberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries — and a host of wild foods gathered according to the season completed their foodstuffs.

When Euro-Americans arrived, they found the natural foods appealing. As a result, whitefish and other fish remain part of the diet. How many readers find fishing a pleasant pastime which provides a fine meal? Hunting deer in November has become a Yooper holiday.

Many local freezers are filled with venison which augments family diets. In March-April, other Yoopers tap maple trees and boil the sap into syrup and sugar. When Scandinavians arrived from their berry dominated homeland, they were delighted by the berries they found in the U.P. Other Europeans were pleased with the mushrooms and rabbits they encountered.

The one native food that was not initially accepted by the Euro-Americans was manoomin- wild rice. Although it was “wild” you had to understand the use of water to grow it. Furthermore, the new arrivals exploited timber and logs floating downstream destroyed the wild rice beds. Fortunately, Native People are reintroducing this crop.

The early unity or creolization of the food culture that developed is best seen in the menu prepared at Ontonagon’s Bigelow House to celebrate St. Andrew’s Day, Nov. 30, 1855.

At this early date, less than a decade after the discovery and exploitation of copper, besides traditional Scottish bannock, scones, and kale, they also served beaver tail, a variety of Lake Superior fish, and bear steak with mountain ash sauce, to highlight a bit of the menu.

The Euro-Americans brought with them new fruits and vegetables that were accepted by Native Americans. French Jesuit missionaries introduced pear and apple trees while the English brought potatoes.

All were readily accepted by the native people. Rutabagas, referred to as “orange of the north” by Norwegians, were planted by Scandinavians and others. Celery grown in Newberry for 70 years was locally popular and quickly sold out at harvest time.

The Euro-Americans added their foods to Upper Peninsula food culture. The Cornish brought foot-long pasties eaten by hungry miners. Mario Gallizioli introduced the cudighi or Italian sausage, which has now spread across the region. The Finns brought us fish soup and baked pancakes.

On the commercial level, various immigrant groups added to the cuisine. The Greeks brought us candy kitchens, lunch counters and restaurants while the Lebanese also opened candy shops. This tradition continues with Sayklly’s in Escanaba. Scandinavians, Italians, and Scotsmen had their bakeries where even on the coldest days fresh warm bread was delivered to homes and boarding houses.

Sausage making was in a hands of German Bohemian immigrants and Richard Vollwerth’s descendants still ply the U.P. with a variety of sausages. After 1848 large scale German immigration to the United States developed. George Rublein arrived in Marquette in August 1849 and opened the Franklin Brewery. German brewers, Nickolas Voelker, Joseph Clemens, and Nickolas Ritz arrived at Sault Ste. Marie at about the same time and opened a small brewery which was operating by the summer of 1850.

There were even several pasta factories in Hancock operated by Italians. Unsuccessfully trying to grow grapes, Italians and others imported grapes from California, New York and Ohio and made their own wine. Today several vineyards and wineries are active in the Escanaba area.

In 1897 the first Chinese restaurant opened in Calumet and others soon appeared. In the 1920s there was a chop suey craze which spread through the region. Then with the coming of the auto just about every large town in the U.P. had a drive-in restaurant. How many remember Hamburger Heaven in Marquette or A & W Root Beer in most communities? Clyde’s Drive-In at St. Ignace is considered the iconic drive-in in Michigan.

The significance of Yooper has been brought to the world by the media. Recently Mackinac Island fudge was promoted the CBS’s “Sunday Morning” for Valentine Day. The Detroit Free Press and USA Today have promoted pasties and whitefish. TV programs – “Lost in Michigan,” and “Under the Radar” have spread the word about U.P. food. Andrew Zimmern has presented Yooper food on his program, “Bizarre Foods” aired across the nation.

Today Dr. Martin Reinhardt of Northern Michigan University has organized efforts to return healthy traditional Native American foods to Yooper tables. Even wild rice cultivation is being experimented with in the Lac Vieux Desert area. Both Yoopers and visitors enjoy whitefish in restaurants from the Vierling in Marquette to the Grand Hotel.

For more detail on U.P. food attend my talk, The U.P. Food Story, at the Marquette Regional History Center on Wednesday, April 26, at 6:30 p.m. There is a $5 suggested donation. The program features 13 recipes to compliment the recent publication of “Classic Food & Restaurants of the Upper Peninsula.”

Food will be explored across the peninsula, from hunting traditions to the cooking heritage of families and communities, including Ojibwa, Finnish, Italian, French, and Cornish. Books are available for purchase from the museum gift store and will be signed at the program.


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