The jam- and fruitcake-making monks of Michigan’s Keweenaw peninsula tell tales of industrious local elves, called Scoofies, who rejoice in Lake Superior’s bounty.
In “A Scoofy Song” the monks write of spring’s melting snow:
its water spills, the Creek it fills,
and over Falls it gushes;
And past the beach, the Lake to reach,
it ever onward hurries.
And then the work we must not shirk
will keep us in a lather;
as nimble, quick, we pluck and pick,
the harvest for to gather.
That there are diligent elves, poetic monks, bountiful berries, traditional smokehouses, and totems built from rock on this great freshwater sea will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever circumnavigated the lake. There is poetry in the ruined bars of the Keweenaw, regenerating natural beauty amid the industrial sprawl of Thunder Bay, music in the cries of the gulls and the flight of the cormorants, and damned good food in nearly every crook of the shoreline.
In short, our recent trip around Lake Superior was productive. Our mission was to conduct interviews, taste food, and take photos to fuel an upcoming book about the food of Lake Superior for the University of Minnesota Press. We went around the lake once last year, but this trip was twice as long, and it was eventful.
What follows are some of our tasting highlights from the trip, edited down to a mere dozen in the interest of brevity. For the full experience, you’ll have to wait for the book.
1) Hamburger at the Anchor Bar in Superior, WI
The prices at the Anchor Bar are outrageous. Just $3 for a sizable and respectable cheeseburger on a fresh bakery bun? Only $1.25 for a big order of freshly made, profoundly potatoey (if somewhat under-crisped) fries? What is this, 1982? And keep in mind: The prices were recently raised.
Combine cheap eats, cheap drinks, an interior design thickly encrusted with nautical history (including a life preserver from the famously doomed Edmund Fitzgerald), and a nearly lakeside view, and you’ve got one of Superior’s most grittily appealing spots to eat.
(Anchor Bar; 413 Tower Ave, Superior, WI; 715.394.9747)
2) Herring roe appetizer at Angry Trout in Grand Marais
Fish roe in general tends to be some sort of a mix between salty, mineral-inflected, and fishy, and its intensity varies greatly depending on type and condition. The herring roe served at Angry Trout is surprisingly delicate in flavor, its mild minerality well matched by the accompanying dill and onion sauce. That the herring arrive fresh at the neighboring Dockside Fish Market certainly must play a part in how delicious the fish and its eggs tend to be at Angry Trout — the grilled herring we tried was a perfect 10 for taste and texture.
(Angry Trout; 416 W Hwy 61, Grand Marais, MN; 218.387.1265)
3) Saskatoon berries in the woods near Thunder Bay, Ontario
Tasting like a lightly herbed blueberry, the saskatoon berry (or serviceberry) is one of Lake Superior’s most enticing fruits: It’s easy to pick, simple to identify, and an exotic complement or alternative to the raspberries and strawberries that run so rampant in local pies and crisps. Finding one in the wild next to ripe blueberries and wild raspberries (as we did) is a bona fide foraging thrill.
4) Smoked fish at The Fish Shop east of Thunder Bay, Ontario
The centuries-old Finnish tradition of smoking locally caught fish with alder wood lives on at The Fish Shop, where owner Liisa Karkkainen (above) sells stunning, gold-tinted whitefish, herring, salmon, walleye, and lake trout. The flavor is subtle and delicate, and the effect of smoking remarkably consistent — we looked at dozens of the shop’s fish and were impressed with how reliably even they were in terms of color and overall appearance.
(The Fish Shop; 1960 Hwy 11/17 E at Crystal Beach Rd; 807.983.2214)
5) Shark sandwich at Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant in Wawa, Ontario
Granted that shark is fairly far from being a local fish on the shores of Lake Superior. But finding a restaurant essentially in the middle of nowhere (Wawa is nearly seven hours from Thunder Bay and almost two hours from Sault Ste. Marie) that serves Chinese, Trinidadian, and local food with flair and skill is a providential discovery.
The shark sandwich is made with Venezuelan gray shark and served on made-to-order Indian flatbread, akin to that used in the channa masala-stuffed doubles that Trinidad is famous for. The soft-yet-crispy bread cradles the mild and tender shark, which in turn is complemented by a mildly spicy mayonnaise dressing and a large piece of lettuce.
Also: If the staff at Kinniwabi Pines know about the Spinal Tap reference, they’re not letting on.
(Kinniwabi Pines Restaurant; 106 17 Hwy, Wawa, ON; 705.856.7226)
6) Smoked fish dip at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery in Tahquamenon Falls State Park, MI
If there’s another brewpub located within a state park in the continental US, the owner of Tahquamenon Falls Brewery doesn’t know about it, and neither do we. Grandfathered in thanks to a far-sighted land donation made by the current owner’s grandfather, the brewery serves up mellow, drinkable beers and approachable but tasty locally inflected pub grub, all within a 10-minute walk of the brewery’s namesake falls.
Among the tastes on the menu: Lake Superior smoked fish dip ($8.59).
Speaking abstractly, if you’re going to flavor a cream cheese-based dip, it helps to have a light touch. You want to taste the fish, but you don’t want to be crushed by it. The brewery gets the proportions just right — the fish flavor comes through as a pleasant smokey undertone with just a hint of funk, lending depth and interest to the dip. Green onions offer freshness and texture. It’s tasty stuff, and a great way to start a lunch at the falls.
