Cora Stoppert has been having a bit of trouble with carpal tunnel syndrome, and went off to the surgeon for some repairs. The first hand is done. “I can knit again,” she announced cheerfully, “but I don’t have the strength to cut up rutabagas for pasties.”
Well, Cora, I told her, I can cut up rutabagas all day if you’ll teach me how to make pasties. Yesterday I presented myself at the appointed time, bearing soup and bread for our lunch. Cora had already been to the market for supplies. She had already chopped five pounds of potatoes and quantities of onions, layered those with four pounds of ground beef, sprinkled salt and pepper on each layer and mixed it all together in a special bowl she keeps for this very purpose. It’s a good thing I came over to help her out, eh?
Having put in a full morning’s work, Cora was glad to sit down for a moment to eat lunch. We discussed the merits of various purveyors of fresh vegetables and sides of beef, the shockingly low level of the Bay, and other news of the day. (There are two sets of new year-round neighbors, one at her end of the circle and one at mine. This is very encouraging.) But we didn’t dilly-dally. The rutabagas lay in wait.
Now I do not know if you have ever undertaken to chop rutabagas, but I can tell you that it is not a job for the fainthearted. They are huge things, and hard as maple. It’s good to have the right equipment. Cora has the right equipment.
The job got done, and no bloggers were injured in the making of this post. It wasn’t pretty, but the result was a satisfactory quantity of chopped rutabaga that got mixed into the big bowl and ended up looking pretty much like that first photo up there except that there was more stuff in the bowl. Take my word for it.
As we chopped and mixed Cora told me about growing up in a coal-mining town on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. She loves the ocean—the sound of it, the scent of it, the buoyant lift of salt water. She claims she fell into the freshwater reservoir one time and nearly drowned when she sank instead of bobbing along at the surface. She remembers running down to meet the lobster boats. She and her brother could fill a net bag with lobsters for a dollar. The fishermen were kind, she muses.
I paid close attention as she made the dough for the first four pasties. Four cups of flour, one cup of Crisco, a dab of salt and the right amount of water to make it hold together. Cora kept up a running commentary on the proper consistency of dough and the importance of adding water a bit at a time. (She made me roll out the next batch. “You know how to do this,” she said, and oddly enough she was right.)
We talked about the stuff we loved to do when we were kids growing up in the outdoors, where the best toys were toboggans and skates and hills and trees and water. We swapped stories about raising sons and the things our fathers and mothers knew how to do. We remembered hard decisions made as a loved one lay dying. The choices we do not know we will have to make until they confront us. The ways that families—and communities—come together and fly apart. We made pasties.
We’re not making piecrust here, you know. Pasties are sturdier fare, and the crust has to hold up. Roll it out, make a good pile of filling on the front part, bring the back part over it and tuck it in tenderly. Trim off the extra dough. Nobody will eat that anyway. Ease the bottom edge up over the top bit, rolling it as you go, so that it looks like a little braid. Do not forget to grease the crust with Crisco. Be sure to make vents in the top. (When you reheat the pasty you must put a little hot water in each vent. It will make the pasty just right.) Bake the pasties until they’re done.
While the first batch is baking, make more. Tell stories about learning to be a grownup by watching what the grownups did, about dealing with sorrows and joys and the way they can come all mixed together. Wash the big metal bowl and the blue mixing bowl and the knives and the chopping blocks and the counter.
We made sixteen pasties, and wrapped them up for the freezer. We sang a little chorus of “Sixteen pasties” to the tune of “Sixteen Candles.” Everything was clean and tidy and the whole house smelled good. It was after 8:00 pm, time to go home. Off I went with three enormous pasties and a whole new skill.
Cora’s son Steve is coming out next week when she will have surgery on the second hand. He’ll make her laugh and sharpen all those knives and cook dinner and fix a hundred things around the house. He’ll eat some of the pasties, and take some home with him, too. He will reheat them, not forgetting to put a little hot water in each vent, and they will taste really good. They are full of stories.
Now before you send me your recipe for pasties—and I know you will, nothing engenders more opinions in Michigan than pasty preferences—I want you to know that this is the way Cora Stoppert makes pasties, and we’re stickin’ to it. Her late husband Paul, who grew up in the Upper Peninsula, was a big fan of these very pasties. I am a big fan of these very pasties. We have had other pasties and found them perfectly delicious, too. It is astonishing how delicious a hot pasty can be on a cold rainy day. Any time you want me to chop rutabagas for your version of pasties just give me a call. I will borrow Cora’s knives and be right over.