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Michigan writer Emita Brady Hill. Courtesy photo
Columns Lick the Plate

Lick the Plate: Women in food and farming tell their stories in ‘Northern Harvest’

About a year ago I was approached by Wayne State University Press to read a manuscript titled “Northern Harvest” by Emita Brady Hill and to reply with my feedback on whether it was worthy of publication. As it turned out, a good number of the women who told their stories to Emita Hill for the book had been guests on my radio show in northern Michigan and they all had great stories to share … which they were able to do more in-depth in the book.

I gave it a big thumbs-up and to my delight, the book was published and has been getting rave reviews, and not just among folks who live in Michigan. The women profiled have stories and struggles that are universal and worth reading for anyone who puts value on the hard work, dedication and passion it takes to operate a farm, start a restaurant or any other culinary related endeavor.

I wanted to share a bit of Emita Brady Hill’s story, so I had her on my show and took some excerpts of that for this week’s column. You can listen to the interview at www.lick-the-plate.com.

LTP: Tell me about your earliest interest/exposure to great food.

EBH: I grew up in a house with “healthy” food that was totally bland, no spices, no onions, garlic, anything that “smelled.” Age 12, I was in France in a little restaurant with my mom and had my Julia Child culinary epiphany, and it was almost the same year she had hers. Lamb can be rare and juicy; haricots verts are a different species from green beans; baguettes are not like Wonder Bread. I never looked back.

LTP: How and when did your family start coming to northern Michigan and describe the difference between the culinary scene then and now.

EBH: My mom and her siblings were brought by train to Long Lake where I now spend my summers before 1900. Her memories were so golden that decades later as a wife and mother living in Baltimore, she piled children and poodles (five of each) into her station wagon and drove west.

My earliest memories of Long Lake are around age 3 or 4. My earliest culinary memories are that this region was a culinary wasteland. No restaurants to speak of until a few outliers —Tapewingo, Rowe Inn, Bécasse — in the early ’70s, and not one was in the city limits of Traverse City.

LTP: How did the idea for the book come about?

EBH: In 2015, I had published a book of oral histories, “Stories of Courage and Community,” told me by Bronx residents. I love interviewing people to get their stories. The first time I thought of interviewing women in the food business in Michigan was when I learned about Angela Macke’s tea farm and was blown away that a tea farm could exist and even thrive here in northern Michigan. And the title chosen by the publisher, “Northern Harvest,” was perfect once I began listening to these women and their stories.

LTP: Give an example of the diversity of the women you wrote about.

EBH: I love all the stories and each one is unique. I laugh out loud every time I read again about Cheryl Kobernik’s adventures with the tractor and spreader as they kept breaking down. I marvel at Mimi and Jody’s encounters with the cocoa growers in Central America and their commitment to fair trade chocolate. I am overwhelmed by what Emily Umbarger has accomplished at Interlochen, transforming and greening the campus with multiple projects that are almost entirely grant funded. Awesome!

I knew a number of women in this region in different aspects of the culinary world because my daughter, Madeleine Vedel, knew them before I did from managing a cooking school in Provence. Among the 20 women are chefs, farmers, cheesemakers, chocolate makers, orchardists and one of the first CSAs in the region.

LTP: What are some of your favorite places to eat in northwest Michigan?

EBH: I rarely eat out since I mostly live alone and have a bookcase full of superb cookbooks, not to mention my daughter, who is an accomplished French chef. But the best meals I’ve enjoyed in the past decade — before and since I start interviewing the amazing chefs — were at Stella Trattoria, Cook’s House, Martha’s in Sutton’s Bay, and the Rowe Inn in Ellsworth.

The one time we ate out this summer was memorable and was at la Bécasse, and I’m thinking there are still a lot of amazing culinary stories to be culled in this region.

“Northern Harvest” can be purchased online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, or order it through your local bookstore.