*This column originally appeared in the July 12, 2014, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY — If you’re anything like I used to be, your eyes roll every time you hear of yet another “best of” accolade for the Grand Traverse region.
They come rolling in like Lake Michigan waves — one after another — from the likes of Fodor’s, USA Today, National Geographic, and, just a couple weeks ago, from Craftbeer.com. Best Small Towns for Food. Top Midwest Travel Spots. Best Places to Retire. My current favorite is Best Beeriest Beach Towns — oh my!
I’ve long been a bit cynical about community self-aggrandizement. Upon hearing such arm-twisting pats on the back, I often said under my breath, “Yeah, right, best of what?” Callous and unrepentant to the core. But last week, while taking a trip to the East Coast with my wife and kid, my cranky world-view received a great big blow.
So now I must say, “Mea culpa, Traverse City!”
Here’s why: In town after town, as we drove through nine states and one Canadian province, we bumped into the subjects of location and quality of life. Our conversations kept circling back to good, healthy, local food and whether it was available in communities where we stopped. My job at MLUI is to help sell more local food, so I’ve developed some conversational gambits that quickly ascertain whether food businesses value their local food systems. Sitting down in a pub or a burger joint, I ask, “What local beers do you carry?”
Too many times out East the response was, “Sam Adams,” or “Budweiser, that’s American.”
When it came time to order from the menu, I ask, “What’s your best local food?”
“Uhmmm, we’re known for our homemade coleslaw,” they might say.
So I get a bit more insistent, blurting out something like, “You mean, with all these farms, you don’t offer a single locally grown item?”
This is often when the once-curious waiter or waitress gets that annoyed look. And so as not to risk the kitchen’s retribution by, say, poisoning my food for being a stuck-up, jerky tourist, I back down and offer, “Well, how about you just bring us your favorite items!”
Perhaps it’s my own cherry-colored lenses, but I see a real culture of pride in our region for the products we grow and make here. Here you are hard-pressed to find a grocery store, pub, or restaurant that doesn’t offer some local product. I’m proud of this place, and happy I live in a community that supports its local food system in so many real and visible ways. Here you can sit down in an establishment and ask, “What’s local on your menu?” and have the wait-person reply, “We have too many items to list!”
So—I have a brand-new and, I think, greatly improved attitude about accolades: Bring them on. This region gets my unequivocal vote for “Proudest Local Food and Beverage Town in America.”
Bill Palladino is a senior policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute.