Book Review: Tasting and Touring Michigan’s Homegrown Food

I have 125 cookbooks (including reference works and food writing). If I didn’t cull them regularly, I’d probably have over 200. And that doesn’t even make me a Cookbook Addict—you should log onto the cooking forums at Chowhound. Some of those posters have THOUSANDS of cookbooks, with entire rooms devoted to their collections. Still, having so many cookbooks, even if I shop for them pretty judiciously, means that I am likely to add to my collection when I visit new places. Seriously, they are the best souvenirs! Luckily for me, writing this blog means that some of these are for research purposes and not subject to my “if you get a new one, you’ve got to discard an old one” rule. So, on my trip to the Leelanau Peninsula, I came home with not one, but TWO new ones, both Flyoverian in nature. I give props to myself because I purchased both of them at independent bookstores.

I purchased Jaye Beeler’s Tasting and Touring Michigan’s Homegrown Food (with beautiful photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick) at the very charming Leelanau Books in Leland, Michigan. This isn’t really a cookbook per se–there are about thirty recipes at the end of the book, but that isn’t the focus of this tome. Rather, Beeler’s book introduces us to the producers of fine Michigan food wares. We get to know the orchardists, the dairy farmers, the cheesemakers, the vegetable growers, the fishers, and the livestock farmers. We are introduced to the markets and other places where these goods can be purchased. And we meet the chocolatiers–yes, that is plural. The subtitle of this work is A Culinary Roadtrip, which is what Beeler and Burdick undertook to acquaint us with the people behind the food. The book is a highly visual pleasure, with Burdick’s photography bringing us close to the food and the people.

So, who are some of these people? There’s John and Anne Hoyt, who produce award-winning raclette, as well as fromage blanc, in Suttons Bay. There’s John Van Voorhees and Joan Donaldson, whose back-to-the-land philosophy and admiration for the works of Wendell Berry led them to grow organic blueberries in Allegan County. There are the Crosses, who run John Cross Fisheries in Charlevoix. There’s Greg Willerer (also known as Brother Nature), who began Detroit’s first Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) enterprise. You’ll meet these—and many others—as you vicariously join Beeler and Burdick on their road trip.

The book’s strength lies in its ability to connect the food we eat to the people who raise, grow, and catch it. At a time when so many people are starting to question where their food comes from and who produces it, this book (though published in 2012) feels very timely. I applaud the author and photographer for compiling this for those of us who want to get to know our providers and who want to know the stories behind their livelihoods. I want to know WHY someone chose to farm or fish, since it certainly isn’t with the idea of getting wealthy. What is the draw? This Beeler tells us.

Still, as much as I love this book (and I am definitely glad to have purchased it), I do have some quibbles. It certainly needed another go-round with the editing, as there are numerous typos. Also, the photographs lack captions—while not necessary for all photos, many of them would have benefitted from a caption to tell me exactly what or who I am looking at. And, very important to me as a culinary GEOGRAPHER: WHERE ARE THE MAPS? Not everyone knows where the cities and towns of Michigan are. Sure, we know where Detroit and Grand Rapids and Lansing and Traverse City and Marquette are, but Fennville? Kaleva? Cross Village? A map somewhere in the text would have been a nice touch, giving the reader an ability to orient himself or herself.

Overall, though, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in knowing where their food comes from (and I would hope that would be just about everybody). It’s a work with value for food enthusiasts, locavores, and Midwesterners in general, not just Michiganders. It now has a welcome spot in my culinary bookshelf. Thank you, Jaye Beeler and Dianne Carroll Burdick!

TastingTouringMichiganBook
About the author and photographer

Jaye Beeler was the food editor at the Grand Rapids Press for many years. With a strong interest in eating locally, she is the perfect person to write this book.

Dianne Carroll Burdick is an instructor in photography at Grand Rapids Community College and Kendall College of Art and Design. She also teaches photography workshops at Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park (a place worth a visit if you ever find yourself in Grand Rapids!)

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Feeling Blue..berry

Blueberries, of which there are many varieties, are perennials native to North America. Highbush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), so-called because they are found on shrubs that can reach as high as 12 feet (4 meters), are found in the eastern part of North America, including the Great Lakes region. This variety is the most common kind cultivated for commercial purposes. Not only a healthy food (supplying good amounts of Vitamin C and fiber), blueberries are also delicious, amenable to dishes both sweet and savory.

When I think of blueberries, I think of Michigan. I also think of scones and muffins and pies and tarts, but yes, I think of Michigan, too. Indeed, Michigan is the top blueberry-producing state in the US (in terms of acres harvested), with Georgia, Oregon, and New Jersey following behind. Traditionally, blueberries grew well in humid climates with chilly winters and milder summers, although some hybrids have been developed that can be grown in warmer climates (hence the Georgia blueberries). Fine, but just give me Michigan blueberries!

