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Road Food

A couple of weeks ago, Rob and I had the privilege of hosting five college students in Three Rivers over spring break. One of the highlights of our time was being able to cook together every evening at The Hermitage, where we stayed for most of the week.

On our first day, we planned our menu and went shopping. First stop: Miller's Discount, an Amish grocery store out in the country near Centreville, Michigan. Miller's, entirely non-electric with propane-powered lamps and refrigeration, carries bulk dry goods, canned foods, lots of candy, and several refrigerated items like cheese and ice cream. We purchased what we could there and then, for the sake of contrast, headed to Meijer to get the rest of our items.

Our menu for the week was pretty simple, yet amazing. Here's a summary:


  • SATURDAY DINNER: Mabodofu, an Asian stir fry made by Johnathan who's spent a lot of time in southeast Asia

  • SUNDAY LUNCH: Chocolate chili from Marian's all-chocolate cookbook and made with fair trade chocolate from World Fare

  • SUNDAY DINNER: Potato Leek Soup for an Irish-themed potluck with the local sustainable food group (Our soup was joined by soda bread with homemade jams and butters, several stews with local beef, Guinness bread and several other delights.)

  • MONDAY DINNER: White Bean Spinach Pasta, Curried Carrot Soup made with milk from a local cow and overwintered carrots we helped dig that afternoon at White Yarrow Farm

  • TUESDAY DINNER: Moosewood calzones with two fillings (eggplant and spinach), that somehow expanded to also include pizza and pasta

  • WEDNESDAY DINNER: Veggie Kapow (vegetables in foil packages) with a selection of Asian, Italian and Indian seasoning cooked over an outdoor fire

  • THURSDAY DINNER: An amazing Korean meal prepared for us by Julie, who does small catering jobs on the side and lived in Korea for a year and a half

  • FRIDAY DINNER: Yam curry with rice and potato cakes

  • SATURDAY DINNER: Shrimp scampi, mushroom pasta and roasted broccoli graciously prepared for us by Barb, who wanted to serve those who served all week in the community.


We also ate homemade granola, oatmeal and scones for breakfasts, and had a steady supply of David's homemade breads throughout the week.

Instead of cooking a variety of perfunctory meals designed to be quick and cheap, meal times turned into extended communal rituals--from the shopping to the cooking to the eating to the cleaning up--that provided a perfect backdrop for reflection on our experiences and stories. Who says college students have to eat Ramen and pizza all the time? What made it possible:


  • having a decent budget for food (total came to about $7 per person/day)

  • cultivating a collaborative spirit with willingly helpful participants

  • having open-ended time and space for cooking and eating

  • commitment to flexibility for vegan and vegetarian diets

  • willingness to improvise on short notice

  • access to a well-stocked kitchen

  • knowing the area well enough to be able to access local foods


See more details about the Three Rivers spring break trip at the Imagining Space blog under the March 2010 posts.

At the end of June, I posted on the need for cottage industry laws to allow people to supplement their income with the sale of homemade, properly labeled food products. Well, according to River Country Journal, state Rep. John Proos has introduced legislation "to allow vendors at roadside stands and farmer's markets to produce goods in their own homes." Part of his reasoning relates to the job crisis in Michigan. A cottage industry law would allow people to supplement their income (or lack of) by getting creative in their own kitchens--I love it!

This great news comes to me as I enjoy excellent coffee in Fenelon Falls, Ontario, at Sweet Bottoms. We made our way to Russet House Farm in nearby Cameron yesterday after doing a food and storytelling workshop at First Christian Reformed Church in Barrie on Tuesday evening. The turnout in Barrie was wonderful, with about thirty people and amazing desserts provided by the congregation, thanks to Angela Reitsma Bick's organizing work. Thanks, Angela, to you and your family for your hospitality! We look forward to doing another workshop at Russet House Farm on Saturday night, in addition to several days of camping, stargazing, making music, sharing food, swimming... Come on over if you can, for the day or overnight!

When I lived in Chicago for a couple of years while going to school at North Park University, the array of restaurant options, especially in a very diverse neighborhood, could be overwhelming. A student's small budget and a desire to get to know the area around the school better provided welcome limitations.

