Lehto's Pasties was started in 1947 by Mr. Lehto after he served in WWII and was honorably discharged from the army in 1946. It is one of the Original Famous Pasty Shops located in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Lehto's is still family owned and operated to this very day by John and Katherine, along with niece Laurie and her husband Bill Walker.
When one thinks of gifts from other cultures that carry with them great historical significance, one usually doesn't think of food. In the Upper Peninsula of Michigan there is a food delicacy that has gone ethnic to multi-ethnic and finally to regional. To many people in the Upper Peninsula, the pasty is much more than food, it is an identifying cultural mark that gives them their own identity. While it is a source of great pride to this region, the pasty itself, especially its ancient history is shrouded in mystery.
The easiest way to describe a pasty, is a pot pie without the pot. Nobody knows for sure where and when the pasty originated. It's thought to have been invented when the preparation of food became an art rather than roasting a hunk of meat on a stick. The pasty came to the Upper Peninsula through Cornwall England. When tin mining started going bad in England during the 1800's the Cornish miners immigrated to America hoping to earn there fortunes in newly developing mines. No one knows for sure though whether the Cornish invented the pasty, or whether they picked it up from some other group. Mrs. R.F. Ellis of Cornwall insist that the Cornish invented it and that it is a diminutive of the star gazed pie, which is a type of pie baked with fish, such that the fish heads stick out of the pie. Others think the Vikings may have brought the pasty to the British Isles when they invaded. And another theory states that it may have been derived from the Italian "pasta", since the Cornish were considered to be great seamen.
Textually, the earliest known reference to the pasty contribute it to the Cornish. From 1150 to 1190 a man by the name of Chretien de Troyes wrote several Arthurian romances for the Countess of Champagne. In one of them, Eric and Enide, it mentions pasties: "Next Guivret opened a chest and took out two pasties. "My friend," says he, "now try a little of these cold pasties. And you shall drink wine mixed with water..." Both Guivret and Eric came from various parts of what today is considered Cornwall.
Pasties are also mentioned in the Robin Hood ballads of the 1300's "Bred on chese, butre and milk, pastees and flaunes." and "Thys knight swolewed, in throte noght pering/ More then doth a pastay in onen tryly!" The pasty was not unique to England by this time, a French Chronicler, Jean Froissart (1337-1414) wrote "with botelles of wyne trusses at their sadelles, and pastyes of samonde, troutes, and eyls, wrapped in towels". Today the French call the pasty, tourtiere.The pasty has even shown up in a William Shakespeare play. In the Merry Wives of Windsor (1600) "come, we have a hot pasty to dinner"
When the Cornish came to the copper mines of the Upper Peninsula, they brought with them a lot of mining knowledge which the other ethnic groups did not have. The other ethnic groups looked up to the Cornish and wanted to emulate their mining successes. Many Cornish practices were then copied by the other ethnic groups, including the pasty as the standard lunch for miners. The pasty became popular with these other ethnic groups because it was small, portable, was very filling, and could stay warm for 8-10 hours. Pasty rivalry occurred between the Finns, Swedes, Irish, Poles, Germans, Scots, Italians and French with each group contributing something in the way of seasoning and other ingredients. All groups agree that pasties must contain two things, potatoes and onions. The portability of the pasty not only made it easy to carry, but if it should get cold it would be relatively easy to heat up. This was done by putting the pasty on a shovel and holding it over a head-lamp candle. Miners never ate a pasty with a fork, they ate it end to end, and held it upright to keep the juices in. Since entire Cornish families worked in mines and each member of the family wanted different ingredients in the pasty, the Cornish wife would stamp the bottom corner of each pasty with an initial. According to the Cornish Recipes Ancient and Modern, "The true Cornish way to eat a pasty is to hold it in the hand, and begin to bite it from the opposite end to the initial, so that, should any of it be uneaten, it may be consumed later by its rightful owner. And woe betide anyone who take's another person's corner!" There was a superstition among the Cornish miner's that the initial corner should not be eaten, instead it was dropped on the ground for the mining gremlins to eat. These "gremlins" caused mischief in mines, causing accidents and mine collapses, feeding them supposedly kept them out of trouble. There is some truth to this rumor, because the early Cornish tin mines had large amounts of arsenic, by not eating the corner which the miners held, they kept themselves from consuming large amounts of arsenic.
