Living in the UP has never been easy, but Yoopers (and visitors) have found comfort in delicious pasties and cudighis, fresh maple syrup and berries, and lots of fried fish
On a map, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula perches on top of Wisconsin looking a bit like a rabbit, its ears jutting into Lake Superior, back legs kicking into Lake Huron. The UP (“you-pee,” not “up”) has long attracted outdoorsy types. Every summer, droves of weekend warriors head up north from Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago, crossing from Lower Michigan over the 5-mile long Mackinac (mack-in-awe) Bridge or taking a puddle jumper to a small regional airport on their way to wooded cabins and remote lake houses.
The Upper Peninsula is no cuddly bunny. Though the peninsula makes up about 30 percent of Michigan’s landmass (including offshore areas like Drummond Island and Isle Royale), only about 300,000 people (or 0.03 percent of the state population) call the area home year-round. These brave souls — affectionately called Yoopers — know life here can be hard, with snowfalls that can total over 200 inches in the winter and summers muggy with mosquitos, flies, and ticks. But life in UP can also be pretty delicious, filled with wild berries and chaga mushrooms, freshly tapped maple syrup, steak- and potato-stuffed pasties, and weekly fish fries with Great Lakes perch, whitefish, and walleye. Whenever restrictions have ebbed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the UP’s simple, salt-of-the-earth cuisine has been one of many draws for visitors, along with wide-open spaces, easy access from urban centers, and outdoor activities.
The number of visitors to the Upper Peninsula has steadily risen during the pandemic, and more of those visitors are coming from outside the Midwest. Hotels and campgrounds have begun routinely booking up well in advance. So nab your backwoods cabin soon if you want a bite of a pasty in its prime.
What is Yooper cuisine?
Over centuries, residents have constructed a resilient food culture that fits the remote — at times harsh — environment, relying on wild game and hearty workaday provisions. Originally the UP was home to several Indigenous peoples, including the Ojibwe/Chippewa, Menominee, and Potawatomi, who thrived in the northwoods through a mix of hunting, fishing, trapping, foraging for wild fruits like thimbleberry, maple syrup production, and rice cultivation. In the 19th century, waves of immigrants came to work in iron ore mines or logging, first French Canadians, then miners from Cornwall, England, and finally Italians and Scandinavians (mostly from Finland and Sweden). With limited access to trade via ships through the Great Lakes or overland, imported food cultures also depended on ingredients that could be secured locally.
These groups left a legacy of no-nonsense dining, but those traditions have trickled down into plenty of fun quintessential dishes. The best-known is the British pasty, a filling meal that miners could easily transport to the mines and reheat; the all-in-one hand pie is composed of pastry dough filled with meat (generally flank steak or hamburger), potatoes, and rutabaga. Whitefish, abundant in the Great Lakes, appear all over menus in the area too. Finally, don’t leave without trying cudighi (homemade is best); the hyperlocal Marquette specialty consists of Italian sausage made with allspice, garlic, and nutmeg, pressed flat into a patty and served on a fresh, hard roll with onions and peppers.
There aren’t any major urban centers in the peninsula, so most food purveyors today are spread across a range of small towns and villages, alongside inns and vacation rentals. Many are small, mom-and-pop restaurants that have served communities for years. While you will find some fine dining options, most spots lean casual.
What to know before you go
Pasty Fest: You’ll find pasties all over the UP, but head to the city of Calumet for the ultimate celebration of the stuffed pastry each summer. Events include a parade and pasty-eating contest, and lots of local businesses show up each year to sell their own renditions.
Friday fish fry: Catholic immigrants started the long-standing tradition of Friday fish fries in the UP. Today you can still find a good fish fry at many churches, but you’ll also see them at bars and restaurants all over the peninsula. Local fish is on offer, generally including perch, whitefish, or walleye. Expect the fish to come on either soft white rolls or rye, with butter, coleslaw, french fries, and lemon wedges.
North and south shores: The north side of the peninsula along Lake Superior contains some of the UP’s most popular spots, like Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Tahquamenon Falls State Park, and Paradise on Whitefish Bay. The southern shorelines of the UP run across Lake Michigan and are generally flatter and calmer.