Taste of PeruThese days, when we visit the city, it's nice to have friends who can make recommendations. Thanks to Grant, Nate and Liza, we ended up at Taste of Peru, which was within walking distance of where we were staying. Though it's embedded in one of hundreds of non-descript strip malls, Taste of Peru seems to offer something unique. Rather than Americanized imitations, the restaurant prides itself on creating dishes that attract native Peruvians rather than just a steady stream of tourist-eaters. Rob and I enjoyed ceviche for the first time, which is an appetizer featuring fish marinated in lime juice--delicious. The main dish I chose wasn't as tasty as I thought it would be, but since it was the first time I'd eaten Peruvian food, I think I need some more experience before I offer too harsh a critique.

To me, our experience at Taste of Peru was emblematic of a good kind of "glocalization," one that values the neighborhood within reasonable walking distance of home, but also deeply honors global cultural traditions--a stark contrast to driving through a Panda Express, for example.

Big Momma's

Our friends Matt and Elizabeth from Shickley, Nebraska said that if we were going through Omaha on our way to Chicago, we should really consider stopping at Big Mama's Kitchen. Matt gave us a business card he'd been keeping in his wallet for just such a recommendation. And we're glad Elizabeth gave us very specific instructions for finding the restaurant once we arrived at the Turning Point Campus on the north side of the city. Formerly a school for the deaf, the campus is now home to a number of Christian community development ministries. Tucked away in the old cafeteria is an incredible soul food restaurant.

Big Mama is Patricia Barron, whom Matt and Elizabeth know from her involvement in the Mennonite Church Conference that encompasses their region. Just a year-and-a-half old, Big Mama's Kitchen has already been featured on the Food Network. And for as many people who seemed to find its obscure location on the Saturday afternoon we were there, word of mouth must be working in the restaurant's favor.

We were glad Pat was able to escape from her busy kitchen to chat with us for a bit. One of her primary values is making good food for people from scratch, the way she experienced cooking as a child. When food is made to order, it takes time and time gives eaters the opportunity to sit around the table and talk. Pat also tries to use local, organic ingredients when she can because our bodies weren't made to take in all the garbage that comes along with highly processed foods. Some of her greens come from City Sprouts, an urban gardening project in Omaha, while others come from a woman who grows them hydroponically in Iowa.

A short sentence on the restaurant's web site seems to sum up her approach: "Peace begins when the hungry are fed." I would say that Pat seeks to feed more than just physical hunger. Matt and Elizabeth mentioned that she tries to hire people who don't, for whatever reason, have any work history, allowing them to develop skills and a resume.

But of course, satisfying physical hunger with good food is still one of Big Mama's primary specialties. We had her famous oven fried chicken with cornbread, macaroni and cheese, greens and sweet potato pudding with a piece of sweet potato cheesecake for the road. Yummmmm.

Nebraska sunset

With a population of 360, Shickley is one of many tiny towns dotting the Nebraska prairie. As Rob and I were driving in on Wednesday evening, we could see a storm approaching for over an hour across the vastness of the plains. We arrived at the home of our friends Matt and Elizabeth just after dark as they were about to walk the dog. Only two blocks from downtown, their house is at what would be considered the northeast edge of town.

The next morning, we walked to visit Elizabeth at the small grocery store where she works. One of her co-workers informed us that the best place to grab lunch would be a few doors down at Dawg's, a classic small town breakfast-and-lunch diner. He recommended the daily special.

Dawg's

Though we arrived just after noon, the lunch special of fried chicken, hash brown casserole and creamed peas was already sold out to the number of sun-tanned farmers who filled the tables, drinking glass after glass of lemonade and iced tea to replenish their energy for a 90-degree-plus afternoon in the fields. In fact, the tables were so full, that it took the only waitress in the place about a half hour to even come over and take our order. We were hungry, but otherwise not in a hurry, so it was pleasant to sit and see the local culture unfold. We watched with curiosity as a woman who had apparently come in for lunch realized how backed up the service was and started clearing tables.

