During our vacation in Michigan in 2010, my wife and I ate pasties on a porch in Munising beside South Bay, an inlet of Lake Superior, while waiting for a boat excursion to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. A pasty — pronounced with a hard “a,” as in pat, is a meat pie that hints at a Celtic past in the U.P. I discovered when I began attending Scottish games in the 1990s that the meat pie is a traditional Scottish food, and no games is complete without a vendor selling that treat and Scottish shortbread. The pasty, however, is a product of another branch of the Celts, who once spread throughout most of Europe: those who live in Cornwall.
“Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,” 16th ed., says that Cornwall, the last county in England before embarking by water for Ireland and points south and west, takes its name from the Cornish word Kernow, deriving from the tribal name Cornovii, meaning “horn people,” referring to the long peninsula that Cornwall occupies. The Anglo-Saxons called the Britons who lived there “Cornwalas,” meaning “Corn foreigners,” and that term became Cornwall.
If you were to travel to the far southwestern tip of England, in Cornwall, you would encounter the Atlantic Ocean at Land’s End. Cornwall is a peninsula 75 miles long and 45 miles broad at the base. The county includes the Scilly Isles, 25 miles west of Land’s End. Brewer’s says the Cornish name for Land’s End is Penwith, paralleled in the names Pembroke in Wales (Welsh Penbro); Finistere, Brittany, (in France), from Latin finis terrae, meaning “end of the land”; and Cape Finisterre, Spain. “The unity of the name suggests a westward drive of some kind in the past,” says Brewer’s.
Cornwall’s most southerly extension is Lizard Point, apparently the first land sighted by returning sailors, as evidenced in the traditional song “Spanish Ladies,” which has many variations and is sung, among other places, in the films “Jaws” and “Master and Commander.” I took this verse from the recording “Smash the Windows” by The Virginia Company of Colonial Williamsburg:
We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true-born young sailormen
We’ll rant and we’ll roar on deck and below
Until we sight Lizard on the coast of old England
Straight up the channel to Portsmouth we’ll go.
Cornwall was the last portion of British territory in the south to submit to the Saxons, and the Cornish language survives in a few words in fishing and mining communities and in person and place names. Its last speakers died in the late 1700s. Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil in “The Story of English” write that natives of Tangier Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia lay claim to a Cornishman named John Crockett as the settler of the island, in 1686. “There are no records of this, but the evidence of the Tangier Island speech is overwhelming. To English ears, they sound West Country,” they say. They write that “sink” is pronounced “zink,” marry and merry are similar, Paul and ball sound like pull and bull, and crik is used for creek.
Cornwall became an important mining area as the use of metal spread and by the Industrial Revolution drew most of its wealth from mining. Tin was worked since the Bronze Age, and Cornish miners also produced copper and iron. The mines of Cornwall and Devon, the adjoining county to the east, were estimated to provide one-third of Europe’s copper in 1851. Cornish miners developed mining in other parts of the world, with much emigration occurring in the mid-19th century, and they settled in large numbers in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
As with so many European groups, the Cornish people underwent a diaspora for economic reasons, but these days Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek, the Cornish Language Fellowship, dedicates itself to preserving the language and can be found at http://www.cornish-language.org/. The pasty even has an organization and a website, http://www.cornishpastyassociation.co.uk/. The Cornish pasty has been awarded Protected Geographical Indication status, and the association will hold the first World Pasty Championships, on March 3 in Cornwall. And if that’s too far to travel, the U.P., while still a good trek from Ohio, offers traditional pasties at just about every turn. See http://www.facebook.com/pages/Muldoons-Pasties/169366726413251 for Muldoon’s Pasties in Munising.
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