Michigan – a cornucopia of good eats and good stories
With Kalamazoo’s celery-growing history, the cereals of Battle Creek, and the Fruit Belt of Southwest Michigan where grapes, blueberries and other sweet natural treats have been king for decades, Michigan has a food legacy almost second to none when it comes to other states.
That aspect of the past, along with the cultural and social connections to what Michiganders have grown and eaten down through the years, is the theme of a coming attraction on the first floor of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.
“Michigan Eats: Regional Culture Through Food,” an exhibit fashioned by the Michigan State University Museum, will be on display from Jan. 22 through April 10.
Sharing space during that time period will be Penny Thompson’s collection of vintage aprons that she began assembling in the 1960s. Among those on display will be embroidered gingham half-aprons, typical work aprons, and turn-of-the-century dressy versions.
While wild game, freshly caught fish and maple syrup have been a part of the diets of native people for millennia, the arrival of pioneer settlers and the influx of their cultures have added all kinds of edibles to daily menus:
The meat-and-potato turnover known as a pasty in the Upper Peninsula.
The asparagus of the shoreline of west-central Michigan.
The sugar beets and beans of The Thumb.
The mushrooms and tart cherries of northern lower Michigan.
The coney/chili dogs of Detroit’s Greek community.
The potatoes of central Michigan.
The varietal and juice wines that are bottled up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline.
All of these, and more, have – down through the years -- fertilized and nurtured the state’s agricultural industry, which has been ranked as No. 2 in Michigan and continues to challenge manufacturing for the top spot.
"According to popular wisdom, we are what we eat,” says Yvonne Lockwood, curator of folklife at the MSU Museum. “What we eat says volumes about us - our backgrounds, our social, cultural, economic and religious status, our food preferences -- in other words, who we are.”
“Michigan Eats” represents “an entire complex of ideas, behaviors and beliefs centered on food production, preparation, presentation and consumption, and the role of culture in shaping and preserving it," Lockwood said.
"The biological necessity to eat is unquestionable,” she said. “However, it is to culture, not biology, that we must look to explain why we eat what we eat."
The exhibit examines the creation of early Michigan cookbooks and a variety of food-centered celebrations -- from fish fries to cherry and berry festivals.
It also draws on the MSU Museum's extensive history and cultural collections to help tell the story of Michigan's foodways, such as cabbage slicers for sauerkraut, sap buckets for maple syrup, apple picking sacks, the wild-rice winnowing baskets used by early Native Americans, and early Kellogg's cereal packaging.