The pasty survived the collapse of mining because it became extremely popular with the major ethnic group to remain after the mines closed, the Fins. In 1864 a small wave of Fins came to the UP, well after the Cornish were established, when the big mining wave of Fins came 30 years later, they probably learned pasty making from the older Fins, not the Cornish. The pasty resembles the Finish foods, piiraat and kuuko, so when the new Fins saw their countrymen carrying it in a pail, they thought that it was the Fins who invented the pasty. Since there was a similar food in Finland, it was easier for the new Fins to adopt it. During Finish "ethnic" celebrations the pasty is often featured as a "Finnish" specialty.
The pasty remains relatively unchanged today, a few places have put in healthier vegetable shortening instead of lard, and a couple of other minor changes like the cut of meat used. Its importance in this area can be seen at local fund raisers for local groups and charities. Local food businesses make and sell anywhere from 50 to 100 pasties every day!
Source: History of the Pasty
Bill Walker (right) recently purchased Lehto’s Pasties on US-2. His wife, Laurie Walker (left), is a member of the Lehto family – her aunt originally opened the pasty shop. They are pictured with their son, Max Walker.
Bill Walker, a St. Ignace native who spent much of his life and career in lower Michigan, purchased Lehto’s Pasties May 1. The pasty shop, on US-2, has a simple menu, which Mr. Walker doesn’t plan to change: Pasties come hot, cold, or frozen.
Pasties are $5.50 and weigh about a pound. Mr. Walker emphasizes the “about” because the pasties are homemade, and weight varies.
Mr. Walker left St. Ignace with his family in the mid-1960s, when he was in first grade. They went to Holland, Michigan, then Grand Rapids, where he was graduated from high school. He eventually settled in Traverse City, where he owned four food businesses consecutively.
The last one was a pasty shop. He also owned a fast food operation in a mall food court, opened Mackinaw Brewing Company, and Picnics, a sandwich catering business.
“Once I got involved, it was intriguing, fun, different,” he said of the restaurant business. “It just hooked me, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.
Through his work, he has employed up to 100 people. He plans to hire one full-time and two parttime workers at the St. Ignace place and open up more pasty shops – first, returning to Traverse City where his former customers have been asking about his pasties, then probably Gaylord, or Cadillac. He’s had his Traverse City customers visit his St. Ignace shop.
While Mr. Walker lived downstate, he visited St. Ignace often. His extended family, including the Walkers and the Bentgens, live in town. His wife, Laurie, is related to the Lehto family of St. Ignace.
His business west of St. Ignace sees local residents and “returning campers and cottage people” headed downstate, he said. Frozen pasties are especially popular on Sundays, when people are traveling and want to take some home.
“People just come,” he said. “It’s a simple recipe, but the people seem to like it.”
Hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week. Mr. Walker plans to keep the shop open through hunting season.
Deborah E., Canton, MI
We've been going to Lehto's since the early 1980's when we would camp in the national forest campground near I-75 outside of St. Ignace. It's one of those places we read about in a Michigan travel magazine as a place not to miss.
We've eaten pasties from many other pastie places in the UP and lower Peninsula, but have never found any to compare with Lehto's pasties.
All they sell is pasties. And there's no place to sit down to eat the pasties, it's all carry out. We stock up on freezer bags filled with ice on our way across the bridge so we can pack a half-dozen pasties on our way home. Buy them frozen or hot and ready to eat.
Introduced to them on a high school trip from the LP to check out Michigan Tech in '84. Stopped there every commute back and forth for 5 years (not 4). Tried them from all over, none come close. Love the counter and the menu - hot or frozen.
-Eddie2195, Detriot, MI
We ship our pasties on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday each week.
Read our baking instructions below for details on how to best thaw and prepare your pastie.