When Gary Nabhan visited northern Michigan earlier this month to lead a group of locals in identifying traditional foods at risk, I was stumped. The cherries and whitefish that first come to mind when thinking of our typical Up North menus are still prevalent. And the foods I remember from childhood are more of the Midwestern casserole variety; not a specific potato, or chicken or mushroom.
Stores and restaurants usually don’t list the varieties of their foods, with apples being a notable exception. And the generic term “heirloom” is the only hint a label might provide that a particular item isn’t your standard fare. I’m not conditioned to think of specific varieties.
So I wasn’t sure how much I could contribute to the conversation, and as it turns out, several other participants shared that same initial reaction. Perhaps the sheer size of Michigan’s list of potential at-risk foods intimidated us. Fifty wild foods and more than 300 historically cultivated foods were included, ranging from Frost Grape, Oswego Tea, and Aunt Mary’s corn, to the Shiawassee Beauty apple, the Beltsville White Turkey and Ayers Butternut.
As Eric Patterson, chef and co-owner of The Cooks’ House restaurant in Traverse City, writes in his blog about attending the workshop, “I thought to myself, ‘Just keep quiet and they may think I belong here.’” Yet in spite of our individual doubts, we came to realize how clearly the collective wisdom of the group shone through.
“I was struck first by the vastness of experience of those who were there,” Eric writes. “I recognized many of the faces and knew many of them by name, but did not really know how knowledgeable they were in such things.”
Yes, Eric kept quiet for much of the workshop. But he shared his restaurant’s goal to identify what makes up the Great Lakes Cuisine. And while he already features a lot of local foods on his menu, and will soon open a market selling local foods, he writes, “I feel even more urgency in using local foods than before. Somehow the other restaurants in the area need to be convinced that they also need to buy more locally.”
Local chefs will play an important role in getting these traditional foods into the northern market, just as supportive chefs in Seattle helped bring the Makah Ozette potato back to the table there. And growers will need to step up to create a dependable supply to restaurants and markets so that the rest of us will want these foods and know they’ll be available.
To paraphrase author and attendee Stephanie Mills, “I’m interested in democratizing the movement to get these heritage and local foods to the people who shop at Meijer.”
This collaborative process is how foods will be saved, one species at a time, notes participant Charlie Wunsch, publisher of Edible Grande Traverse, and member of a long-time farming family on the Old Mission Peninsula.
“More than anything,” he says, “I realize that in the end, our process will be informed by older people of all our region’s cultures, simply because of their memories and abilities to recount what was.”
What will be our equivalent of Seattle’s Makah Ozette Potato? Has anyone tasted a Shiawassee Beauty apple or a Paul Rose melon, first grown in Benzie County? Is anyone growing them now? Does their taste make these varieties worth rediscovering, or did they fall by the wayside for good reason?
In an essay about the Shiawassee Beauty, Gary writes that in the late 1800s, the variety was promoted as being among the most desirable to grow in the region. Noted for its “surpassing beauty, delicate texture and exquisite flavor,” this variety seems worth the hunt.
And, in fact, it turns out we don’t have to look very far. At an heirloom fruit tree workshop the previous day, we learned that the Shiawassee Beauty grows within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.
We spent the afternoon touring several orchards at the park’s Port Oneida Rural Historic District, led by park historic architect Kimberly Mann. Representative of late 19th and early 20th century farms of the Midwest, Port Oneida is one of the country’s largest historic agricultural districts under public ownership.
Fifty-one varieties of apples grow in the park on the mainland. And even more enticing, hundreds of apple and pear trees planted in the late 1800s on North Manitou Island remain, and have not yet been inventoried. With the loss of more than 90 percent of apple varieties, those old orchards take on increasing significance. They might just contain some lost variety worthy of a comeback.
We have a 10- to 15-year window of opportunity to get propagation materials from old orchards, because many are dying out or being removed, according to Gary. And with the growing demand for local foods, combined with the rise of niche markets, heirloom varieties are getting a new lease on life.
Different varieties are suited for different products, from blended sauces and chutneys, to dried fruits and antioxidants. And some apples make great hard cider; just don’t expect to be able to tell by biting into one. It’s only after the fermentation process that these apples show their cider-worthy flavors.
Nikki Rothwell, director of the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station, provided an overview of the station’s research on cider apple varieties, and brought samples of both the apples and the cider to share.
She noted that the hard cider market has been referred to as a sleeping giant ready to awaken. She and her husband are tickling the giant’s toes, having just opened Tandem Ciders, the region’s first hard cider tasting room. Black Star Farms and Good Neighbor Organic also make a hard cider. In fact, Black Star just released a new apple cherry hard cider last week. Perhaps one day, people will tour the area not only for its cherry blossoms and wineries, but its cideries too.
For now, we’re left wondering what’s next. People are excited about the possibilities, and recognize this will be a long process. One next step is a Great Lakes regional workshop to be held this winter in Madison, Wisconsin. It will bring together a few people from locales throughout the region, including northern Michigan, to fine tune the list of at-risk foods. At that point, communities will begin planning recoveries, selecting perhaps a few varieties or species they would like to focus on. Eventually a book and strategy plan will be released, like those already published for other foodsheds.
In the meantime, we can all work together to begin the process. Become a food detective; explore partnerships; come up with creative projects for students; learn and share the stories of our northern Michigan varieties. When I think of how that group wisdom came through at the workshop, casting the net even wider to include everyone else in the community is even more promising. Let’s see what our collective effort will return to our plates!
Paula McIntyre is a co-founder of Up North Foodies, along with her sister Ann Drury. A Traverse City native and current Leelanau County resident, she owns a web design company, Loracs Creations Inc.. Paula is a CSA shareholder, Oryana member, owner of too many cookbooks and a journalist by training. This post originally appeared on Up North Foodies.