(Tahquamenon Falls Brewery; Tahquamenon Falls State Park; 906.492.3300)
7) Cornish Pasty from Lawry’s in Marquette, MI
As a consequence of researching Iron Range food in the course of writing Minnesota Lunch, we’ve eaten a lot of pasties. Surely fewer than 30 varieties, but probably pushing 20.
We’re therefore confident when we say that the pasty at Lawry’s in Marquette is one of the best classic versions of the meat-stuffed pie available today, in either the UP or the Iron Range.
The filling is tender and well seasoned, the proportions are balanced, and the crust is durable enough to stand up to hours of driving without falling apart, yet is yielding enough to be scrumptious to eat.
(Lawry’s Pasty Shop; 2164 US Hwy 41 W, Marquette, MI; 906.226.5040)
8) Cudighi at Casa Calabria in Marquette, MI
If you know the notorious “hot dago” sandwich of St. Paul, you also know the cudighi (pronounced COOD-ih-ghee) of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The sandwich consists of a patty of spicy sausage on a ciabatta-like bread, accompanied by a splash of marinara, mozzarella cheese, spicy giardiniera, and raw onions. In short: It’s Italian-American soul food, an easy-to-eat and satisfying lunch or snack. The version at Casa Calabria ($6.49) is particularly tasty and well balanced, and the restaurant also offers a mustard and onions version that is pleasingly aggressive.
This entry would be remiss if it didn’t also note the house-made garlic bread at Casa Calabria, which is so profoundly buttery and garlicky that it defies description. It’s wonderful stuff that should be enjoyed in moderation and is essentially impossible to enjoy in moderation.
(Casa Calabria, 1106 N Third St, Marquette, MI; 906.228.5012)
9) Olde Ore Dock Scotch Ale from Keweenaw Brewing in South Range, MI
Keweenaw Brewing is like a number of other newer craft and microbreweries in that it’s not aiming for the beer expert — it’s aiming for the general public, moderating its use of hops, exotic flavor additives, and mind-crushing alcohol content in favor of smoother, more approachable craft beers that are a smooth transition for the Miller Lite set. Unlike many of its competitors, Keweenaw Brewing cans its beers, a decision that makes for superior ease of transport and light-protection for the brew, but also makes it difficult to roll out seasonal and small-batch beers (cans must be printed and purchased in large quantities).
The brewery’s Olde Ore Dock Scotch Ale references one of lake’s most striking landmarks, the ore dock of Marquette, MI. It takes the malty, bourbon-like depth of a classic Scottish Ale and moderates it with a lower ABV and a cleaner finish — it’s Scottish Ale light, and is both less challenging and more sessionable as a result.
(Keweenaw Brewing; brewery in South Range, MI; taproom open to public at 408 Shelden Ave, Houghton, MI; 906.482.5596)
10) Pannukakku at Suomi in Houghton, MI
Imagine a thin rectangular slice of moderately dense and modestly sweet vanilla custard with a bit of browning on the edges, and you’ve got Finnish pannukakku. Similar to the kropsu sometimes served at Hoito in Thunder Bay and a distant relative of Dutch pannekoeken, pannukakku ($4.15 at the Suomi restaurant in Houghton) manages to split the difference between eggs and pancakes. Smeared with berry preserves, and accompanied by a robust and inexpensive side order of good ham, it’s a hell of a good way to start the day.
(Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant; 54 Huron St, Houghton, MI; 906.482.3220)
11) Thimbleberry jam from the Jampot near Eagle River, MI
The first thing to know about thimbleberry jam is that it comes from thimbleberries. If you haven’t had it before, that’s probably because the delicate little berries are a bear to pick — pluck them as you would a blueberry, and all you’ll get is “a handful of seeds and juice.” That’s according to thimbleberry expert Father Basil, co-founder of the monastery* responsible for this (and dozens of other jams) sold at the monastery shop called the Jampot. *UPDATE 08/12/11: Title corrected.
The taste is gentle and mild — thimbleberries lack the punch of raspberries, but still taste fresh and wild. The jam is sweet but not cloying, and has enough pectin to hold together without being a gelatinous solid. At $12 a jar, you have to love the exotic flavor, so if that’s not your thing, try some of the shop’s dozens of other flavors of jams, their truffles (the thimbleberry truffles were absolutely divine), their giant muffins, or their outrageously delicious alcohol-aged fruit breads such as the Abbey Cake. In all seriousness: Best fruitcake ever? Quite possibly.
(Jampot; 6500 St Hwy M26, 3 miles east of Eagle Harbor, MI)
12) Artesian water from the beach in Ashland, WI
Evaluating the way water tastes is a largely subjective art, particularly when you’re comparing a perfectly potable product (Minneapolis tap water) with one reputed to be excellent (water from the beach-side artesian well at Ashland’s Maslowski Beach).
But, here it goes: Ashland’s artesian water tasted soft, mellow, and almost sweet by comparison to the Minneapolis stuff. If you find yourself in Ashland (or Cornucopia, which has a similar well), make sure you avail yourself of the free public fountain and decide whether you think it was worth the effort. Speaking personally: I enjoyed every drop.
(Maslowski Beach; US Hwy 2, Ashland, WI)