Same Dynamic

I’ve wanted to visit the Chesapeake Bay’s Tangier Island ever since I read a travel article about it back in the 1990s. It was first charted by European explorer John Smith in 1608, and its history is completely outsized for a place that is less than 1/2 of a square mile in land mass. The human history stretches from Native Americans through the Revolutionary War and on through to the watermen of the 1800s and 1900s—and many of those same families continue to ply the bay for crabs and oysters to this day.

There has been an explosion of interest in Tangier in the past few years, primarily because it is eroding into the bay at an alarming pace. About two thirds of the island has disappeared since the 1850s, and the rate of loss is now accelerating. Whether the cause is climate change or a natural cycle is a subject of some debate–but one thing that most residents can agree on is their desire to preserve the island.

Our weekend overnight visit wasn’t motivated at all by erosion; quite to the contrary, we were drawn by the sameness of the place. Tangier is disconnected and isolated from the mainland by ten miles of open water, so “conventional” change has been slow to come. And that is definitely a strong part of its draw.

We headed to Tangier on the ferry out of Crisfield, Maryland, on a scorching hot Saturday with our good friends Lou and Kay. We shared our boat with a big group of day-trippers from nearby Dorchester County (maybe 100+ people, very friendly, from two local churches). 

Once at the dock in Tangier, we watched as folks streamed into the few restaurants and the nearby ice cream shop, overwhelming the town and swelling its population by 20% (from 400 to 500+) for a few very busy hours.

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Main street during a peak in visitors

While our fellow travelers enjoyed lunch and bought a souvenir or two, we headed to the south end of the island to spend some time on the beach. And when we got back to town, most had already left for Crisfield on the 4pm boat.

The islanders are friendly and patient, and they clearly benefit from tourism. But I caught myself thinking that it could get old to be looked on as a curiosity, especially when big groups of tourists overrun the place. So we tried to be mindful of that as we made our way through town. After all, we were tourists, too.

Anyway, once the big group was gone, it felt like we got a truer glimpse of Tangier. The restaurants weren’t packed, the streets were quiet, and the locals were still friendly and patient—but with a bit more time to share, and at a pace that one resident described as “island time.”

As for the town itself, there are a few places to eat, a handful of shops, bike and golf cart rentals, and a few B&Bs–including the Bay View Inn and its wonderful hosts, Maureen, Jim and David. The Bay View Inn’s owners treated us like family from the start, even though tourists on Tangier are often called “come-heres” in local parlance. Lou and I took their cue about family and began teasing each other like teenage brothers, which culminated in a breakfast haiku contest that probably isn’t fit for a family blog. But what’s a weekend without a little combat haiku?

As one would expect, things are simple on the island, and there aren’t a lot of amenities. There’s almost no cell reception, and you need to be willing to get a little wet and a little hot and maybe fight a few bugs to really explore the place. Tangier is a beautiful island in the middle of a bay–but it’s not Nantucket, and by all indications it doesn’t aspire to be.

In addition to the excellent sea kayaking (kayaks are available at no charge from the Bay View Inn), a highlight of our visit was a tour of a crab shanty in the main harbor. Ookire Eskridge, a life-long waterman and the town’s mayor, was our tour guide. He was very friendly and very patient (and funny) as he explained what has been his livelihood for decades. The amount of time and effort that it takes to harvest a soft-shell crab is astounding, and I’ll never eat another one again without thinking of Ookire and his shanty.

It’s impossible to understand any place, especially one as complex as Tangier, in a simple overnight trip–but we really enjoyed the opportunity to try. We found the islanders to be kind, independent, resourceful, and proud, and there is a very strong sense of community. A few quick examples: there is a list on the church bulletin board of residents that are “shut-ins” (to encourage regular visits), there was amazing teamwork moving supplies at the dock, and looking for Ookire to arrange our tour involved (unsolicited) help from at least five people.

