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.