For the past three years, I have cultivated the tradition of staying on campus for fall break, taking advantage of the quiet to catch up on reading and get ahead on papers. I love the way the school drains of students, and the places that usually bustle with hump-back-packed bodies assume a strange stillness. In the past, it has been one of the most productive weekends of my semester.
This year though, I gave it all up for the chance to eat my way through Northern Michigan. I went home with a friend to see her family’s new farmhouse on Lake Leelanau. She hadn’t seen the place yet, and though we both had tons to do, the chance to get out of town (and the promise of her family’s well-stocked kitchen) lured us north. We packed up our books and baskets of undone laundry, and nosed our way toward Leland, Michigan.
Now the only time I had seen Northern Michigan was last April, when for spring break some friends and I stayed in a cabin near Sleeping Bear Dunes. It snowed the whole week. Though we had a glorious time playing board games and drinking coffee and cocoa indoors, we saw very little of the local beauty.
So this was my first real experience in Northern Michigan, and this time, I witnessed Michigan at her finest. The glorious October landscape, the hospitality of the people, and most especially, the quality of the hearty cuisine left me seriously considering abandoning my West Coast loyalty to settle permanently in Michigan farmlands.
The feasting started right away. We stopped for lunch on the road at Mr. Foisie’s Pasties, a tiny bakery in Cadillac that serves a flakey, buttery conglomeration of carbohydrates and sour cream that initially had me stumped. My first response when my friend told me what a pasty was and why we had to get one, I thought, “Why are you handing me a hot-pocket and expecting me to be impressed?” Assured that this was all a part of the Northern Michigan experience, I cut into the pie’s steaming center.
At first bite, I was underwhelmed. But I couldn’t seem to stop at one bite. Perplexed, I found myself devouring the whole thing, complete inhalation inhibited only by heat. It was sweet and savory and simple, served with sour cream and ketchup for a surprisingly satisfying combination of heat and coolness, texture and cream. We left warmed from the inside out and oh, so full.
We hadn’t even had time to regret the quiet we were missing out on at school when we made it to our final destination around 6 p.m. We drove through an apple orchard and emerged on a little farm at the base of a sloping hillside spotted with fiery maples and golden brush. There were more little outbuildings to explore than we could count, three apple trees, and a sky so wide you couldn’t see it all at once but had to take it in chunks. The nearest neighbor was fields away. We couldn’t have chosen a more peaceful setting if we had been the only ones left on Hillsdale campus.
Once we had settled into our little rooms inside the farmhouse, we congregated in the kitchen. Because I guess the pasties weren’t starch enough, for dinner we planned a blended root vegetable soup with potatoes, carrots, leeks and onions, topped with cut parsley and flavored with bouillon. For a side, we sliced golden potatoes into medallions and baked them with onions, olive oil, and garlic. (I have never had so many potatoes at one time, nor eaten them with such pleasure.) We sopped up the soup in our bowls with crusty french bread and washed it all down with cold cider. We didn’t touch a textbook that evening, but snuggled under piles of quilts and fell asleep listening to the wind.
We lived the next three days planning our lives around what we would eat and how it should be prepared. As we worked fitfully on our various projects for school, we revelled in a shared love for butter and salt and starch. Everything we ate was fresh and seasonal. We took advantage of what was around us and catered our menus to what we found in our day trips to orchards and markets and health-nutty organic grocery stores.
On the second evening, after a long day of hunting down Wi-Fi in coffee shops to send emails and write papers, we came home to cook Moroccan chicken with apricot curry sauce. While we cooked, we snacked on apple slices and crackers toasted from the leftover french bread, spread with a ripe brie cheese we bought from the Village Cheese Shanty in Fishtown, Leland. We weren’t really hungry by the time the chicken was ready, but we heaped it over mounds of white rice and cilantro anyway. We ate our dinner in little mouthfuls, slowed down by a combination of our fullness and its heat.
I don’t know how I have lived three falls here and am only now discovering the glories of true Michigan feasting. It wasn’t just the flavors of the seasonal spices and the freshness of the produce that charmed me. The embarrassment of generosity I found in my hosts matched the overwhelming bounty of the land and gave the whole weekend a strong sense of vacation, celebration, and rest.
Although this break we were not so productive, and will be scaling a mountain of catch-up for the next few weeks, we came back refreshed. Not only am I still full of potatoes and apples and who knows what else, I also return with a head full of images of family and domesticity and feasting. I can live off of that plenty forever.
My school is right where I left it. (And so is the gym, thank God.) But, I am changed. Along with being at least 10 pounds heavier than when I left, I have now experienced Northern Michigan in October. And after four years, I would say it’s about time.