Aug. 17 2009 12:00 AM

MSU Museum displays states diverse food heritage

You are what you eat, so the clichd saying goes. In Michigan, we must be some kind of gumbo, because theres a little bit of everything in our cuisine.

The Michigan State University Museum, in conjunction with the Michigan Humanities Council, is observing the peculiar culinary ways of the Great Lakes State through the exhibit “Michigan Eats: Regional Culture Through Food," which runs through Nov. 15. The exhibit treks through diverse local food customs and flavors from Detroit to the northern tip of the Upper Peninsula. "Michigan is one of the states with the widest varieties of food," said Julie Avery, acting director of the MSU Museum.

Tall, rectangular panels — colorful with digitally enlarged photographs, graphics and informative text that chronicle a tour of the state — drape a first-floor room at the MSU Museum. Some sport small display cases with artifacts, such as the sec ond cookbook ever published in Michigan and antiques germane to the region being explored.

Like the French Louisiana origins of gumbo, Michigan has its own French connection through the abominably named muskrat. French Canadians trapped the wetland rodent — smaller than a beaver but larger than a rat — throughout the 18th century, and when trappers and families migrated into Michigan from Canada, a delicacy was established alongside the valuable furs.

The exhibit explores the history, ethnic origin and traditions associated with the muskrat in and around Dundee, in southeast Michigan. Such traditions include a unique Catholic dispensation, which allowed adherents to eat the critter on Lenten Fridays. The exhibits examination of the Dundee foodway offers a rich food history, a family dairy that still delivers glass-bottled milk and entrepreneurs looking to expand wine-producing vineyards. (A foodway is a loose geographic region defined by distinct, local food histories and customs.)

"We have different ethnic areas of influence in the state," Avery said, detailing a few examples. "Native American, a large Arab population, an African-American population — food of the states heritage groups are rich and should be cherished and shared."

Michigans agricultural diversity is apparent in the states bountiful fruit and berry harvests. Michigans most abundant crop is the cherry, celebrated with its own yearly festival in Traverse City.

Michigans fruit belt runs across the northern Lake Michigan shoreline through the thumb and into the southwest, where youll find Berrien County, with its climate tempered by southern Lake Michigan. The most prolific fruitgrowing county in the state, Berrien farms produce grapes, apples, apricots, peaches, strawberries and much more.

"I think theres a rich diversity right around our corner, and people don’t always know it," Avery said.

Heading north over the Mackinac Bridge and through pine forests, you’ll come to the village of Calumet in Houghton County, near the extreme northern reaches of the Upper Peninsula — what used to be bustling mine country. Copper had its heyday in these quaint environs, but nowadays its the pasty that brings the region fame.

An all-in-one meal, the pasty is essentially a damp stew wrapped in a thick, doughy crust; it’s kind of like a giant calzone sans the pizza ingredients. European and Canadian immigrants flocked to the U.P.s mines in the mid-1800s, and the Cornish get credit for bringing and adapting the pasty. Typically filled with beef, potato (the region was once a prolific center of potato farming), rutabaga or turnip and onion, a hearty pasty was durable and filling, a convenient source of nourishment in the depths of a copper mine.

"In this time when were getting our food from all over the world, its important for people to know where it comes from."

‘Michigan Eats

Nov. 15 MSU Museum 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Saturday 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. Sunday $4 suggested donation for adults (517)
355-7474 www.museum.msu.edu