Editor’s note: The following story (including minor updates by the author) is excerpted from “Tasting and Touring Michigan’s Homegrown Food — A Culinary Roadtrip” by Jaye Beeler with photography by Dianne Carroll Burdick (2012, Arbutus Press, arbutuspress.com) and is reprinted by arrangement with the publisher.
One gorgeous summer evening, I dine al fresco-style at Lubbers Family Farm in Ottawa County, where Grand Rapids Chef Amy Sherman, host of “The Great American Brew Trail” and Slow Food West Michigan Potawatomi founder, finds inspiration. We’re just 6½ miles from downtown Grand Rapids, but it feels more like a thousand.
Out here near the Grand River in West Michigan, three long tables stretch a good distance seating a goat cheese-maker, an asparagus broker, restaurateurs, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farmers and enthusiastic eaters.
Sherman and her husband, Jerry, who runs West Michigan Co-op and FarmLink — connecting farmers with conscientious eaters and local chefs — whirl together the spectacular multi-course feast with the help of culinary students at Secchia Institute of Culinary Educations at Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC). During the warmer months, Jeff and Karen Lubbers collaborate directly with a local restaurant and/or chef to stage the farm-to-table dinners resplendent against their farmhouse, built in 1837.
The night’s tastemakers whip up delicious dishes: Amuse-bouche of celery and mushroom phyllo pouch with a blueberry balsamic reduction, then melon and cucumber gazpacho topped with a basil mint crème fraîche to start.
We move on to the arugula and mustard greens salad with beets, red onion, cilantro and goat cheese tossed with apple cider-honey vinaigrette, followed by grilled trout draped over a polenta cake and tomato ragu. The herb-crusted pork tenderloin topping red pepper cassoulet, sparkling raspberry sorbet and peach cobbler with ginger ice cream push the boundaries of what farmstead cooking can taste and look like.
Everything is produced on the farm (in a tent!) by GRCC’s culinary students. And at every turn, there’s a food story waiting to be shared.
Karen Lubbers becomes the center of the crowd. Her family grows all the food they consume — she’s partial to raising heritage pigs for their farm table, milking Jersey cows for their gallons of raw milk and planting heirloom seeds because they are open-pollinated. That means, she explains, you can save the seeds in the fall, plant them again in spring and get the same crop. “You can’t do that with a hybrid, which is a cross, so you don’t know what you are going to get,” she says, noting she likes Seed Savers (seedsavers.org).
WALKING THE TALK
For the farm market store and Slow Food Potawatomi convivium, the Lubbers grow heirloom seedlings from U.S. Ark of Taste, a catalog of more than 900 delicious foods in danger of extinction.
The seedlings — including red fig tomatoes, Aunt Ruby’s German green tomatoes, New Mexico basil, Crane melon and Amish pie pumpkin, to name just a few — are available at their farm for $3 a pot. Each one carries an interesting back story, like the red fig tomatoes.
“In the old days, people used to dry the tomato shaped like a small pear and then pack them into crates and store in their basements,” Karen notes. “They were called figs because when they dried, they got sweet.”
As we walk, she points out German pink and German green heirloom tomatoes.
“That’s heirloom corn and it gets 10 feet or more high,” she says. “This year, I planted country gentlemen and stole evergreen, along with turnips, rutabagas, parsnips — the kind of root vegetables people have gotten out of the habit of preparing.”
Seasonally from May to October at the farm store, the Lubbers wrangle together the farm’s sustainable meats, poultry, eggs, honey, open-pollinated heirlooms and Dancing Goat Creamery’s goat and cow milk cheese, which is handcrafted on site in small batches by cheese maker Veronica Simons Phelps.
“The whole family makes a living on the land,” Karen says. “It has its challenges, but it has worked so well.”
Ten years ago, Lubbers son, Casey, started an organic bakery, Little Red Rooster, from the farmstead, located steps away from the milk house. He has many accounts with independent grocery stores, West Michigan Co-op, D&W Fresh Markets and Fulton Street Farmers Market. “It’s kind of amazing how it all happened,” says Casey, who went out West, attended the San Francisco Baking Institute and returned to his family’s farm.
With King’s Milling flour in Lowell, Casey Lubbers kneads together sandwich bread, hamburger and hot dog buns and dinner rolls. “Right now I’m so busy. Sometime I don’t know if I’m coming or going.”
See, more and more people seek wholesome, sustainable foods for their table, but underneath there’s something even bigger.
“There is yearning for connection and authenticity,” Karen says, “and historically, food has represented that.”
Visit lubbersfarm.com to learn more.
Journalist Jaye Beeler and photographer Dianne Carroll Burdick reside in Grand Rapids.