BlueberryBushes4

Blueberry bushes in Ottawa County, Michigan

Why Michigan? Specifically, why southwestern Michigan (the locus of the commercial blueberry industry in Michigan)? Well, it boils down to physical geography—the soils are acidic, important for blueberry health. Blueberries prefer soils in the 4.0-5.0 range, which this part of Michigan can supply. Additionally, the temperatures are low enough for blueberries (winters can get mighty cold), yet are moderated by the waters of Lake Michigan1; the lake waters also serve to keep the spring temperatures cooler longer, which helps blueberry plants avoid frost damage (they bloom later). A third reason is the soils of southwest Michigan are somewhat sandy and wet—remember from your geography classes that this region is proximate to Lake Michigan, so one would expect some sandiness in the soil. This hat trick gives southwestern Michigan a prime spot for commercial blueberry agriculture. Indeed, Michigan’s Blueberry Country is centered on the five southwestern lake-hugging counties of Allegan, Berrien, Muskegon, Ottawa, and Van Buren. Drive through them and you are sure to encounter neat rows of muffin futures!

BlueberryCounties2

Michigan’s Primary Blueberry-Producing Counties

  1. Berrien
  2. Van Buren
  3. Allegan
  4. Ottawa
  5. Muskegon

Oddly, the blueberry industry actually began in New Jersey, where Elizabeth White, in partnership with Dr. Frederick Coville, a USDA botanist, developed a cultivatable blueberry plant. In Michigan, the commercial industry took off after the 1920s, following a successful test planting at Michigan State University. Blueberry farming has increased almost tenfold from 1950, when 2200 acres were devoted to blueberry cultivation; as of 2012, approximately 21,000 acres hold commercial blueberry plants.2

I, for one, am thankful for this deliciousness. A latecomer to The Pleasures of the Blueberry, I now look forward to the time I can get Michigan blueberries in the supermarket (and I do wait for the season). I eat them out of hand, I cook with them, can with them, bake with them, and freeze them for some wintertime smoothies (and I’m almost out of the ones I froze last year!) I’ll be sharing some blueberry recipes next time here on Flyovertapas. In the meantime, if you’d like to can some blueberry jam (and blueberries do have a fair amount of pectin), just follow the recipe for classic strawberry jam, replacing the strawberries with blueberries.

1Meteorology/climatology tidbit: large bodies of water keep the temperatures in adjacent land areas milder than temperatures in the middle of large land masses far from water. Coastal locations tend to have smaller annual temperature ranges (difference between the warmest and coldest months) than locations in the interior of land masses. That’s a phenomenon called continentality, a fact you can impress others with at your next cocktail party.

2http://blueberries.msu.edu/uploads/files/The_Michigan_Blueberry_Industry_2012_MSUE_online.pdf. This is an excellent source of information about the industry in Michigan.

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Carlson’s—Smokin’ Good!

I am about to eat the last of the smoked lake trout I purchased at Carlson’s Fishery while on vacation in northern Michigan. This makes me sad. Very sad. Because it’s very good.

Carlson’s was founded by Norwegian immigrant Nels Carlson several generations ago (a fifth-generation Carlson is now at the helm). Located in historic Fishtown, the old fisheries center of Leland, Michigan (on the Leelanau Peninsula), Carlson’s can turn the day’s lake catch into smoked delicacies, including a spicy hot smoked whitefish sausage. They also sell (naturally!) fresh fish, such as whitefish and trout. But, as I have a predilection for All Things Smoked, it was the smoked fish that I had to buy and transport home to Indiana. They also produce a fine smoked fish pate, the sort of thing I’d spread on a few crackers until I realized that I could get a strong fish buzz if I eliminated the flour platform and just ate the pate with a spoon.

Carlsons

If I lived close to Carlson’s, I’d probably develop fins and gills from eating so much fish!

Smoked fish can serve as the focal point of appetizers or, if you eat enough of them, a meal. I like to combine seasoned cream cheese, cucumbers, and smoked fish two ways—as rounds or stuffed. Instructions found below.

What You’ll Need

  • 1 cucumber, peeled if desired
  • 3-4 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • onion powder
  • garlic powder
  • salt and pepper to taste

What to do

  1. Mix the cream cheese with some onion powder and garlic powder (to your own taste). Add salt and pepper if desired.
  2. Slice the cucumber into rounds or halve it and scrape out the seeds.
  3. If using rounds, spread some of the cream cheese mixture onto each cucumber slice. If using hollowed halves, stuff each half of the cucumber with half of the cream cheese mixture.
  4. Top each round or cucumber half with smoked trout.
  5. Eat and enjoy!
    1. SmokedTroutWithCucumber
      Lunch–The Musical!

