Farmer in 'The L'

By Laura Johnson
Photo courtesy of Anji Reynolds

Two Lansing-area restaurants maximizing fresh, local produce

I recently saw a clip from the show “Portlandia” in which a dining couple asks their server an absurd list of questions about the local origins of the chicken on the menu. When the server produces the chicken’s papers (his name was Colin, and he was fed a diet of sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts), the couple remains unconvinced, and the scene ends when they leave the restaurant to go check out Colin’s farm before they can feel comfortable ordering him for lunch.

Now, this is a little ridiculous (even if it illustrates some unfortunately accurate stereotypes), but the underlying quest to find out where our food comes from is not so silly. Because the truth is, we don’t really know what we’re eating, and that has implications for the health of our bodies and communities, for people and animals we never see and for the environment. So much of our food is grown with chemicals and infused with hormones and travels thousands of miles to reach our plates. It comes in unrecognizable forms, with bizarre and confusing lists of ingredients.

Helping to combat this industry-induced confusion are farm-to-table restaurants, commonplace in “foodie” cities but recently making a welcome appearance in the Lansing area. Restaurants like Fork in the Road and Red Haven (and their food truck counterparts, Trailer Park’d and Purple Carrot) serve seriously good food made with ingredients from local growers and producers — from places we can see and visit, some of which are right down the road. So if we do decide to make a trip to the farm before ordering, we can probably make it back before the place closes for the night.

“Farm to table is most directly related to community and helping out small farms and families,” said Ben Ackerman, chef and co-owner of Fork in the Road, 2010 W. Saginaw St. in Lansing. “So we get the food from the farmers, we deal directly with them and we try to take a minimalist approach with the food. At the end of the day, it’s about delicious food.”

So let’s take a breakfast menu item at Fork in the Road: the biscuits and gravy with an organic fried egg (a huge serving, which has lately gotten huger). The pork sausage comes from Clear Creek Farms in Eaton Rapids, a collaborative producer made up of several family farmers offering grass-fed, free-range and all-natural meats. The egg either comes from Three Ponds Farm in DeWitt, Cedar Crest Dairy in Hudsonville or Owosso Organics, a family owned, certified organic farm four miles west of Owosso.

Or the veggie scramble. The potatoes come from Visser Farms in Zeeland or Crisp Country Acres and Lakeshore Family Farm, two farms that have joined forces in Holland. The greens come from Laughing Crane Farm in Bath. Mushrooms from Earthy Delights, a DeWitt business that provides wild-harvested, traditional, artisanal foods. Fork in the Road also supports local businesses, not just farmers: coffee from Traverse City’s Great Northern Roasting Co., gelato from Palazzolo’s, bread from Stone Circle Bakehouse.

Compared to Fork in the Road’s fast-casual style, Red Haven, 4480 S. Hagadorn Road in Okemos, is more of an upscale-type place. The dynamic tapas-focused menu comes from up to 35 Michigan farms and businesses, depending on the season. Places like Green Eagle Farm (Onondaga), Wildflower Eco Farm (Bath), Spartan County Meats (a family farm producing all-natural meats in Webberville) and The Shrimp Market (located in Okemos, and Michigan’s only shrimp farm). And their décor is Michigan, too — the woodwork was readapted from an old barn in Charlotte, cherry lug boxes are used for light fixtures and seasonal photographs line the walls to show you your food’s Michigan beginnings.

You get the idea. These ingredients, products and even aesthetics scream “Michigan,” so we can feel like we’re eating in a place, from a place. We’re eating more seasonally, locally and consciously — which, to me, attaches us to our place and makes us more a part of it. Not to mention the economic support that Michigan farmers and businesses seriously need.

“Because they source all of their ingredients locally, they understand the struggles we go through as farmers and the actual price of quality, healthy, delicious food,” said Jared Talaga, co-founder of Flood Plain Farms. Located on Francis Ave., it provides Fork in the Road with greens, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, herbs and garlic. “That in turn lets them pay us a fairer price for the veggies we grow.”

Not that everyone should or could eat here every day — or even every week. While the prices compared to similar restaurants in other cities are reasonable, you’ll pay more than you would at a fast food restaurant, for sure. But it’s a great chance to see what fresh, local, seasonal food tastes like; to consider where the food we eat comes from, who grows it and how; and to connect with and support the place in which we live. Maybe even to think about starting our own gardens, or finding a farmers market. It’s a conversation starter and an idea grower — like planting a seed.