Garden Peninsula: You’ll find a handful of wineries in what looks like a completely inhospitable environment on this strip of land that juts out into Lake Michigan.
Winter in the UP: Many places close up shop in the winter months when tourism dips. If you do decide to visit off-season, double-check the hotels and restaurants you want to visit will be open.
Wild rice: Native to the Great Lakes region, manoomin (wild rice in Anishinaabemowin, or the Ojibwe language) was a staple food for the Indigenous population. Most of the rice has disappeared as loggers dammed up rivers to transport logs to sawmills, killing the rice in river and lake beds. With help from state funding, Anishinaabe harvesters have begun to reseed areas, including the UP, where wild rice had previously grown. Most of the rice is not available yet commercially as efforts are made to increase production, but you may see wild rice on some menus.
Foraging: In Michigan, and especially in the UP, foraging on public lands is not only legal but widely accepted. Morel mushrooms and wild berries of all varieties are the most common finds.
Where to eat
Marquette: At 20,000 people, Marquette is the UP’s biggest city, and home to the largest college in the area (Northern Michigan University), which has attracted a diverse range of restaurants. Head to Vango’s for a cudighi, the beloved spicy Italian sausage sandwich, stop at Thill’s Fish House on Lake Superior for smoked whitefish, or pick up a classic pasty from Jean Kay’s Pasties where they’re made with flank steak and potatoes just like a Yooper grandma would make them. Lagniappe Cajun Creole Eatery might be one of the more surprising options, but a bowl of gumbo on a cold Michigan night hits the spot. The tiny Rice Paddy has been a part of the community for 30 years serving Thai dishes (for takeout only). For dinner, the Delft Bistro offers some respite from meat-heavy dishes featured on other menus around town, with cherry beet bruschetta, kale salads, and bulgur meatballs with pickled vegetables in pita. Or try Casa Calabria for Italian sodas and lasagna.
Keweenaw Peninsula: The expansive landmass that juts directly into Lake Superior is dotted with small restaurants. Jamsen’s Fish Market, which sits right on the water in Copper Harbor, is a must-stop for doughnuts with wild thimbleberry frosting and wild berry turnovers. Cash-only food truck Captain Matt’s Fish and Chips serves some of the best fish tacos made with fried Lake Superior whitefish, and you can bring your tacos over to enjoy with a beer at Brickside Brewery next door. For a sunset dinner there are two fine dining options nearby. One is the Harbor Haus, where the kitchen infuses local fish, vegetables, and berries with German and Austrian style. The other is Fitzgerald’s, where you can play it two ways: Sit inside with a cocktail, hardwood-smoked brisket or pulled pork, and pickled vegetables, or grab a smash burger with basil burger sauce and a slice of the daily pie to enjoy on their deck overlooking the lake.
Houghton and Hancock are the largest cities in the Keweenaw, and both have strong ties to the Finnish immigrants who settled in the area. Kaleva Cafe in Hancock is the place to be Saturday for their Finnish pannukakku pancakes. The Ambassador is a popular haunt for great pizza and massive fishbowl cocktails, which come in reusable copper fishbowl mugs. Roy’s Pasties & Bakery serves untraditional pasties in flavors like turkey with cranberry or pizza, as well as vegan renditions — just don’t let the pasty purists hear you. And a visit to the taproom at the UP’s largest brewer, Keweenaw Brewing Company, will only set you back $3.
Sault Ste. Marie: Michigan’s oldest city, pronounced “Soo Saint Marie,” is located at the gateway between the Upper Peninsula and Ontario, Canada (the city continues across the border by the same name). It attracts tourists to the Soo Locks that connect Lake Superior to the St. Marys River, which were pivotal to opening up shipping lanes between the Great Lakes. Get a glimpse and a meal at Goetz’s Lockview Restaurant, opened in the 1960s, which serves diner classics for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including the popular fried whitefish. Don’t let rumors that the Antlers is haunted deter you from visiting for hefty burgers, among other laid-back American fare. For something a little modern, visit the Wicked Sister, a bar and restaurant with plenty of catchy menu items, like their “4% Club” salads or gluten-free Smother in Law sandwich.