      Anyway, should you someday find yourself in Leland with a cooler, be sure to stop by Carlson’s and load up on some fine fish. And, if you’re buy the fresh fish, cooking it on the grill is pretty simple. My next post will feature a recipe for simple packet-grilled whitefish.

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Something’s Fishy Around Here!

Fishtown2

Leland, Michigan, on the Leelanau Peninsula, has always been associated with fishing, even prior to white settlement (or, some might argue, white occupation). The Ottawa Indians, who built a large village on what is now Leland, found excellent fishing here. Later, white inhabitants moved in and established a fishing industry, aided by the damming of the Leland River by John Miller and the Manseaus—Antoine Sr. and Antoine Jr.—which generated Lake Leelanau from several previously existing lakes. Commercial fishing here has been in existence for over 120 years.

Fishtown, the historic center of the fishing industry, is as much a tourist destination as it is a center of commercial fishing enterprise. While a visitor can buy some excellent whitefish and lake trout at Carlson’s Fishery, the same visitors can amble amongst cute little shops which have little to do with history. That said, history IS important and the Fishtown Preservation Society, Inc. is dedicated to ensuring that this historic location is preserved.

SmokeFish

So, what IS Fishtown today? There is still some commercial fishing, as well as charter sport fishing, going on. The place itself is a collection of shanties, smokehouses, boats, and the like, a connection to the history of Great Lakes fishing. You can wander around, encountering drying nets as you smell whitefish and trout being smoked. In fact, the aforementioned Carlson’s (a fifth-generation fishery) sells fresh lake fish (and smokes some of the day’s catch!) Should you find yourself in Leland, be sure to get some of their excellent smoked lake trout (I practically cried the day I ate the last of what I brought back from vacation) and some of the smoked whitefish sausage (with a nice kick of spice!)

Drying Nets

Fishnets (not of the stockings variety) drying in the sun

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Martha’s Leelanau Table—a Suttons Bay, Michigan Gem

In a county (Leelanau) blessedly devoid of fast-food restaurants, local and independent eateries have taken up the slack. This refreshing lack of Burger Kings, Taco Bells, McDonalds, Arbys, even Starbucks and the like, sort of creeps up on one—you drive along scenic M-22 or interior roads, through towns and lakefront and bays, trying to put your finger on what, exactly, is missing. No, not missing, but what exactly is different. A couple of hours later it dawns on you that you’ve not seen signs or billboards for any national get-‘em-in-and-get-‘em-out-fast places. The landscape is cleaner, less cluttered, and you realize just how blighted fast-food restaurants can make a place look. NOT seeing them seems like a psychological burden has been lifted off your shoulders and the world looks more vibrant. Well, at the very least, everything is tidier, since crumpled bags and empty soda (or pop, for you natives) cups don’t overrun the sides of roads.

Okay, maybe I’m waxing overly poetic (or maybe not) and I do understand that the previous paragraph is simplistic and doesn’t address the classism that results in the proliferation of what may be the cheapest food alternatives for many people. I know that the area in question (Leelanau Peninsula of northern Michigan) is both a tourist destination and a center of wealth (one needs only to look at some of the enormous lakefront homes), but when you see fast-food restaurants day in, day out, their absence is almost blindingly stark and revitalizing. And it does give local establishments a more visible presence.

One such eatery is Martha’s Leelanau Table, a nationally recognized café in Suttons Bay, Michigan (along, naturally, Suttons Bay!). Located on St. Joseph Street (the main drag in Suttons Bay), the restaurant features many local Leelanau products, such as raclette from Leelanau Cheese. Indeed, the menu definitely has a Leelanau vibe to it, a plus in my book. The lunch menu (I was there for lunch) features soups, salads, sandwiches, plus coffee drinks and exquisite-looking pastries for dessert. I ordered the Land of Delight sandwich, a filling concoction of turkey, bacon, thinly sliced apples, cheese, and flavored mayonnaise; the sandwich was served with a large amount of potato chips and a pickle spear. A nice touch was the bread—cherry bread! The Leelanau Peninsula is, of course, Cherry Central, so that added yet another localism to my lunch. And the meal was very filling, certainly more than enough food to keep me satisfied until dinnertime, and, at a cost of $12, reasonably priced (especially considering Suttons Bay is a bit of a tourist town).

MarthasLeelanauTableSign

What?? No Golden Arches??

Martha’s Leelanau Table offers both indoor and outdoor dining. Given the utterly gorgeous day, I ate outside on the patio. An herb garden is also part of the restaurant, no doubt incorporated into their dishes. Clean, fresh tasting food with some locally sourced ingredients—this is definitely one place I’d visit again.

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