Locavore movement strong on the shores of Lake Michigan
Many years ago, I spent several days in Traverse City, a prosperous tourist center on the northern section of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. I was on a ski assignment, so there was snow on the ground and nothing green other than the conifers and the traffic lights. As I drove northward around the east side of Grand Traverse Bay to Shanty Creek Resort southward toward Crystal Mountain, I passed dormant orchards and acres of frozen farmland. The small towns and wooden homes reminded me of New England, but with only smaller hills in the region.
In the dim reaches of my mind, I seem to remember that the Traverse City-Petoskey belt was once famous for its maraschino cherries, but that goes back even before my winter visit. I don’t recall where I ate or what I ate then, and the words “locavore” and “sustainable” and the phrase “farm to table” had not yet entered the foodie vocabulary.In factm I’m not even sure that “foodie” had been coined. If I had a crystal ball then, however, I could have foreseen that Traverse City could become a culinary destination once people began exploring the country in search of good local food.
My friend Mike Norton of the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose job, of course, is to promote what’s new and what’s good in his town, sent me the following illuminating communique indicating that indeed, local chefs and bakers are using good, fresh, locally grown products. Here’s what he wrote:
Almost overnight, it seems, this bustling resort town on the shore of Lake Michigan has acquired an aura as one of the country’s up-and-coming “foodie towns.”
Food writers, chefs and lovers of tasty food have been flocking here to sample the area’s fabled cuisine. For two years in a row, Midwest Living magazine has listed Traverse City among its Five Top Food Towns — and this spring Livability.com gave it first-place billing among 200 American cities in its Top 10 list of Surprising Foodie Towns.
Traverse City cuisine is an eclectic, relatively recent movement that borrows freely from other regional styles and relies heavily on imagination, boldness and spunk. But if it has one defining characteristic, that would be a generous use of fresh ingredients from nearby farms, forests, waters and orchards.
From appetizers to dessert, local restaurateurs seem to be on a mission to showcase the best of what the area has to offer. Paul and Amanda Danielson, owners of the fashionable Trattoria Stella restaurant in the Grand Traverse Commons, are leaders in the so-called “slow food” movement, which is all about using fresh local ingredients wherever possible.
Janice Benson, marketing director for Taste the Local Difference, a nonprofit group that serves as a go-between for farmers, restaurants and grocers, says that many chefs now routinely buy from nearby farms and orchards instead of ordering produce that has to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away.
“And this isn’t just folks who look for local strawberries when they’re in season, but who are making a year-round efforts to shop for farm-fresh meat, milk, cheese and other items,” she says. “We have so much wonderful food here that it’s really not hard to do.”
It goes without saying, of course, that many chefs have always relied on the region’s abundance of fresh fruits. Mike and Denise Busley, owners of the Grand Traverse Pie Company, have been featured on the Food Network and earned fans all across the United States, but they know their popular bakery/café wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fresh ingredients they find all around them.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if we had to send to Washington for our apples or cherries,” says Mike. “When people come to this area, they want to sample what the locals enjoy, and our job is to deliver that service. Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t use the best, local, fresh cherries or apples in our pies?”
Equally committed to that idea is Dave Denison (above left), owner/chef at Amical, a downtown Traverse City bistro offering French and Italian rustic cooking. Most of the greens, tomatoes, herbs and fruits featured on Amical’s menu are supplied by area farmers, while many of the fish that play such a prominent role on the menu are taken from the waters between Charlevoix and Petoskey. Local wines, from northern Michigan’s red-hot wine scene are featured prominently, as well.
Down the street, chefs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee have made fresh local ingredients the mainstay of their tiny restaurant, The Cook’s House, where 90% of the menu is made with local products. The same can be said of other restaurants outside Traverse City, from the Bluebird and the Riverside Inn in Leland, Blu and the Good Harbor Grill in Glen Arbor, Martha’s Leelanau Table and Gusto! Ristorante in Suttons Bay to Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen and Siren Hall in Elk Rapids and The Boathouse and Mission Table at Bower’s Harbor.
Nor is this movement confined strictly to high-end restaurants. Small tavern-style eateries like Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor and the Lil’ Bo in Traverse City have creative chefs who are enthusiastic about fresh local ingredients, while some of the region’s largest kitchens – like those at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and the Great Wolf Lodge – are among the strongest supporters of the local-food movement.
“Certainly, part of it is supporting the local farms and the local economy — but any good chef will tell you, this is what food is really all about,” says Joseph George, executive chef at the Grand Traverse Resort. “It’s about enhancing and bringing out the pure flavors of the food, as natural and unmanipulated as possible, and that’s why using the freshest ingredients is so important.”
Thanks, Mike, for catching me up. I’ve been wanting to get out of my recent Rocky Mountain rut and was looking for locavore info from elsewhere.