Escanaba: After a visit to a local winery — like Leigh’s Garden Winery for seasonal wines with a distinctive UP flare or Northern Sun Winery for fruit wine — join the line out the door at the Swedish Pantry for Swedish pancakes with lingonberries. Or cool off with soft serve at Jim’s Dari Kreme, especially with the blue moon flavor, an enigmatic Michigan specialty that hovers somewhere between citrus-tinged vanilla and almond. For lunch or dinner, seek out fine dining at the Stonehouse, where excellent choices include the Great Lakes platter, featuring fish fresh from the local waters, and the duck with wild rice.
Paradise: In a throwback to the UP’s logging days, Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub is fashioned after a logging camp and the head brewmaster is the granddaughter of the original founder. After a few rounds, there are few things better than fried local whitefish at Brown Fisheries Fish House.
Elsewhere around the peninsula: If you’re crossing Route 41, stop by the Hilltop in L’Anse for giant cinnamon rolls that tip the scale at over a pound each. Hardwood Steakhouse in Covington grills a great steak, and you just might see a moose as you enjoy your meal. Moofinfries in Naubinway has burgers (moo), fish (fin), and fries that will make everyone in your group happy. Budding chefs training at Les Cheneaux Culinary School in Hessel forage for local ingredients to prepare special dinners for New Year’s and in the summer months. Riverside Pizzeria in Iron River turns out excellent cracker-crust pizza. The Up North Lodge in Gwinn started out selling hot dogs and hot chocolate in the ’60s, but has since become “almost world famous” for their signature barbecue.
Where to stock up
In summer months you can easily find small farmers markets and pop-up roadside stands throughout the UP. Among the fresh-picked wild berries, look out for the famous thimbleberry, which looks like a raspberry but promises much more flavor. For the most distinctive thimbleberry jam, head to the Jampot near Eagle River, which is run by the monks of the Poorrock Abbey, a Byzantine Catholic monastery set in the solitude of the woods.
Michigan maple syrup, usually made on small, family-owned operations, is another must. Mackinac Bluffs Maple Farms in the eastern UP has produced all-natural organic syrup since 2011 through sustainable practices in their sugarbush. Other local brands to look for include Danielson’s, Jasper’s, and Willis Family Maple.
Chaga mushrooms are another regional specialty. Grown on birch trees, the mushrooms have long been used as traditional medicine. Fill your pantry (or medicine cabinet) at Superior Chaga and UP Chaga Connection.
Where to stay
The Milkweed Inn
The Milkweed Inn is the brainchild of chef Iliana Regan, former chef and owner of Michelin-starred Elizabeth in Chicago, and wife Anna Hamlin. Guests are housed in a combination of rustic glamping tents and cabins, and all meals are provided, with a focus on local, foraged foods. A weekend stay comes with a steep price tag, reservation hunters have to watch the inn’s Instagram like hawks for posts about openings, and the place is booked straight through 2022 and summer 2023 — but if you need the hottest ticket in town, this is the place. Rates start at $2,000 for a weekend.
The Vault in Houghton is a boutique hotel in the renovated Houghton National Bank. The building dates from 1887 but has completely modern amenities. After cozying up in your room, slip into the basement counting room where the Speakeasy awaits with their craft cocktail menu. Rooms start at $220 a night.
Keweenaw Mountain Lodge
Built as a WPA worksite in the Great Depression, the Keweenaw Mountain Lodge was restored in 2018. The 24 private cabins are spread across the property, with one, two, or three bedrooms. The main lodge serves as the central point of the complex, and it houses the on-site restaurant, which reflects the remote setting with a slow-dining approach to rustic fare sourced locally as much as possible. Cabins start at $190 per night.
Nature lovers seeking a simpler option should book a yurt at Paddler’s Village in Munising, a modern campground with a small restaurant that serves hot dogs and pizza. Better yet, cook up something special at your campsite for a true UP outdoor experience. Tents start at $150 while yurts that sleep five start at $195.
Amanda Ponzio Mouttaki is a freelance writer and blogger who grew up in the UP but now calls Marrakech, Morocco, home. She loves traveling around the world to find delicious local food and will never turn down a meal made by a grandma.