A new Helena eatery specializes in a hearty, handheld meal brought to the U.S. by immigrant miners, including those who flocked to the once copper-rich Butte more than a century ago.
Jill Michelotti, owner of Copperline Pasty Co., sells her homemade pasties — meat and potatoes baked in a golden crust — out of what looks like a full-sized Aerostream trailer stationed in a parking lot across from Murdoch’s on Custer Avenue.
“I grew up on pasties and I just felt like it was a great option to have some here in Helena,” Michelotti said on a recent morning as she prepped several pasties for the oven before the lunch rush.
The drive-through/walk-up eatery serves two kinds of pasties — traditional and breakfast. The traditional pasty is loaded with steak, potatoes and onions and can be ordered “injected” with gravy. The breakfast pasties come stuffed with sausage, egg, cheese and hash browns.
“Growing up in Butte, we picked up pasties for everything,” said Micholetti, who has lived in Helena for 12 years. “If we went to the park, we picked up pasties. If we went to the lake, we picked up pasties. It was just sort of an alternative to pizza, you know?”
Copperline Pasty Co. gets its name from the connection to Butte’s history of copper mining.
“We have got that question a lot — if we’re from Butte,” Michelotti said. “So I think that must mean something to people, that we’re bringing Butte pasties here.”
Michelotti, who has an art degree and is a self-described artist, chose to run her business out of a renovated camper trailer, which is actually a 1949 Spartan, not an Aerostream.
She says wanted to do something “funky-50s.”
“I love vintage things,” Michelotti said. “It’s kind of where my heart is.”
And in keeping with the copper theme, she has painted copper accents down the length of the camper.
“I don’t know, visually I was just really drawn to having something different,” she said.
Michelotti says she chose Copperline’s location — near but not on a busy thoroughfare — because it offers a neighborhood feel but still has a good amount of traffic.
While there is no place to sit down and eat at Copperline now, Micholetti says she hopes to build a patio seating area off one side of the trailer in the spring.
As the weather warms up, the patio will give customers a place to sit outside while they enjoy the Big Dipper ice cream available on Copperline’s menu.
“Which is nice to have it on this side of town for people, too, because it’s such an incredible ice cream — and it’s local,” Michelotti said.
Copperline also sells Montana-roasted coffee and espresso, but not wanting to give away an edge over other coffee sellers in town, Michelotti won’t reveal what brand of coffee she sells.
“It has no bitter taste,” she said. “Some people like … bitter, burnt espresso, but I really don’t, so I wanted to have another option in Helena. It’s just a really nice, smooth espresso with a lot of caffeine.”
And because so many people like a sweet snack with their coffee, she is developing a blueberry and cream cheese pasty that will soon be available.
Michelotti is also working on several special pasties, including a Cajun chicken pasty, which will be rotated through the menu.
“We’re a pasty shop — that’s what we do,” she said. “But we wanted to have some other versions of pasties… just some fun alternatives.”
Michelotti is very aware what a traditional pasty is, though.
Contrary to the common belief that pasties originated with the Irish, the handheld meals actually came to the U.S. from the Cornwall region of the United Kingdom, Michelotti says.
In bygone days, the men working in Cornwall’s tin mines needed a hearty meal they could easily take with them while they worked underground. The solution, devised by the miners’ wives, was the pasty.
The miners could use the crimped edge of the pasty dough as a handle. They could eat their meal with dirty hands and simply through away the crimped piece of dough when they were done.
When the tin in Cornwall’s mines ran out, many of the miners immigrated to the U.S. — some ended up working Butte’s copper mines — and they brought their love for pasties with them.
“That’s why we ended up with them (pasties) in Butte,” Michelotti said. “And I think since there is such an Irish influence in Butte, most people thought they were Irish.”
In Butte, the pasty’s ingredients evolved. Steak is now often replaced by hamburger. And potatoes, traditionally sliced thin before being folded into a pasty, are more commonly cubed.
Not so at Copperline.
“We went back to the Cornish way,” Michelott says. “We slice our potatoes, they stay together better that way, and then we do steak and burger to make it moist.”
Michelotti even has a pasty-dough roller from the U.K.
The mother of five sons and a daughter says that she has been cooking pasties for friends and family all her life.
“I’ve always just hung out with my kids and cooked,” she said. “So it was a natural transition, I think, from cooking so much to doing something like this. I just feel like pasties are a great alternative to fast food. It’s nice to have warm, out-of-the-oven food.”