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In Food Writing, Northern Michigan Is …


A Beef & Pork Rutabaga Pasty from Nylund’s Pasties in Crystal Falls, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. Yes, Michigan does indeed have an Upper Peninsula.

A couple of my biggest pet peeves have to do with Michigan food writing in general. There are quite a few food writers here in the state and, make no mistake, they’re all excellent writers. Michigan has a plethora (love that word) of foods, restaurants, festivals and cuisines and there’s plenty of material to go around.

One problem I have is when any of those writers claims that a specific project is supposed to represent all of Michigan when, in fact, doing so would be impractical at best for any short-term deadline. It can simply be expensive and quite time-consuming to get the physical coverage required for a given project.

Even the most well-meaning food writer makes this kind of mistake, and needs to be called on the carpet about it. Yesterday, MLive Entertainment writer John Gonzales released what he titled “Michigan’s Best Breakfast Joint 2013“. MLive hubs across the state had compiled voting lists from readers, who then selected the top two restaurants for a given area. Then John, along with Mike Jensen of Saranac, visited 30 restaurants over a six-day period before selecting their top ten. Yesterday morning they named Anna’s House in Grand Rapids “Michigan’s Best Breakfast Joint 2013″.

But John and Mike had never traveled north of Traverse City for the contest. They never set foot on the extensive land mass of the Upper Peninsula. Nor did they come down this way into either Lenawee County or Monroe County.

What Anna’s House had actually earned was the title of “MLive’s Best Breakfast Joint”.

Over in the comments on yesterday’s article containing that news, I made certain to make my feelings known about this. Other readers, including Robin Linwood of Porcupine Press’s UPMag, echoed my sentiments about the issue. John was understandably a bit defensive about it at first, but I got the impression he quickly understood it was the unfortunate mis-naming of the “award” I had a problem with. Some other readers, however, took issue with my “negativity”, saying I should have been more involved. I pointed out I was heavily involved in the selection and voting for the Genesee County portion, which they didn’t see. And I hadn’t really known what the coverage area was going to be. I think only John really knew what that coverage was.

The basic issue is that of geography. In either of the peninsulas it can easily take hours to get from one end or corner to the other of that peninsula. And if a writer is hoping to includes foods and/or locations from the other peninsula in their writing, they’d better book a couple nights in a hotel somewhere. It would have taken John and Mike months, maybe a year or more, along with considerable funding, to actually determine an honestly-named “Michigan’s Best Breakfast Joint”.

The other concept I have a problem with, one quite possibly shared with the quarter-million-or-so people of the UP, is a concept that shows up far too often in food writing and other journalism in and about the state of Michigan. It’s the one where “trolls” inaccurately and ineptly refer to an area that’s much too far south as “northern Michigan”. This area encompasses the land that begins north of Mt. Pleasant (excluding the tip of Michigan’s “thumb”), and ends at the straits of Mackinac.

The Wikipedia entry for “Northern Michigan” does a rather nice job of explaining the feelings about the inadvertant naming of this area by various groups of the state’s population:

“Across the Straits of Mackinac, to the north, west and northeast, lies the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the ‘U.P.’). Despite its geographic location as the most northerly part of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula is not usually included in the definition of Northern Michigan (although ‘Northern Michigan’ University is located in the U.P. city of Marquette), and is instead regarded by Michigan residents as a distinct region of the state. Although, residents of the Upper Peninsula often say that ‘Northern Michigan’ is not in the Lower Peninsula. They insist the region must only be referred to as “Northern Lower Michigan” and this can sometimes become a topic of contention between friends who are from different Peninsulas. The two regions are connected by the 5 mile long Mackinac Bridge.”

Reader Holland Sparty posted some notes yeaterday that, I have to admit, help to describe accurately where this mis-naming comes from among Michigan’s “trolls”:

“Dave, consider that there are many regular folk (myself included) who live in the lower half of the lower peninsula that consider going ‘up north’ to be going to places such as Traverse City or the Leelanau area or Mackinaw City. We don’t necessarily consider the UP as going ‘up north’ but simply going to the UP … To be clear, obviously the UP is further north than the northern lower peninsula but for many of us the UP is something more distinctive than simply going ‘up north’.”

In considering this rather accurate description for a while, I came to the conclusion this has created more of a problem than us “trolls” can bring ourselves to admit. I understand the state has a geographical situation different from a lot of states in the Union, but that does not mean anyone should ever ignore or push aside a certain population.

But unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened.

The few miles across the occasionally dangerous Straits of Mackinac weren’t connected by the 5-mile-long Mackinac Bridge until 1957. Lower peninsula-based food writers, other journalists, and the general population, tend to treat the upper peninsula as though it’s some sort of Siberian outpost. Is it any wonder then that the upper peninsula peoples regularly vote on seccession and have since 1858? That they even have their own version of the Michigan State Fair, held since 1928? That they refer to us as “fudge-sucking trolls”?

No, travel along the four-lane bridge isn’t as easy as any of us would like. And during inclement weather it can still be a dangerous crossing. But the upper peninsula is indeed part of Michigan. All of us need to think of it that way and treat it as such. Otherwise, they’re just going to leave like they’ve wanted to. And that would be a sad day.

Here are some simple facts:

  • Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the true “northern Michigan”.
  • The land that begins north of Mt. Pleasant (excluding the tip of Michigan’s “thumb”), and ends at the straits of Mackinac, can only be accurately called “northern lower Michigan”.
  • Michigan’s food writers, and other journalists and writers, will always have a responsibilty for accurate reporting, without the common and outlandish claims of their writing being of a statewide nature, which they can rarely achieve with any honest practicality anyway.

So here I am, six miles north of the Ohio state line, and after writing all this I’m craving a beef & rutabaga pasty with gravy. Go figure.

2 comments to In Food Writing, Northern Michigan Is …

  • Mike Jensen

    Dave – Valid points. I WILL tell ya that I was stationed at Kincheloe Air Force Base near the Soo back in the mid 60s in the winter and guys were volunteering to go to Viet Nam to get out of there. Not a place for single guys w/o a car and not old enough to drink other than 3.2 beer on base.

    We’ve got good friends from college days who are out on Stony Creek Rd in Frenchtown, Twp, so I’ll have to keep coming back to your blog to get ideas for when we visit. Just lost 80 pounds in the past year and our last big meal before going on the program was at Bolles Harbor. Good place and an interesting guy who runs it. Have had more than a few decent coneys and bfast at the coney place across the street from the Lazy Boy HQ bldg.

    One food related site that I don’t see you reference is Chowhound.com We use that a fair bit, esp when we travel, to find places recommended by the locals.

    Maybe we can meet sometime this Spring for bfast at Grass Lake Diner and talk food. No cudighis there.. but hey, the Elvis French Toast was killer.

    Mike

  • Mike, thanks for replying … Now, how much weight did you gain with those 30 restaurants? And just how many breakfasts were there in there?? :-) I understand a lot of towns with bases, forts and stations didn’t get anything decent till about the mid-1980s. Some of them are pretty nice now!

    That’s great about you losing the weight! Oh yeah, we’re friends with Chef Silverio Conté at Bolles Harbor Café. One of my best food pics is his Lumberjack Skillet, which is made with prime rib. He’s only five miles north of us, and we’re regulars there. If you look up on the upper shelf on his south wall, that USS America CV-66 cruise book is actually on loan to him from me.

    You know, I’ve never actually visited Chowhound. Maybe I should.

    Elvis French Toast … Wouldn’t that be Memphis cuisine? ;-)

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