On sharing this detail later with Matt and Elizabeth, Matt informed us that it's part of the character of Dawg's that people pitch in to help. In fact, most mornings, people take turns grabbing the coffee pot and re-filling mugs around the restaurant. And typically, it's the white collar folks in the room who pour for the farmers.

Butler's

As often happens with tours of this sort, we packed our schedule extremely full--too full, perhaps. So when a particular stop didn't work out during the second week of our big Midwest leg, it was actually quite a relief to sit down in a coffee shop for a few hours and catch up on blog posts.

When Rob and I attended Dordt College in 1997-1999, there wasn't really a great coffee shop in town. There was one that was okay, and there was a better one across the cornfields in Orange City, but we desired a good place close to home. Thankfully, now there's Butler's Café & Coffee.

We met with some folks at Butler's for an interview on Tuesday and Wednesday, we were there over the lunch hour(s) making use of their wi-fi and air conditioning. The staff was really friendly and the space was cool and welcoming, though with a gas fireplace, easily convertible to the warm welcome appropriate to Iowa winters. A huge bookshelf in the center of the space had probably a couple hundred volumes for lending. The lunch options were well made with whole, healthy ingredients, though the coffee could have been better. I don't think I would have chosen to locate in a strip mall, but in Sioux Center, even a strip mall is centrally located, making it easily walkable. All in all, Butler's was a great place to relax and work.

mug.jpgI spent more hours than I should have looking for a new travel coffee mug when the one I'd had for years finally succumbed. I had a lot of criteria: a mug that would seal well enough not to leak in my bag and wasn't made of plastic, a mug that was fairly traded or made in the U.S. and at a price that wouldn't break the bank. Ha. I never did find the perfect option in all of my searching, so one day, as I got ready for work, I took an old hole-y sock, cut off the top and put it on a plain old canning jar--voila! A travel mug that's wonderfully reusable and replaceable. Another benefit of this mug is that it's easy to send one filled with hot coffee or tea or any other beverage along with our overnight guests when they have to leave first thing in the morning.

On Monday, I talked on the phone with a reporter from the Grand Rapids Press about the food tour and she asked what we'd be doing about the dreaded road food dilemma, especially on a tour about food. Attempting to balance idealism and realism in my answer, I said that if we hadn't packed our own food, we'd at least try to stop at a locally-owned business, rather than a chain, to support the local economies of the places we were passing through.

Well, Tuesday was our first chance to test that practice. We had to stop in Three Rivers on our way to our first food tour stop in Demotte, Indiana. Even though we live in Grand Rapids currently, we still have many responsibilities and ties in Three Rivers--including a fair trade store that we helped found and a budding building project for *culture is not optional. We ended up in Three Rivers in 2002 because my family has had a cottage there since the 70s and we plan to move back there in about a year. With three hours to do everything we needed to get done before leaving Michigan for two weeks, we were flying around town with no time to stop for lunch. Finally on the road to Demotte, we resisted the temptation to just stop at Wendy's (cheap, fast and predictable) and stopped instead at Tastee Twirl on Stone Lake in Cassopolis, Michigan.

tastee-twirl.jpg

We've passed Tastee Twirl dozens and maybe hundreds of times on the route between the family cottage in Three Rivers and our hometowns in the south suburbs of Chicago, but I hadn't been there since I was very young. In fact, just being in the building, memories came flooding back of being there with my great grandma, which must have been when I was just three years old. Even after more than 25 years, the space looked exactly the way I remembered and I think I could even point out our table. It's amazing how eating in a place one time with loved people can embed a memory so deeply, as though it becomes a part of you through the food you take in.

The food was, well...what you'd expect from a roadside diner called Tastee Twirl. Bonus points go to the restaurant for using paper cups instead of styrofoam for their shakes and to the woman behind the counter for asking us if we'd like lids and a plastic bag, which helped cut down on trash, though I'm not sure that was their intent. But we definitely lost points for not bringing in the lidded Pyrex container we keep in our trunk and asking them to put our sandwiches in there instead of giant styrofoam boxes. It would have been a small action in the grand scheme of styrofoam hysteria, but every small action has a ripple effect, right? That's something the lake right next to Tastee Twirl should have reminded us of. I'm sure we'll have a chance to redeem ourselves soon.