This is also a community that cares a lot about their island. Many (most? all?) are eager for a sea wall that can help to keep the bay at bay (one resident jokingly asked me to bring two buckets of dirt the next time that I visited). A sea wall is a complicated question these days, but there’s no doubt that Tangier is a treasure.

Sunday afternoon–and our ride home–came too quickly, despite the heat and a little bit of sunburn. These trivial things were just a hint of the challenges and the hard work that it takes to make a living on Tangier–and that doesn’t even take into account the many moods of the open water on the bay. 

When people can somehow stay the same in an ever-changing world, it sets them apart, and not always in a good way (I think of my cousin’s fanny pack, or Aunt Angela’s tube top). But in Tangier’s case, it’s a good thing, and Tangier is an extremely unique place.

My brother is a great writer and he tells me that there are not “degrees of uniqueness,” that something is either unique or it isn’t. But he’s never been to Tangier.

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A Power Point Presentation

There are a lot of power points in my life…and by power points, I don’t mean boring work slide shows (although I have a lot of those, too). I mean special places that have significance to me. The significance might be there for any number of reasons: natural beauty, the journey to get there, an experience associated with the place, or maybe because of different phases of my life that I’ve spent there. And the more that I experience, the bigger the list becomes–sort of the opposite of a bucket list.

One of my power points is Avalanche Lake, near Lake Placid in the Adirondacks of New York. The lake is in a narrow (~250 foot) slot between 4,714 foot Mount Colden and 3,816 foot Avalanche Mountain, and steep cliffs on both sides knife right into the water. The whole area is tight enough to feel intimate, and yet the lake feels much bigger than the nine acres that it is. There’s also a persistent wind that reminds you that you are alive…especially in the winter when the wind is filled with fine powdery snow blown off of the lake.

My first trip to Avalanche Lake was supposed to happen in 1987, but that trip was cut short when the temperatures hit 30 below (which, as it turns out, also reminds you that you are alive).

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My friend Dean on the left, after a chilly night. When Souzz saw this photo, she said “you look miserable.”

In 1992, I was finally able to visit Avalanche Lake in more typical winter weather, and I’ve been back probably four times since. Each time the lake was a little different and a little the same, with ice formations, lots of weather, and that persistent cold wind.

This year’s trip to Avalanche Lake was my first in warm weather…and my first visit with Souzz. Once again, it was a little different and a little the same. For starters, Marcy Pond (on the five mile hike in) is now Marcy Brook, as the dam blew out during a big storm in 2011. There have also been a few more landslides in the pass–so I guess this place is both a power point and a slide show. But the trail is pretty much the same, although in the summer there’s of course no snow to even out the rough spots–and it’s slower on foot than on skis. But this is a cool hike to a cool place in any season.

An added bonus to our trip was a visit afterwards with our friend Matt Horner, an artist in nearby Keene. Matt is an amazing stone sculptor–as well as a fly fishing guide and one of the best ice climbing guides anywhere. Matt shares my love for the lake, and he has had the benefit of looking down on it in ways that most of us mortals can’t.

We met up with Matt at the Farmer’s Market in Keene, just south of Lake Placid, and Matt’s art speaks for itself. We added to our art collection on our trip, and it’s always nice to bring back a little slice (or carve) of the Adirondacks.

As for Avalanche Lake, I’ve said before that I rarely go to the same place twice, but that’s only selectively true (read: a lie). The Adirondacks are one of my favorite places, and Avalanche Lake is a favorite within a favorite. I love the dramatic features, the stark relief, the hike in, and the memories. And when I get to share a favorite place with my favorite person, it feels like a new adventure all over again. That’s a powerful point.

 

Space Between My Skis

Souzz is on the Alumni Board for her college, St.Michael’s, near Burlington, Vermont, and there was a board meeting this past weekend…so of course I tagged along to enjoy the winter fun. Afterwards, we were able to squeeze in a day of skiing at Stowe—a place that I hadn’t visited in forty years (!).

