Notable Sandwiches #53: Cudighi
A warm bite of Italian culture in the cold climes of Yooper country
Welcome back to Notable Sandwiches, the feature where I, alongside my editor David Swanson, trip merrily through the baffling document that is Wikipedia’s List of Notable Sandwiches, in alphabetical order. This week: a specialty from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the cudighi sandwich.
All my life I’ve been a bit of a dilettante: I will dip into an obsession, feverishly read everything I can get my hands on for a period from days to months, make it the bulk of my conversation for some time, and then move on seamlessly to another, with scarcely a backward glance. This intellectual propensity has fostered a kind of aimless, sparrowish approach to lifelong learning, a patchwork education that stokes continual enthusiasm by a process of serial adoration and abandonment. This was why I loved being a fact-checker so much—a job I managed to stick around in for three years, despite an overwhelming ambition to write—and why this sandwich column suits me so well: each week, I get to glimpse a different culture, a different history, ensorcel myself with that curious mix of anxiety and passion that draws pen to paper, and sum it up in eight to fourteen hundred words, on a bun. Then I move on. It’s a rare sandwich that can resist this brief but intense and nearly maniacal scrutiny.
The cudighi, a product of the U.P., Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is just such a product; it fascinates and daunts all at once. The U.P.—whose residents call themselves “Yoopers”—is one of those places whose collective identity is, in part, founded on their remoteness from others. A local term for those hailing from south of the bridge spanning the Straits of Mackinac, which separates the Upper Peninsula from the rest of the state, is “trolls.” Because they live under the bridge. The land is lush and sparsely populated—around eighteen people per square mile—and its ferocious winters have begotten an array of cultural traditions. Dipping one’s toe into the history of the region and its foodways seems likely to result in frostbite.
Lesley Larkin, who wrote to me in response to my query about the cudighi sandwich, clarified the local attitude towards outsiders. “One of the first things I learned when I moved here was that you cannot become a Yooper. You are born a Yooper or are forever from somewhere else,” she says, after telling me she’d lived with the U.P.’s “extraordinary winters” for fifteen years. (A cursory glance at the weather forecast for Ishpeming, in Marquette County, revealed a ten-day high of 21°F, with most nights in the single digits or below freezing; according to Northern Michigan University geographer John Anderton, the region averages 150 to 300 inches of snowfall a year.)
Cold, remote and fiercely insular, the U.P. feels purpose-designed to deflect the dilettante. After all, this is a place that has developed its own local variant on the Finnish god of snow, Heikki Lunta. As one article about Yoopers explaining the U.P. lifestyle, “when the lakes freeze over, it’s time to break out the shanties and practice your Heikki Lunta dance, because you’re going fishing.” So I will not claim to be any kind of authority on Yooper life and times, nor will I attempt to sum up local culture—I’ll just keep my eye on the sausage, a warmly spiced delicacy from a famously cold landmass.
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It’s a marvel of immigrant micro-geography that the U.P. has its very own varietal of Italian sausage—one that is found absolutely nowhere else—and whose precise geographic center is Marquette County, Michigan, which is both the largest county in Michigan and the most populous in the U.P. (it boasts roughly 66,000 people). I’m a New Yorker, which means that I’m used to odd pockets of ethnic culture: the former residents of the Emirate of Bukhara that have created a kosher Uzbek paradise in Rego Park; Little Bangladesh in the Bronx, where you can go to mosque and get fabulous iftar feasts on the same block; Little Manila in Woodside, Queens; Little Odessa in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. But even by my provincial, obsessive lights, a sui generis Upper Michigan Italian sausage is a wonder to behold.
According to University of Northern Michigan scholar Russell Maghnagi, a pioneer of U.P. ethnography, the word cudighi does not appear in any Italian dictionary, and has no readily obvious etymology. In 2017, Maghnagi solved the mystery when he interviewed a Yooper named Laura Gallizioli Young, whose grandfather, Mario Gallizioli, made his way to Ishpeming in 1924. “He came from Riva di Solto near Bergamo, Lombardy Province, Italy, in the foothills of the Alps,” Maghnagi writes in Classic Food and Restaurants of the Upper Peninsula (American Palate Press, 2022). “The word cudeghi comes from the Bergamasque dialect and was probably the local adaptation of the more standard coteghino, a type of sausage. The word has several spellings; Bergamasque dialect is not officially a written language.”
The cudighi (pronounced COULD-iggy) has since become a signature food for Marquette County residents, a symbol of the resilience of Italian immigrant heritage in the region. The discovery of abundant iron and copper ore in the mid-1800s attracted a steady stream of European immigrants to the area, principally Cornishmen (who had a long tradition of mining in Cornwall), Finns (who found the region perfectly in keeping with Scandinavia’s brutal yet lush natural environs) and Northern Italians. The north of Italy was more industrialized than the southern regions that gave rise to the vast majority of Italian immigrants, and through a steady demand for mine labor and subsequent family networking, the back half of the nineteenth century saw the continual arrival of immigrants from Abruzzo and Umbria and Tyrol. By the time Mario Gallizioli arrived to pioneer his sausage in the ‘20s, there were dueling Italian newspapers in the region, Il Minatore Italiano (The Italian Miner) and the local socialist paper La Sentinella.
Yooper pride (as reflected in Maghnagi’s work and the various listicles I browsed for this column) stems in large part from the curious amalgam of immigrant cultures that survived a century of numbing winters. Warm Cornish pasties, filled with rutabaga and purportedly so robust that they could be dropped down a mineshaft and not break, Finnish midwinter saunas (and makkara, a ring bologna meant to be cooked over sauna coals) and the cudighi form a triad of Yooper classics.
The sausage is spicy in the Medieval sense—full of spices—rather than spicy as in capsaicin; the family recipe in Maghnagi’s book calls for burgundy wine, nutmeg, allspice, mace and cinnamon, and a mere two cloves of garlic. Honorary sandwich correspondent Garrett Neese, of Houghton, Michigan, bought a cudighi sandwich on my request, which he described as “spice-laden,” with cinnamon as a dominant note. This may seem like a fairly odd combination with its typical condiments of mozzarella and marinara, but sausage slingers like Tino’s Bar & Pizza in Negaunee, Michigan (“Home of the World Famous Cudighi!”) have been going strong for decades. “Try one with an ice cold beer or a tall pop,” the owners recommend.
If the cudighi’s spices seem more Medieval than modern (the nutmeg-mace-cinnamon-allspice quartet with its splash of red wine would not be out of place in Chaucer’s day), perhaps it’s the perfect dish for a region that faces a perpetual battle with an elemental winter. The U.P. is linked to lower Michigan by the longest suspension bridge in the Western hemisphere. As I wrote this column, the Mackinac Bridge authority had issued a high wind warning to motorists, and the live bridge cam showed a graceful gray expanse of bridge above a churning gray expanse of water, cables ringed with snow. To be a Yooper is to live through its winters, and to be descended from those who came to draw iron from the earth despite the long chill months, and to inhabit the place that, during the early days of settlement, formed the wild terminus of every supply line; and there is a just pride in that. Even a dilettante like me can see it, and it warms me from inside, like a nutmeg-spiked patty on a good white roll.
I have spent a lot of time in western U.P., Ontonogan especially, and am passionate about pasties. Now I want to go get a cudighi!