Above, fresh Lake Michigan whitefish on display in the case at Carlson’s Fishery in Leland, Michigan, in August 2012, only about 30 feet from where the fishing boat that brought it in would have offloaded. At left, Mary stands on the steps leading down into the historic 1850s-era fishing village where the Carlson’s shop is located.
Looking back at the past year, the family and I seem to have spent not only quite a bit of time exploring cultures and cuisines we were not as familiar with previously, but also foods within the state of Michigan itself. In traveling to the Orlando area in June and up into Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula in August, along with other shorter road trips, we found ourselves looking at menus we could have only imagined in 2011. Along the way, my whole concept for exploring Michigan Cuisine ended up turned on its head and I realized I basically have to begin again from scratch.
Part of the issue I see with a lot of food journalism and food writing in Michigan is that it leans much too far toward what the Chefs of the state’s finer restaurants are doing on their menus, particularly with main ingredients for entrées that don’t actually reflect Michigan’s past or even what’s available here. Ahi tune, lobster, calamari, octopus … those are some of my pet peeves in places that supposedly serve Michigan foods. And even the other dishes, from steaks to freshwater fish to chicken, aren’t served anything like what most people would cook at home, especially with garnishes of microgreens and some California wines. While a lot of food writers eat at those places quite often, my family and I don’t, nor do most other Michigan families. We’ll eat at those kinds of places on occasion, maybe once each month or twice if we get the urge. But we’re more likely going to head to a family-owned diner, maybe a Coney Island restaurant, or a place offering authentic Mexican foods such as Menudo, before we’ll even consider a place where we might not be able to wear t-shirts and yoga pants and order a burger.
One Michigan food writer, Patty Lanoue Stearns, isn’t all that high falutin’, and gets a lot of respect from me for sticking to the basics of where Michigan foods have come from, and how they can be used. When writing her own material, she doesn’t get all flashy about all the pretty pictures, she sticks to what the subject is really about, and she talks about real cooking. My favorite of hers is her “Cherry Home Companion“, although I do own all her books. I’ve probably read more of her writings on Michigan than anyone else’s.
It’s a matter of roots. Chef Eve Aronoff in Ann Arbor inadvertantly taught me about going back to your roots when it comes to food.
The Beef Frita with Sweet Chili Mayo and Cilantro-Lime Salsa at Chef Eve Aronoff’s Frita Batidos in Ann Arbor in April 2012.
A few years back Chef Eve operated “Eve” in Ann Arbor, and had published the book “Eve: Contemprary Cuisine” containing recipes for dishes she and her sous chefs had on the restaurant’s menu. Mary and I had met Chef Eve when she was one of the four anchor chefs at Tast Of The Nation: Toledo in 2007, serving the crowd smaller portions of one of those dishes on a mirrored platter. (It may have actually been just a mirror.) Unfortunately, Eve was somehow injured and ended up closing her restaurant before Mary and I could find the time for a visit.
But in 2011, Chef Eve resurfaced in Ann Arbor at a new place she called Frita Batidos, offering “Cuban-inspred street food”. From her menu:
“FRITA BATIDOS is inspired by Cuban culture and a fantasy revolving around two culinary staples in the world of Cuban street food – The FRITA – a burger traditionally made from spicy chorizo served with shoestring fries on top in a soft egg bun and BATIDOS – tropical milkshakes made with fresh fruit, crushed ice, and sweetened milk – with or without rum.”
My son Ryan and I hit the place up for some eats last April. Knowing about Chef Eve’s past venture, we were surprised to see whitewashed picnic tables in Frita Batidos instead of small tables with linens and rolled flatware. There were also dominos on the tables to play with while waiting for the food, which Ryan made use of. When the food finally came, it turned out to be seriously worth the wait, and was quite simply some of the best “street food” we’d had anywhere. It was probably the best burger I’d had anywhere to speak of. Everything was very simply made, was quite inexpensive, and was astonishingly good.
It turns out Chef Eve has never been to Cuba, but was instead inspred by a family history of Cuban cooking. That’s what really got my attention.
A trip to the Traverse City area in August for a Michigan Association of Mayors workshop for Mary finished up with us going for a drive out west of that city, then up the M22 road around the Leelanau Peninsula. We found ourselves in an area of the lower peninsula unlike anything we’d ever seen, with rolling landscapes, roads twisting along the Lake Michigan coastline, and lots of crowds in lttle towns and villages. It was when we finally stopped for a while and walked in the village of Leland that we found the historic “Fishtown” see in the first two photos above. It was something we’d never even heard of, and it was surprising to see in Michigan.
That’s when it hit me. There are obviously five basic components to Michigan Cuisine: The industrial and agricultural workers, along with their families and ethnicities, the hunting and fishing communities, and what’s needed to support that.
People with serious roots. And excellent food histories and cultures. Like the food history and culture evident in Fishtown.
Now, 2012 also saw the publication of “Coney Detroit” by Katherine Yung and Joe Grimm. While the book mainly focuses on that dish, they were kind enough to include a chapter on the Flint coney, the one I grew up on and have kinda obsessed about. The authors had also built a web site at www.coneydetroit.com to support the book, and had a small community there. Looking around, I realized the Flint coney had nothing similar. A lot of people had commented on my various Flint coney sauce recipes in this blog, so there was obvious interest in it. So I snagged www.flintconeys.com, started throwing some information on a few pages, and it wasn’t too long before I had built a web site that pulled a lot of loose information together into one place. And it wasn’t too much longer before the Flint Journal found it.
The information on flintconeys.com ended up being, as a matter of fact, directly related to my own roots in the Flint area growing up in a family of German/English auto workers, sailors and fishermen. And that seems a good foundation for exploring the entire state via its foods.
There’s a lot more to this, in a 15-page document on my laptop that continues to build. Not much of it heads into the high-end restuarants of the state, although there are a few exceptions. But the concept focuses on one thing: Families, and how they eat. That’s what really counts.
Our family has also done a lot of exploration of both Mexican and Indian cuisines this past year. Mexican food is a big deal here, with authentic grocers and restaurants supporting those communities of immigrants who hand-harvest a lot of the more low-lying foods grown in Michigan. Indian food is also huge in places like Ann Arbor and Lansing, with hundreds of immigrant college students needing their own foods and services.
There’s a lot more where this came from. I’ll keep working on it.