Novelist Jim Harrison once observed that the farther north you travel in Michigan, the worse the food gets. Of course, some Yoopers think the opposite.
One must remember Harrison is far from being a true-blood Yooper, one who appreciates the artistry of a perfectly done pasty or cudighi. But there is more diversity than just traditional rustic Finnish food (although some of us would be happy with just that). There’s a whole variety to the area – a mix of Finn, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Native American, German, French, Italian and other cuisines from the immigrants who came to the region.
Even in the ’80s, when I was growing up in Negaunee, some of the places were addictively good. I think of the pepperoni pizza at Tino’s Bar & Pizza in Negaunee, the Capri sizzler steak plus mostaccioli and garlic bread at the Villa Capri in Marquette, or the whitefish at the Rock River Café in Chatham, and I can’t decide which is no. 1.
But a few Yooper writers can. I asked them to do so, in 100 words or fewer:
Sue Harrison, author of “Mother Earth Father Sky” In my hometown of Pickford – barely a dot on anybody’s map – the Main Street Café fills to the overflow for Friday and Saturday night fish fries. Owner Iris Belleville-Jarvi makes a 90-mile round trip to Moran most Friday mornings to buy fresh-caught whitefish from local fishermen. My choice is the Early Bird Special, $8.95 for whitefish, choice of potato, generous salad bar, homemade rolls, dessert and beverage. It’s heaven when the featured dessert is bread pudding! At the Main Street, it’s all about family. Walk in the door, and you’re a member of the clan.
Jane Piirto, author of “The Three-Week Trance Diet” Cross the Mackinac Bridge. Turn west onto U.S. 2, turn north through Engadine, turn west on M-28, to U.S. 41. As you pass through Marquette, call and order. When you get to Ishpeming, 182 miles from the bridge, go to Main Street. Park near the statue of the Indian, Ole Ish. Go in, sit at the end of the bar, give your name. Pay. Go home. Open the door, enter, shout, “Hi, Ma, I’m home. Congress Pizza.” This ritual is repeated each time I go home, as it is for most Ishpeming natives. Eat in or phone order. No delivery. Secret recipe. Yum.
Jonathan Johnson, author of “In The Land We Imagined Ourselves” I keep a rowboat stashed along the Marquette harbor, and most summer afternoons after writing I head down to Thill's Fish House for smoked whitefish, trout, or salmon. I row out, eat my fish, toss the bones overboard, and watch them skin back into the lake from which they came.
Elinor Benedict, author of “All that Divides Us” The Stonehouse perches on a corner in Escanaba in what used to be a 1950s kind of building, but is now much sleeker. Inside, the food and fellowship are wondrous. I order not venison or rutabagas, but prime rib, spinach salad, baked potato, with perhaps a Jack Daniel’s in ginger ale to start. I'm the only person in the Upper Peninsula who drinks this, betraying my Tennessee blood. My husband and I enjoy seeing friends, families and visitors roaring with laughter. Then we go home happy to our woods 25 miles away near Rapid River.
Chad Faries, author of “Drive Me Out of My Mind” Ma's Cafe in Iron River has a 100-burger menu. I often order the oddest combination, so the wait staff can say, “Sorry, we can't do that one today.” But somehow they always have the fresh jalapeños, pineapple and basil. Every ingredient is in stock. I imagine they have some sort of “Star Trek” replicator in the kitchen that calls ingredients into existence. So my favorite meal in the U.P. isn't really a meal at all, it is actually the process of ordering a burger at Ma's.
Steve Hamilton, author of the upcoming “Let It Burn” (My main character) Alex McKnight’s favorite meal is beef stew at the Glasgow Inn in Paradise, made by Jackie and served with a Molson specifically brought over from Canada. But because the Glasgow Inn doesn’t exist in real life, my own personal favorite would have to be the maple-planked whitefish at Karl’s Cuisine in Sault Ste. Marie. That’s for dinner, anyway. For breakfast, it’s an omelet at Frank’s, right down the street.