A hi-def blue sky gleams over the northernmost reaches of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on the autumn day when we first step into Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant by the Keweenaw Waterway. At first we can’t pinpoint why the room tone sounds so incongruous. Only after several minutes do we realize that cross-table conversations among customers and waitresses in the spacious dining area are not being carried on in an obscure Scandinavian language, but actually are being spoken in English. Breakfasters are conversing in the dialect known as Yooper, a term derived from the initials U.P., which stand for Upper Peninsula. Full-time residents, who call themselves Yoopers, use the same name to refer to their idiomatic English. It is a curiously musical blend that sounds Finnish and German with a hint of Canadian and is especially pronounced northwest of Marquette.
Exotic patois notwithstanding, Suomi is in many ways a typical town cafe, where regulars and staff all know each other and gather for camaraderie as much as for nutrition’s sake. When we first sit down, we easily eavesdrop on a counter colloquy among diners and staff regarding various patrons’ weird culinary tastes.
“Who the hell would have a tuna sandwich first thing in the morning?”
“That’s not as bad as the weirdo who wants sardines with his French toast!”
“I know him. He is an idiot.”
“No he isn’t. He is a fishermen.”
"But have you met his wife? She won’t allow sardines in the house.”
As the regulars continue to examine the dining proclivities of their fellow locals, we take a look at the menu headlined “Tervetuloa! Welcome!” Dishes are listed by their Finnish names with English subtitles. The bilingual bill of fare is no affectation. More people of Finnish descent live in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than anywhere other than Finland, and much of what Suomi serves is as unusual as the local accent. Yes, you can eat familiar voileivăt (sandwiches) for lunch and rice pudding or banana cream pie for jălkiruoat (dessert). But we recommend aamiainen (breakfast—served all day), for which nisu bread, perfumed with cardamom, is made into Finnish French toast and pannukakku (listed on the menu as Finnish pancake), which is the star attraction. Described by our waitress as “breakfast custard,” pannukakku is reminiscent of a crust-less egg custard pie—sweet, creamy, fundamental. One large cake, about a half-inch thick, is baked in a glass tray and served in sunny yellow 4x4-inch squares along with warm raspberry sauce. The waitress recommends that we get our pannukakku with nisu toast, which seems redundant—toast with pancakes?—but makes perfect sense when we taste how extremely eggy the pancake is, not the least bit like a doughy flapjack. To accompany this fine duo, we order sausage made in Hancock, just the other side of the Keweenaw Waterway. Wonderful sausage: dense, herb-spangled links that are more lean than fatty, but nevertheless emphatically succulent. The raspberry sauce that accompanies the pannukakku is bright and tart, and it pairs better with the toast than the pancakes, which want no adornment whatsoever.
While many of the sandwiches are typical cafe lunch fare—tuna salad, grilled cheese, BLT—they are served on atypically excellent house-baked bread, white or whole wheat. The sleepers on the lunch menu are hot sandwiches, especially the hot beef, which is made of thick, tender hunks smothered with good gravy and accompanied by a mound of mashed potatoes. Those looking for authentically local lunch should check out Suomi’s pasty, the Cornish meat pie Yoopers love. A legacy of miners from the British Isles who settled in these parts, pasties are more common throughout the Upper Peninsula than hamburgers. Nearly every restaurant makes its own version, and Suomi’s is a beaut—a stout one-pounder of moist beef, potatoes, rutabagas, onions, and carrots judiciously spiced and packed into a flaky pastry crust. While pasties originally were designed to be eaten out of hand as a convenient miner’s lunch, the one served here is definitely knife-and-fork food.
When dessert arrives, we are not so impressed by an overchilled slice of banana cream pie, but we love the visku vellia—a bowl full of cooked, dried fruits, served just slightly cool. It is sweet but not cloyingly so, and tastes eminently healthful. Suomi is a place for coffee hounds. When you order a cup, a carafe is brought to your place at the table or counter so you can refill your cup as needed.
Dining at Suomi gives visitors a slice of Upper Peninsula life and a taste of Midwest history. The restaurant is located in a building that dates back to 1869. It was a furniture store and a Knights of Columbus meeting hall until 1967, when it was transformed into a cafe, which it has been ever since. Interior walls are decorated with grand black-and-white photos depicting life in Copper Country from decades past. While tourists do find their way here—the Upper Peninsula is a sportsmen’s paradise, and it boasts some of the most beautiful foliage imaginable in autumn—most customers are regulars who come to share mealtime with fellow members of the community for whom Suomi is a touchstone of heritage and cultural pride.
Suomi Home Bakery & Restaurant: 54 Huron St., Houghton, MI. 906-482-3220