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I’ve enjoyed downhill skiing for a long time, as I was taught to ski by my dad at age seven (my age, not his) in the Black Hills of South Dakota. When we lived in Rapid City, we had season tickets to nearby Terry Peak, and the whole family had a chance to learn the sport, pretty special (thanks, dad!).

My Stowe history began in 1979, when my high school ski club came up to Vermont from Virginia on a four-day bus trip. Back then, I had bushy hair, Stowe’s lift tickets were $16, the mountain had 34 trails, and skiing was my main passion. In the present day, my hair looks best under a helmet, lift tickets are $147, and Stowe has more than a hundred trails…but I still have a passion for skiing.

Souzz spent a lot of time during college in the 1980s gazing out at Mount Mansfield–the highest point in the state of Vermont, and one of the two mountains that form Stowe (Spruce Peak is the other). She didn’t downhill ski back then, only recently having found the sport, so she welcomed the chance to appreciate the view from the other direction.

There is a lot of history to this place. Stowe started as a lumber camp in the late 1700s, and skiing here likely began in the 1800s. The first known recreational skiing was in 1914, when a Dartmouth librarian skied down a trail now called the “Toll Road.”

During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a road to Stowe for automobiles, and the US Ski Patrol was started at Stowe in 1934. The resort fully opened for business in 1936, and lift tickets were a dollar (still a hefty sum during the Depression).

Stowe felt the impact of World War II in a lot of ways. For starters, the Stowe ski patrol had a big hand in training the US Army’s 10th Mountain Division (specializing in winter warfare, often on skis). And in the midst of the war, Stowe’s only chairlift had to operate on a limited schedule due to fuel rationing.

Today Stowe is big business, with a lot of fancy lifts and services, and an entire village at the base of Spruce Peak (some call the village the Vail of the East).

Still, in some ways, the mountains are just as they have always been.

Another thing that is unchanged about Stowe is the cold. On that 1979 trip, I remember that the lift operator on the single chair handed me a pancho-style wool blanket before I got on the lift. At the top, I handed my blanket back to an attendant who then stacked it onto a pile of blankets that rode down on returning chairs. This practice continued until the single chair was replaced with a faster four-person chair in 1986.

As a teenager, I also remember aggressive runs down steep trails with huge moguls, as well as a big wipeout on a trail called Hayride. I’ve had a lot of falls over the years, but that one was particularly memorable because I knocked the wind out of myself on my thermos (tucked neatly inside the chest pocket of my anorak). Gasping for air after a faceplant is no way to look cool in front of your high school buddies.

It was also at Stowe that my high school idol, Tye, broke a ski binding in the middle of a trail called Goat (part of Stowe’s fabled “Front Four”) and then promptly one-skied the rest of the way down (clearly a cooler move than doing the Heimlich on yourself with a thermos). I had been trying hard to keep up with Tye on that trip, but it always felt like he was trying to lose me (well, maybe he was).

My return trip to Stowe this year was marked by a more conservative approach, but there was still some nice skiing, including a bunch of trails recommended by Souzz’s friend George. I even got back onto Hayride (sans faceplant)–and I love that George calls Hayride a “cruiser” (see his note below). It occurs to me that George might be a better skier than I am.

I’m no expert skier, but I’ve had the chance to travel and ski a fair amount—and Stowe remains my absolute favorite. The conditions have been great on my trips, the terrain is super interesting, and the mountain has a great vibe.

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I shared a chair with these fine folks. Is it still 1979?

Lastly, my Stowe advice: leave the thermos at home, skip Hayride, and don’t try to keep up with anybody named Tye.

Pegman Meets Viking

We just wrapped up a trip to the Oregon Coast, ostensibly to Newport and Cannon Beach, in an adventure that came together by way of Pegman. If you aren’t familiar with Pegman, that’s the name of the little guy on Google Maps that you can drag around to get a street view (I learned that little tidbit of information through Google, of course).

So here’s the backstory: a few weeks ahead of our trip, we were surfing the net to scope out different driving routes on the coast. At some point, we dragged Pegman down to a totally random spot…and he just happened to land on the stunning view from the Nordic Oceanfront Inn, in the small coastal town of Lincoln City.

