Parting thoughts on meals Up North
by Lee Lawrence
From the September, 2017 issue
For sixty-odd years my husband's parents vacationed on Walloon Lake near Boyne City, and they owned a cottage there for forty. But a year ago they both died, and there isn't sufficient will or desire among their five children to take on the collective maintenance of a second home.
So, during an August week of weather as changeable as our moods, the family rented a pontoon boat big enough for all. We motored about the lake, reviewing past escapades and remembering old friends, sometimes stopping to fling my in-laws' ashes to the wind, watching them drift slowly down into Walloon's waters, and rinsing our hands clear. Then we signed a contract to sell the property.
Though I see the sense of selling, I mourn the loss, particularly the quiet hours spent on the dock, suspended between water and sky, the distant line of trees our only tether to the earth. The last few years we went there, my husband and I ate our meals on the dock, and they have taken on an almost sublime quality. I'm sure the environment is the primary driver of that sense, but sometimes food just tastes better away from home.
Usually I find whitefish rather bland--for lake fish, I prefer walleye--but when we're at Walloon, I often visit Charlevoix's John Cross Fisheries, and I'm always pleased with the whitefish Cross hauls in, along with walleye and lake trout. For ready-made, the Barrel Back Restaurant, just a five-minute boat ride away in Walloon Village, offers an irresistible sandwich, piled with lightly battered fried whitefish, slaw, and house-made aioli. The place is only four years old, but with its center fireplace and garage doors that open up to long views down the lake, it's already become an up-north standard.
The French family that recently took over the Boyne City Bakery is making some of the best French pastries I've had outside France. The dough is magic, and the apricot tarts, pistachio croissants, and buttery,
caramelized kouign-amann are so phenomenal I've yet to try the crepes and sandwiches.
Like the whitefish, much of the local produce also tastes wonderfully flavorful. Maybe it's the fresh northern air or the additional exercise that sharpens our appetites, but the cherries--sweet and sour--peaches, and apricots frequently rival their southern counterparts. Though my husband and I grow corn every year, both of us will admit that our ears don't match those grown at Johnecheck Farms. I'm not sure if it's the soil, water, and air or the family's cultivation secrets, but the results are undisputed among my husband's clan. Each year my father-in-law waited impatiently for the "opening season" of Johnecheck corn. Twice a day, every day, wasn't too often for him to eat it.
Mushrooms, too, reign supreme up north. Boyne City's Morel Festival highlights one type, but morels are easily found in southern Michigan. The first time I found and sauteed a generous handful of burnt-orange chanterelles, though, I was as giddy as my father-in-law with his corn. If walking dogs through the woods doesn't uncover any fungus, Ken of Michigan Mushroom Market brings wild mushrooms to Boyne City's Farmer's Market. Ken has never revealed his sources, though he has hinted that not all are in Michigan. No matter, Boyne City and Walloon Lake is where I have found and cooked them.
Neighbors of ours at home used to bring us back fabulous hams, fresh and smoked sausage, and smoked pork chops from Plath's Meats in Rogers City. So I was thrilled when Plath's opened up another outlet closer to Walloon Lake in 2009. Many of Plath's smoked meats are available by mail order, but actually visiting the store outside Petoskey brings its own rewards. This summer I picked up a whole duck, a delicious smoked chicken, and fresh kielbasa, not to mention smoked leg of lamb, sliced thinly to make one of the best sandwiches I've eaten in some time.
Also in Petoskey is the Bob-In Again, a remake of a 1950s diner. I've never had anything but the ultra-creamy, smooth frozen custard, but that's enough. Once you've had frozen custard, you'll wonder why you ever ate ice cream.
Not that I never do. The Whippy Dip, on Old 27 Highway at Thumb Lake Rd. north of Vanderbilt, is often our last stop when we leave northern Michigan. A small, concrete-block building covered in peeling red and white paint, settled next to a sawmill in a forlorn dirt lot ambushed with puddles and pot holes, the Whippy Dip features soft-serve and hard ice cream. I always go for a small chocolate malt, while my husband's choice changes with his moods. Whatever it is, the treat is the cherry on top of our up-north sundae.
Siblings and friends reassure us we can visit Walloon Lake even after the property is sold. But, really, without the permanence of familiar walls and the memories they hold, we'll be travelers, not stakeholders. We're more likely to turn our eyes to new sights, in search of a new dock and new flavors.
[Originally published in September, 2017.]
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