All Tarted Up—A (Very) Brief Geography and History of Northern Michigan’s Cherry Agriculture

We have the state of Michigan (and to a lesser extent, Wisconsin’s Door County) to thank for our cherry pies. Indeed, the largest producer of tart (sour) cherries is Michigan, responsible for well over half of them (Utah is number two). And in Michigan, it’s the Leelanau Peninsula that serves as the center of the industry. So, how did this happen? The tart cherry is a bit hardier than its sweet cousin, so Michigan isn’t an out-of-the-ordinary place to grow them.

We can thank the French for the initial appearance of cherry agriculture in Michigan. French colonists planted cherry trees in towns they founded, including the Michigan city of Detroit. But the advent of commercial cherry agriculture can be tied to Presbyterian missionary Peter Dougherty, who settled in Northern Michigan. He planted trees on Old Mission Peninsula near what is now Traverse City in 1852 and the area’s physical geography proved advantageous for cherry production. This established the Leelanau region as a place to grow tart cherries. Commercial production was introduced in 1893 at Ridgewood Farm, also near Traverse City. As they (and just who is “they”, anyway)—the rest is history!


And physical geography. The Leelanau Peninsula is well situated environmentally for cherry production. This 30 mile (48 km) extension into Lake Michigan benefits from the moderating influence of the lake’s waters. Water has a high specific heat—the amount of energy required to raise a unit mass of something by 1°C; that means it takes a lot of heat energy to raise the temperature of water. You’ve heard of the expression “a watched pot never boils”? Well, if that pot is full of water, it seemingly takes forever for that to start boiling. It also takes a long time for water to cool down. Thus, places near large bodies of water tend to have more moderate temperatures, even if they are located at higher latitudes.

So, how does that relate to cherries? Well, it can get pretty cold up north, but proximity to the water means that it won’t get as cold as some place in the middle of a large land mass. Thus, the cherry trees in the Leelanau Peninsula are protected. And in the spring? Again, the water’s tempering influence protects the trees from late frosts that follow spring thaws. How? A burst of warm weather can trigger the blooming of the cherry trees. But the nearby water means that the weather won’t get quite as warm, reducing the likelihood of blooms to fall victim to a late, killing frost. Is this foolproof? No—the unusual spring of 2012, with its near summerlike temperatures in March (record-setting, no less) followed by a cold April ruined Michigan’s sour cherry crop. But all things considered, the presence of Lake Michigan benefits the tart cherry industry in Michigan.

References: and


WHERE the bleep are the Flyover States, anyway?

The term Flyover States doesn’t refer to a neatly defined, clearly demarcated geographic zone.  It’s not like Pacific Northwest or Gulf Coast states—two examples of regions that are based on relationships to bodies of water.  It doesn’t have a directional basis, like MidAtlantic or Northeast, or even Midwest.  Sure, there’s a general sense of the where (ummm, it’s somewhere between the East and West Coasts), but there exists no formal definition of Flyover States.  Well, the beauty of that means I get to generate my own personal definition.

So, where are MY Flyover States located?  See the map below—it encompasses states considered to be part of the Midwest, the Plains, the Great Lakes.  It’s where people don’t, generally,  speak with well known accents like the Southern accent1 (though, to be sure, the Minnesotans I’ve met do pronounce creek as crick, even though the word should be spoken with a long “e”.)


Flyover Tapas’s Flyover States–click to enlarge the image

1In my part of the Flyover States (Indiana), one does hear southern-esque accents, an artifact of the Upland Southerners who migrated and took jobs in the auto industry.


What the bleep is Flyover Tapas anyway?

I suppose the blog’s title—Flyover Tapas:  Exploring the Culinary Geography of the Flyover States—warrants an explanation.  “Flyover” and “Tapas” typically aren’t used together, though I guess that a silly autocorrect suggestion on a mobile device could conceivably have placed the two words adjacent.  So, fasten your seat belts and make sure your bags are secured in the overhead bin as we take off to Definition Land.


I’ll do this backwards and start with “tapas”.  The Spanish got it right.  By creating the concept of tapas, I mean, that delightful “meal” of small bites that accompanies drinks, friends, and conversation.  How refreshing and rejuvenating!  How absolutely delightful!  Defined by as “an hors d’oeuvre served with drinks especially in Spanish bars —usually used in plural”


The Spanish certainly aren’t the sole practitioners of this practice.  North Americans regularly partake of similar get-togethers.  Anyone who has ever shared a meal of myriad appetizers with friends can understand the appeal of the power of nibbling on little bites of various tasty things on flowing banter between compatriots.  Witness the popularity of meeting friends for drinks after work, often accompanied by bowls of snacks, or the cocktail party, with its finger foods to balance the beverages.  The spirit of tapas infuses them.  Food sharing = people caring.


Now, let’s look at the first word, flyover.  The term “flyover states” has been used perjoratively to belittle the vast interior of the United States.  Heartlanders are assumed to eat only greasy, flavorless casseroles, probably calling them “hot dish”.  Anything with seasonings other than salt, pepper, and (maybe!) curly parsley is “spicy”.  Naturally, all recipes involve a can of cream of fill-in-the-blank soup.  And, of course, these Flyovererians are all wearing sequined holiday sweaters and Big Ten (Eleven? Twelve?) caps.  These—and many more—are the myths associated with the Midwest and Plains food culture.  And I admit to insulting this region myself—BEFORE I moved here twelve years ago.  However, since I’ve lived here, I’ve discovered some wonderful food producers, markets, restaurants.  I’ve become more aware of food (and food system) issues.  I’ve encountered people as passionate as me about eating well with a connection to place.  So, why not share my discoveries of the culinary geography of this region with the world?


There you have it—Flyover Tapas.  I’ll be introducing foods and producers, discussing restaurants with a regional flavor, visiting places where regional delights are sold, examining issues that impact the Heartland’s food culture, and yes, sharing some recipes.  So please, stick around and learn about the wealth that is Flyover Food!