So who chooses a destination by way of Pegman? Well, I guess we do. I’d never heard of Lincoln City (or Pegman) myself, which seems like how a good adventure might begin. And on top of the opportunity to discover a new town, the Nordic Oceanfront Inn looked like a fun destination itself. It’s locally owned and slightly quirky, with a giant wooden Viking out front, and oceanfront rooms with massive windows.

Lincoln City was founded in 1965 by combining seven adjacent communities, and it was named through a contest with local school children. I remember the 1960s as the heyday of a child’s toy called Lincoln Logs–so I was sure that was the inspiration for the name. Souzz suggested that the name could also be because the town is in Lincoln County (but I’m sticking with the Lincoln Log thing).

Lincoln City is maybe 20 minutes north of Newport and about two hours from Portland, and Wikipedia tells us that about 8,000 people live there now.  It has a lot of attractions and services for tourists, but it struck us as a local kind of place. The shops seem oriented more towards year-round business, and we didn’t hear a lot of Virginia accents. I got the sense that there weren’t too many Portland accents, either, at least not this time of year.

The dinner scene in Lincoln City was pretty memorable, too, as there were lots of folks on a first-name basis with the friendly staff at Pier 101 Restaurant. I also really like places where the chairs don’t all match perfectly, the décor varies from rustic to contemporary in the space of a single booth, and the food is simple, well-prepared, and fresh (our catch came up from Newport just the day before).

In contrast, Newport had more of a tourist vibe, and Cannon Beach felt like a weekend destination for Portland (albeit a very worthy one).  While Newport and Cannon Beach are clearly great destinations–with a beautiful harbor in Newport and a classic rocky beach at Cannon–they just felt a little more discovered.

And as expected, our entire drive north up the coast was beautiful.

This was a short trip for us–wedged in the middle of a long solo return trip from Alaska for me–but we got the most out of it. We walked on the beach, ate Dungeness Crab, drank Oregon wine and local craft beer, and sampled Tillamook cheese right at the factory (is cheese made in a factory? ok, creamery).

We also enjoyed amazing Pacific sunsets from a hot tub…and all because of Pegman. Where should we go next, Pegman?

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Cooking Old School In The New Year

Souzz and I often spend New Year’s Eve in the backcountry or in a cabin, and we traditionally make risotto (along with some other fancy dish). The standard bearer of New Year’s absurdity was probably the year that we made risotto with lobster in a five burner kitchen while camping in the snow. We didn’t quite reach that level of absurdity this year, but we at least thought about it.

 

Anyway, with cold rain in the 2019 forecast, we decided to head to the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club’s Dawson Cabin in Pennsylvania, about two hours drive from our home in Virginia. Dawson is one of the lesser visited cabins in the PATC system, maybe because the hike to the cabin is straight uphill. But the hike is short, and Dawson is a hidden gem that is worth the visit! The cabin is well appointed and very well maintained, and it has southern exposure and a beautiful view.

 

For our planned risotto and filet mignon feast, we hauled in a lot of cookware, as well as a five pound canister of propane and a two-burner camp stove. Utility wagons are a great tool for getting bulky gear into walk-in PATC cabins—but dragging them uphill through the mud and over tree roots in the rain might be an acquired taste.

 

When we reached the cabin, we discovered that there was a problem with the regulator on the camp stove, so the stove and propane were basically flammable barbells. The issue was clearly beyond what I could field-repair, and fiddling with high-pressure gas connections is exciting in any circumstance–but especially so in a remote wood-framed structure. I’m also kind of fond of my eyebrows.

As a consolation, at least we had some good appetizers.

With appetizers gone and still five hours to New Year’s, we had a new twist: how to make risotto without a modern camp stove. But there was a perfectly serviceable wood stove sitting right at our feet, so how hard could this be?

Tending a wood stove is always important in a PATC cabin in winter, although the goal is usually just heating the place. But now we had to figure out a way to keep the heat somewhat constant.

