The Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street: Key Ingredients Michigan Foodways

How many people know that Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the country? Only perennially sunny, no-winter California has more diversity. And Michigan is number one for things like black and navy beans, blueberries, cucumbers and sour cherries. So why isn’t there a Michigan parallel to “California Cuisine”?  A “Michigastronomy” perhaps? 

The Smithsonian’s Museum on Main Street “Key Ingredients Michigan Foodways” traveling exhibit started out in Chelsea on May 26, 2007 and it's been traveling around the state visiting six small-town locations in Michigan. Now in Frankenmuth, there's one more stop in Dundee before it's over on March 16, 2008.   

Michigan Foodways is hopefully changing the view of Michigan as only the land of highway fast food chains.  What is revealed in the exhibit and especially in the events planned around the exhibit is that Michigan does indeed have a rich and diverse food landscape - past and present. And it’s a landscape with a very bright future. I love the clickable map above that shows where different food traditions and growing areas are concentrated. How about a sauerkraut supper in Chelsea? Or some Trenary Toast in da U.P., eh? Our friend Mike has often eaten a cudighi sandwich with his Italian relatives up near Calumet (and says it's delicious). I think I'd prefer to skip the muskrat in Monroe though. It's no fish. 


Yvonne Lockwood, Curator of Folklife at the Michigan State University Museum and co-organizer of the Michigan Foodways exhibit writes:


“Michigan is best described as having local specialties instead of having its own cuisine. Michigan foodways are the foods of many communities, ethnicities, and occupations that constitute the Great Lakes state. For instance, what really is the typical Michigan meal? In Calumet it can consist of a pasty; down the road in Negaunee, one can find a cudighi sandwich. Those in the thumb area would consider the Bay Port Fish Sandwich for a meal. In the summer, the Traverse City region overflows with cherry pie and cherry sausage. People can always find open a Coney Island restaurant in metropolitan Detroit, something unique to our state. Many Catholics in Monroe consider the muskrat as a fish.”


It makes sense that successive waves of immigrants to Michigan shaped the food culture of the areas where they settled. And that those regional specialties are often still available for us to sample.  We also learn that there is a rise of young farmers in Michigan, many farming organically. And that small dairies producing very high quality goat’s and cow’s milk are fueling a rise in artisanal cheese-making.


So for people who want to know more about local food and Michigan history, this exhibit is great food for thought. The communities on the tour have included Chelsea, Calumet, Cheboygan, Whitehall, and Frankenmuth. Dundee is the last stop, starting Feb. 1 - Mar. 16.  The Michigan Foodways exhibit is a seasonal specialty - be sure to have a taste before it's gone! 


From the Michigan Foodways Website: 

"The exhibition considers not only the food but the entire complex of behaviors and ideas related to its preparation, serving, and consumption. Hunting, fishing, and gathering, for example, are significant social, recreational, and occupational activities and their products comprise large additions to our diets. As an important agricultural state, Michigan leads the nation in a number of crops, for example, tart cherries, blueberries, and mint, which also are ingredients in local food specialties....

Michigan is home to more than one hundred ethnic groups, and the exhibit focuses on some of their contributions to Michigan's foodways -- pasties, cudighi, coneys, and paczki, to mention just a few. Local foodways events, sometimes based in an ethnic or religious tradition, also pepper the state -- sauerkraut suppers, fish fries, and pow wows. In such cases the culture, history, and meaning of the foods are emphasized.


Examining other influences that shaped Michigan's foodways, the exhibition acknowledges a number of Michigan food producers and retailers who have enriched the foodways of Michiganders as well as those nationwide. It provides a glimpse at some of Michigan's earliest cookbooks and community cookbooks in the 20th century. While cookbooks are important in maintaining foodways traditions, they also introduce new cooking methods and recipes, ideas about healthy and unhealthy foods, and disseminate recipes to larger audiences. The exhibit also looks briefly at some of the new directions involving foodways, for example, organic farming, family farms, garden-to-school programs, community gardens, and the Slow Food Movement, and their impact in regions in Michigan."

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