In May, 2010, I released my cookbook, Vegetarian Traditions. The following 10 months, I traveled from San Diego to Michigan a number of times for events, book signings and cooking demonstrations–short trips which barely gave me time to catch my breath. My wife, Sara, and I decided to spend the summer of 2011 in the Detroit area, allowing us to do events every week, catch up with old friends and take part in community activities. What I discovered was exciting!
Michigan, as a whole, is in a heavy state–consistently near the top of the charts for the most overweight, even though it is one of the top agriculture producers with farming being the second largest industry. I was always troubled by the obesity since there is so much fresh produce available in the numerous farmers markets, road side stands, grocery and produce stores, all carrying the amazing Michigan bounty. However, this summer, I felt change in the air.
We kicked off our Michigan summer with a cooking class on Mackinac Island during their Lilac Festival. Although the natural beauty of Mackinac Island is dazzling, the tourists always seemed to be disconnected with what they ate. Food on the island is solely for entertainment purposes–fudge, candy and restaurant cuisine prepared for taste and presentation. This trip was different. Not only did they invite me, a vegan, health-oriented chef, to do a demonstration in the community center, but the local chefs and residents seemed to be yearning for change towards a better and healthier cuisine. This was evident, not only through what I was told, but also on the restaurant menus. Mackinac Island has not lost its status of being the fudge capital of Michigan, continuing to use more sugar than anywhere else in the state—but, Rome was not built in a day.
My next surprise was when I was invited to teach a class in Wyandotte. This is in the “down-river” area of Michigan’s very industrial community with hard working, blue collar folks. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the class was sold out. In a charming health food store, Total Health Foods in Wyandotte’s historic downtown area, the impressive crowd was eager to learn and discover as much as they could about healthy food and cooking. The down-river experience didn’t stop there. I was invited to pass out Inn Season Cafe’s Brown Rice Salad and sell my book in three areas which are not synonymous with vegetarian lifestyles: Allen Park, Shelby Township and Warren. All of these events were organized and run by the optimistic and high energy Mary Ann Demo.
Allen Park, a down-river community where the Detroit Lions practice in the summer months, is a wholesome, unassuming town and, much like Wyandotte, many of the residents worked for the auto industry or one of the other numerous plants in the area. The farmers market was set up in a parking lot close to the downtown area. It was quiet and may take a while to catch on, but at least Mary Ann and the Allen Park residents are making the effort and it is a good place to spend a Friday afternnoon.
The relatively new Warren Farmers Market is housed in the Warren Town Center, a wonderful facility with pavilions, a wading pool and an interactive fountain located near the GM Tech Center. This busy market had farmers selling Indian lauki (calabash) squash, purslane and amaranth in addition to a robust presentation of the usual Michigan bounty.
The Shelby Township Farmers Market is located on the historic Packard Automotive Proving Grounds, a beautiful property with buildings designed by famed architect Albert Kahn.
Although the day I participated was unusually hot, many local residents braved the heat to purchase fresh, local produce. One of the farmers was selling a succulent and very sweet watermelon in addition to an impressive selection of Michigan produce–the perfect antidote for the heat.
I was really excited to see several Detroit urban farmers at the historic Eastern Market, the nurturing core of Detroit’s urban expansion since 1841. Brother Nature and Grown in Detroit, just to name a couple, feature an impressive variety of fresh-picked produce from local gardens. In addition, Randy Hampshire of Hampshire Farms, is still the certified organic anchor here, selling grains, beans and breads–not to mention his fresh ground cornmeal.
The Royal Oak Farmers Market and the Birmingham Farmers Market, the two I frequent the most, were busier than I ever remember. The Royal Oak Market is located within blocks of my former restaurant, Inn Season Cafe, where we sponsored the first organic farmers back in 1990. Today, certified organic farms, such as Cinzori Farms, Hampshire Farms and Maple Creek Farm, anchor the organic presence, providing some of the best produce in the area and often feature unique heirloom varieties.
Cousin Don Hobson has worked tirelessly to make the Birmingham Market a success. A wonderful addition to a beautiful city, it has become a must-do on Sunday for many of the local residents. In addition to a wonderful organic presence, including Nature’s Pace Organics and Blue Water Organics, the market highlights numerous vendors with local hand-crafted products. These two markets are great for finding vegetable treasures to make everyday meals an event!
So, as my summer trip comes to a close, I leave feeling that Michiganders are now riding the crest of the modern food revolution–actively incorporating healthy changes into their lives. I am pleased that my book is now in the kitchens of so many on that path to change. Sara and I feel an even stronger connection to our home state as we have come to appreciate how rich Michigan is with the incredible farmers markets, wonderful restaurants like Inn Season Cafe and The Cacao Tree and the best corn, cherries, blueberries, peaches, heirloom tomatoes, potatoes, kale–just to mention a few!
Our last Summer hurrah will be the Food Is Medicine event at the Wellness Training Institute with Dr. Michael Dangovian, an integrative cardiologist who combines modern cardiology with a Yoga-based stress-reducing program. Late September is the peak of the Michigan harvest and I will showcase foods from local farmers while demonstrating how easy it is to add these gastronomical treasures to any home repertoire.
A Market Inspired Recipe:
Big smiles and bright faces greeted me as I approached the Green Tops booth at the Birmingham Farmers Market. This is what the high school students participating in the farmers market program at the Baldwin Center in Pontiac call their self-grown produce business. I was pleasantly surprised to find Asian long beans on their table and bought all of them. My first experience with this type of bean was in India, but soon discovered this is a favorite type of green bean throughout Asia. They have a nutty flavor, are tender when cooked and only need trimming every foot or so–a real prep bonus!
Asian Long Beans in Tahini Sauce
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
½ teaspoon garlic, minced
1 cup sweet onions, thinly sliced
3 cups Asian long beans, trimmed into 4 inch long sections and steamed
1 ½ cups cooked garbanzo beans¼ cup tahini (sesame butter)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 ½ cups water
½ teaspoon sea salt
In a skillet on medium heat, cook olive oil, garlic and onions until clear. Add long beans, garbanzos, tahini, lemon juice, water and sea salt. Turn down to low heat, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve hot.
Note: Green beans may be substituted if long beans are not available.