Ok, so I get that wood stoves have been around for generations, and my friends in bush Alaska are probably rolling their eyes by now (well, at least Ruby is…but in my defense, I don’t remember seeing a lot of risotto on “Life Below Zero“).

It took a little fiddling to maintain the level of heat on the cooktop, and there were times when we had to cool things off by lifting the pan onto a hastily made wire trivet (using a piece from a broken dartboard that we found in the cabin).

 

But we figured it out, and the risotto was quite good. And the keys to good risotto are the same whether on a modern range or on a wood stove: using homemade stock (way less salty), heating the stock quite a bit before adding, and cooking the risotto at high heat (ideally enough heat to finish the job in less than 20 minutes). With too little heat, things take a long time and the risotto gets sticky.

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We paired the risotto with filet mignon, which we grilled over wood fire coals. And note Souzz’s thumb print in the steak. I guess that’s how real chefs figure out if it’s done.

Lastly, our stove challenge gave us the chance to puzzle over why we go to primitive cabins and then haul in hundreds of pounds of fancy gear. That seems about as logical as getting the turbo option when you buy a Ford Fiesta. So maybe simplifying things should be our New Year’s Resolution? Well, that and preserving my eyebrows.

 

A Recipe To Remember

Back in 2005, we had the opportunity to travel to Italy with my parents and sister and brother-in-law on a pleasure trip that was also a mission of sorts. We went in part to visit Tuscany, but our primary purpose was to visit the site of a World War II memorial near the northern Italian city of Mantova.

In October of 1944, four aviators from my dad’s unit, the 319th Bomb Group, were lost on a mission to take out a rail bridge in Mantova. Two of those lost, Don Treadwell and Joe Prebil, were close friends of my dad, who was a pilot in another B26 bomber on that mission. My dad was able to return to his base in Corsica that day, but that mission clearly was a defining moment in his life.

The idea of our 2005 trip started when I learned about the memorial that the village of Redondesco had recently built to the four lost aviators. I’d learned about it by chance through my brother-in-law—a history professor fluent in Italian who had read about it in the Mantova newspaper. I was only half-serious when I announced later at a family gathering that I was going to visit. My dad surprised me when he immediately asked “can I come with you?”

A few months later, my parents, Souzz, me, my sister and her husband headed off to northern Italy on a trip that we’d never even imagined. We set things up entirely through email using web-based language translation programs (I think this internet fad might be here to stay).

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Once in Mantova, we were met by the Mayor of Redondesco along with a very knowledgeable Mantova historian and a volunteer translator from Redondesco. The three of them proceeded to take us on a guided tour of targets and crash sites, a tour that was simply amazing.

During our tour, we met a local farmer that witnessed the 1944 crash as a young boy, and he shared his emotional story as if it had happened yesterday. Later we were joined at the memorial by a huge group from the village of Redondesco—a group that waited for us for quite some time, undeterred by steady rain. We then closed our visit with a remarkable meal at the Mayor’s family farmhouse.

Calling our experience at the farmhouse a “meal” understates things quite a bit, as it was more like a commemoration and a celebration of friendship–and it was also the most amazing cultural experience that I’ve ever had. Lunch lasted five full hours, and there were seven courses, all hand-prepared over the previous two full days. Wave after wave of food came out while gregarious townspeople chatted away in Italian. Several times, our new friends did their best (in English) to thank my dad and the US for helping to bring Italy its freedom in World War II (and “their best” was pretty great, just perfect).

At the center of the meal was a regional favorite called tortelli di zucca, a pumpkin-stuffed pasta that is a Mantova specialty.

After we returned home to Virginia, our new friend Ivano (our translator on the trip, one of several new friends with whom we are still in touch, some 14 years later) generously shared his tortelli recipe. Since then, tortelli has become one of our favorite dishes. We’ve made it twice in just the last few months, and it’s always a crowd pleaser. And perhaps best of all, it is both a meal and a story.

 

Like any food experience, the memories of our meal in Redondesco are shaped by the context―the people, the situation and the emotions involved. Lunch that day in 2005 offered us a chance to connect with people from another country and to acknowledge a sacrifice that should never be forgotten—and we had the opportunity to share that experience with my parents and my sister and brother-in-law, pretty special.

And through my dad’s stories, our trip also offered a glimpse into what our troops did for us in 1944–and what they continue to do for us today.

Each time we make tortelli di zucca, we raise a glass to Don and Joe, and to all of the others that never made it home. As I’ve learned time and again, food can be a meal, an experience, a memory, a connector, or even a tribute. Sometimes it’s all five.

 

A Multi-Layered Place

A formula for at least some of our trips goes like this: never been there before + don’t know anybody that’s been there = adventure. In the case of our recent trip to Smith Island, there was an added multiplier: we had never heard of it until a few days before.

We stumbled upon Smith Island as a potential destination while we were looking into a possible trip to Tangier Island, which is Smith’s neighbor to the south. Once we “discovered” Smith and researched a bit, it looked to be quaint, off the beaten path (in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay), and somewhat unknown to us—in other words, a perfect weekend adventure.

Smith Island is worth knowing about! The island is a collection of small watermen’s communities that aren’t really set up for tourists, but that’s part of what makes this place so charming. Services are limited, but there are a handful of B&Bs and there is regular ferry service from Crisfield, Maryland. And getting to Smith is part of the adventure. It was about four hours door-to-door from Northern Virginia (including the ferry ride).

We were joined on the ferry by Smith residents that were bringing in groceries, supplies, and building materials, as pretty much everything but seafood and cake generally comes from the mainland (more about cake later). We mirrored the locals and brought along picnic-style meals ourselves (although there is a restaurant in-season that is generally open for lunch).

The island was first charted by Captain John Smith in 1608 and later named after Henry Smith, an early landowner. It was settled in the late 1600s by English farmers John Evans and John Tyler, and the 250 or so current residents live across three communities: Ewell, Rhodes Point, and Tylerton. Tradition runs deep here, as crabbing, fishing, and harvesting oysters have been a way of life for generations.

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A crabber keeps his live catch in a wooden crab float, 1945. Photo credit: The Mariners’ Museum and Park

Families on Smith today still appear to share a lot of connections (the names Evans and Tyler remain heavily represented on the island). Smith Islanders also share a dialect, sometimes called a Tidewater or Elizabethan accent, which was different enough to make us listen closely at times.

During our visit, we rode bikes, checked out the marshes and bird life, visited the Bayside Inn restaurant (great seafood, no surprise), and stopped by the local art gallery in Ewell. We also had a lovely chat with the friendly caretaker at the Smith Island Cultural Center. A lot has happened—and is happening—at Smith, ranging from Revolutionary War history to the current threat posed by erosion (the island has lost 1200 acres over the past 100 years).

We closed out the day back at our lovely B&B, the Smith Island Inn, where we watched a sunset that seemed to take a full hour.

What struck me the most about our visit was the evening quiet. Maybe it’s because watermen’s communities are ‘early to bed’ kinds of places—or maybe I’m imagining that—but the stunning quiet was something I was glad I got to hear (can you hear quiet?).

There are clearly a lot of layers to Smith, with history and nature mixed in with a dash of tourism—all on a working watermen’s island. A friend from the Eastern Shore told us recently that Smith Islanders look forward to getting their first skiff at age 14 or so, much like city kids might look forward to cars and drivers licenses. That makes sense when you are in a place where a trip to school involves a boat ride. Life clearly revolves around the bay when you are living in the middle of the bay.

And speaking of layers, we also took the opportunity to enjoy Smith’s trademark dish, Smith Island Cake. It’s typically a yellow cake with eight or more thin layers of fudge frosting that is an island specialty. Smith Island Cake dates to at least the 1800s, when it was made to take along on the autumn oyster harvest.

When we got back home, we of course were inspired to make our own version of Smith Island Cake, complete with a taste test against the real thing (by our visiting niece, who was a good sport!). I’m not sure what I’m going to do with the eight cake pans that I bought just for this recipe, but souvenirs are a part of the travel experience, right?

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Our niece was a good sport and did a taste test…and the real Smith Island Cake won, of course!

 

Getting Closer

We just visited the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—commonly called “the U.P.” by all but the most uninformed tourists—and absolutely loved everything about it. Our U.P. trip was a short one, but we crammed in quite a few adventures. We kayaked at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior, mountain biked on Grand Island, and stopped by Mackinac Island for an overnight on the way home.

Mackinac (pronounced “Makinaw”) is a tiny little island (two miles long) out in Lake Huron, and visiting is like time travel—no cars, lots of horse-drawn carriages, and buildings and hotels dating to the 1800s.

The U.P. seems largely about the fantastic (ok, Great) lakes and the beautiful northern forests, but it’s also about the food—and you tend to see and hear a lot about pasties, perhaps the most well-known regional treat.

But there’s so much more to food in the U.P., in particular the seafood. Coming from the East Coast, I didn’t really associate seafood with Michigan, and yet there is amazing fresh Great Lakes seafood all over the U.P..

On our trip, we fell in love with the local market in the town of Munising, VanLandschoot and Sons. It’s been around for more than 100 years, and it has an amazing selection of whitefish, salmon, trout, fish dip, and smoked fish.

Like a lot of U.P. businesses, VanLandschoot and Sons is a family affair. It was founded in 1914 by a Belgian immigrant named Philip VanLandschoot who initially set up shop on the shores of Lake Michigan. In 1942, he and his family shifted operations to Munising, a town of about 2,500 on Lake Superior. He fished all summer by boat, and then ice-fished all winter—moving his gear around by horse and sleigh. Those were no doubt different times.

In addition to running a high quality market, VanLandschoot and Sons has also been at the forefront of sustainable fishing practices. In the 1960s, they pioneered the use of trapnets, which are a more responsible way to fish than gillnets. With a trapnet, fish are caught live and any fish that are not being targeted (“bycatch”) can be released. In contrast, gillnets typically kill anything that they catch. The use of trapnets are one of many innovations over the years that have help maintain Lake Superior as a very health commercial fishery.

Whitefish are one of 88 species of fish in Lake Superior. They are near the lake bottom in terms of habitat, but are clearly near the top in terms of popularity—comprising almost 90% of the commercial harvest. Whitefish owes its popularity in part to its mild flavor, which means that even people who don’t like fish seem to like whitefish (illogical much?).

 

VanLandschoot and Sons is located in a building next to their docks on the edge of town, and there’s nothing fancy about it. But you can see the boats when you are standing in front of their cold case, so I’m thinking you are getting pretty fresh stuff. They also process, filet and smoke everything right on site, with a friendly staff and prices that would make Whole Foods blush.

Back at our spacious and lovely AirBnB rental in Munising (we splurged a bit), we pan-fried our whitefish with a little paprika, olive oil, pepper, and lemon juice, and we also made a smoked whitefish dip with green onions and cream cheese. That’s a lot of whitefish, but it was definitely a Superior meal.

It’s funny to think that time spent together in the kitchen was one of the highlights of our vacation. But there’s something special about supporting a local (and responsible) business, eating what’s in season, preparing your meals from the freshest of ingredients, and doing it right near the source. A lot of people go on vacation to get away, but sometimes it’s fun to get closer.

Sweet Memories

A few weeks ago, I asked my 94-year-old dad if he had a favorite drink–thinking he might say something like a Manhattan or a Whiskey Sour. He looked skyward for what seemed like a long time, and then he finally announced, “probably cane juice.”

Huh? Cane juice? I guess I’m still learning things about my dad—and learning things from my dad, too. This lesson was about a great memory from his childhood in Savannah, Georgia, which was apparently overflowing with a sugary natural drink that I’d never even heard of.

 

Cane juice is made by crushing sugarcane stalks, and it is quite popular across the South, as well as throughout Latin America and in Southeast Asia. People have been enjoying this stuff for generations wherever sugarcane is grown (who knew?). Oh, and cane juice can also be aged to make rum (patience is an even greater virtue than I thought).

 

Whenever my dad had money in his pocket as a kid, he would stop for cane juice at roadside stands in and around Savannah. He also shared that there were a lot of stands in nearby Guyton, where his Aunt Beth lived on what we’d nowadays probably call a farm (she kept chickens and pigs out back). In the old days, the juice was sometimes made by mules that walked in a circle to power a cane crusher.

 

Fresh cane juice had to either be consumed or refrigerated right away, which wasn’t a hard choice for a thirsty kid (and there wasn’t much refrigeration in those days, anyway).

 

With my dad’s re-kindled interest in cane juice, my sister found a place close to where he lives in Florida that serves it in much the same way as the stands across Savannah in the 1930s. The community of Bokeelia, on Pine Island, is only about 40 minutes from my folks’ home in Fort Myers, but it feels lost in time. Pine Island still has general stores, motels that advertise in-room color TV, endless fruit groves–and a place called Fruitscapes that sells amazing fruit as well as fresh-pressed cane juice.

 

We stopped into Fruitscapes for a visit this week, and were delighted to find fresh juice—along with pomelos, bananas, persimmons, dried mangos, and a super friendly staff. During our visit, our new friend Cecelia gave us a little education along with a glass of the prized juice. Just as in the old days, she threaded several stalks of sugarcane through a press, and then folded the partially flattened canes in half and did it again. The whole press contraption looked like it was made in 1930, so maybe that’s why the juice tasted so familiar to my dad.

 

So, for four dollars, we got a demonstration, a drink, and a chance to hear stories about Savannah in the 1930s. I’m not sure I’d say that I like cane juice better than a Manhattan. But you probably have to drink six Manhattans to take a trip through time, and it only takes one cup of cane juice.

Awesome Sauce

So what’s a camping trip without a mole? And by mole, I mean the pepper-based sauce from Mexico and not the burrowing beady-eyed critter. Mole (pronounced mo-lay) tastes amazing over fish, chicken, or basically any kind of meat (except over mole meat, which is disgusting).

Mole is an ancient Spanish word that loosely translates to “mix.” The recipe has its roots in the Mexican town of Oaxaca, about 200 miles southeast of Mexico City. Popular legend has it that nuns were rushing to prepare for a visit from the archbishop and they just made up a sauce out of what they had on hand.

Souzz visited Oaxaca last month on a business trip, and she managed to squeeze in a mole-making class during her visit (I guess the margarita-chugging class was fully booked).

Souzz raved about her class (and her trip) when she got home. So when we started planning a menu for a backpacking trip with our good friends Lou and Kay, mole-making became an obvious choice (with margarita chugging as a backup). Our destination was Racer Camp Hollow, a favorite of ours in the Blue Ridge mountains near Wardensville, West Virginia.

We made a mole verde that used tomatillos, which are smallish green Mexican tomatoes. Our mole recipe also used pumpkin seeds, jalapenos, onions, garlic, cilantro, parsley, and a little bit of chicken stock.

The whole trick to backcountry mole–besides a penchant for cooking the absurd–is to carry a hand-crank food processor. Our new little toy worked out great, and it weighed less than a pound.

It turns out there are actually several makes and models of hand-crank food processors, which had me wondering how many lunatic foodie backpackers there could possibly be? Or maybe people want to cook fancy during power outages? But mostly I wondered if this thing could be used to make margaritas.

The absurdity of our meal planning came into sharper focus when we decided to include fresh doughnuts for breakfast. We always use a paper bag to shake and coat the doughnuts, which naturally prompted a text exchange ahead of the trip about cow pies.

In any case, dinner was delightful, and we served the mole over rice and some fresh grouper that we had hand-carried from Florida a few weeks back. We followed the main course with Kay’s apple tart for dessert, which made for a pretty elegant backcountry meal.