Friday, May 25, 2007

Many of you who have been around the Frog Holler web site or farm site, know that our roots go back to Indian Summer Natural Foods Restaurant, which began operating in 1972. Why a bunch of twenty-somethings with no previous experience thought they could start a restaurant remains a question that only can be answered by "youth", "idealism", "the times", or just plain foolishness. Somehow we got lucky and Indian Summer, for a few fresh and vibrant years, beamed a beacon of unpretentious high-quality natural food and down-to-earth friendliness to the Ann Arbor community.

The restaurant's success and popularity was a magnet to many young people as they passed through town, heading toward other points on down their road of life. I have no doubt that stopping off at Indian Summer for a few shifts in the kitchen or at the tables changed the course of many of those yet unfinished itineraries.

Case in point: A gangly youngster not too far out of high school strolled in one day, not necessarily with any restaurant experience but a good friend with someone who already worked at Indian Summer. And that's sort of how you got hired - "vibes" trumped resumes easily. And this guy had good vibes.

He set to work as a short order cook, dishing up avocado/sprout sandwiches and vegetable tempura. But his apparent work ethic along with his skilled food handling soon earned him a position as one of the cooks.

The cooks created the meals. They would come in at 6 AM, go downstairs and look at what vegetables were in the cooler. Surveying the bulk bags of beans and grains, natural food entrees would start to take shape in their minds. And as vats of rice and beans started bubbling, the cooks would chop. And chop. And chop. After a morning of chopping vegetables, six gallons of the "Soup of the Day", four gallons of Miso soup (served every day), a three-foot tall crock of cooked rice, and a complementary blend of cooked vegetables, usually with an accompanying sauce, would all be awaiting the hungry lunch crowd. And Indian Summer did this every day, thanks to a bunch of youngsters with "no restaurant experience".

So back to the kid fresh out of Taylor High, now starting to be one of the anchors of a very busy natural foods restaurant. He could chop, and he never stopped until everything was finished to his satisfaction. He was calm, he was steady, and his name was John Savanna, now renowned and revered throughout the Ann Arbor bread-eating community as the founder of Mill Pond Bakery.

John never baked at Indian Summer. But when the restaurant went up for sale (after it left our hands), John and his wife Colleen tried to buy it, intent on maintaining the honest atmosphere and commitment to high quality natural foods at a fair price. He couldn't meet the seller's price and Indian Summer was no more. It was 1977 and John was out of a job.

He worked for a summer at Frog Holler Farm, helping to get yet another idealistic and demanding enterprise on its feet. But with a wife and young daughter to feed, John looked for another career path. He landed at the Dexter Bakery, learning the fine art of baking authentic German pretzels. He could be found on the streets around the U-M stadium on football Saturdays, selling his fresh-baked pretzels to the hungry fans. Pretzels turned into breads and buns and cookies and sweet rolls; the street corner turned into a renovated bank building in Munith, and Mill Pond Bakery was born.

I can't give firm dates, but I know Mill Pond Bakery thrived and John and Colleen raised three children and enjoyed a good life. But it was still a lot of work. A lot of work. And then, just a few years ago, similar to the Indian Summer situation where the seller looked only at the bottom line and not into the eyes of the person sitting across the table from him, John was entangled in a bad faith business deal which led to the loss of the bakery and his home. Shocked friends found out too late to stop the foreclosure, and John and Colleen moved in with Colleen's mother in Livonia. Colleen got a job at a local car dealership, and as is her wont, turned it into a positive experience, as she spread her kindness, warmth and ready laughter throughout that very different terrain.

And John still baked. He rented a bakery space north of Jackson, Michigan and worked there through the night. Along with his baking supplies, he hauled water to the bakery because he wanted purer, fresher tasting water to mix with the flour and yeast. He drove there. He baked all night. He drove back. He drove to the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market, where Mill Pond maintained their stall, and he perfected the fine art of sleeping while in a vertical position. But he never stopped working and he never complained.

Then the universe shifted and John's fortunes changed. Although it wasn't as impersonal as a "universe shift". Thanks to John's close-knit family and the community of devoted customers that John and Colleen had attracted throughout their years of honest labor, a new bakery site was purchased and it was connected to a small cottage on the back. John could finish baking and fall through the back door into his bed for some actual horizontal sleep. And the new site was right on a lake. And it was north of Chelsea, not too far from Ann Arbor for those market runs. And it was really cute and just the right size.

And they had a Grand Opening last Saturday, May 19, and over 600 people came out to celebrate with John and Colleen on the rebirth of Mill Pond Bakery! In the invitation John and Colleen made sure to thank all who helped them in the year-long process by "Building walls, moving equipment, laying tile, running electricity, putting together a 2000 piece oven [yes, 2000 pieces], hanging drywall, moving dirt, pouring cement, patching roofs, building signs, cutting grass, boat rides, offering a glass of wine, and telling stories!" The bakery is now located at 1534 Sugarloaf Lake Rd, just off Waterloo Rd. It's a beautiful drive.

And if you can't get out that way, come see Mill Pond at the Farmer's Market. Their stall is just across the aisle from ours. We have been market neighbors for 15 years, friends for much longer. And though none of us are in the restaurant business any more, those early days set a course toward our continued dedication to offering righteous food in a spirit of connection rather than transaction. And to hard work!

Saturday, May 19, 2007

And here's another good reason to garden!

From Joy of Cooking: About Herbs

"Confucius, a wise man, refused to eat anything not in season. Everyone who has tasted the difference between food served with fresh rather than dried herbs knows how wise he was. Few herbs can be bought in a fresh state at market, but the most important ones can be easily grown in a small sunny plot. We know, for we have grown and used all the culinaries in this section. Therefore, we beg you to exercise your green thumb at least on those whose evanescent oils deteriorate or almost disappear in drying. Chervil, borage, burnet and summer savory suffer the greatest losses. And those mainstays - chives, tarragon, parsley and basil - can never in their dry form begin to approach the quality of their fresh counterparts. Even the flavor of sage when fresh can be so delicate as to be almost unrecognizable."

A few comments from the Frog Logger:

1. Twenty-five hundred years later, thanks to the Slow Food activists and the growing awareness of the importance of local, seasonal eating, we are finally catching up to the wisdom of Confucius!

2. I am reading from the original Joy of Cooking, a copy so worn that the cover is gone and I can't find the copyright date. So the statement that few fresh herbs can be found at market is thankfully out of date. Modern shoppers now can choose from a world of fresh herbs at even the most rural supermarkets. Of course packaged herbs are often not so very fresh; you'll find your freshest, highest quality herbs at a farmer's market, or in your own back yard - which leads to #3.

3. I love reading Joy of Cooking, even if I have no intention of actually cooking! The writing often reflects an elegance of style that transcends the rather everyday setting of "a cookbook". How often do you find food writers who gently "beg you to exercise your green thumb at least on those whose evanescent oils deteriorate "in drying"? Such a cordial and sweetly compelling invitation to garden! And the use of "evanescent", one of the "most beautiful words in the English language" certainly adds to the charm of the sentence. Erma Rombauer, the beloved author of the original Joy of Cooking, wants us to grow and appreciate fresh herbs, and she tells us why most convincingly in the final two sentences.

4. We find that the most widely used herbs - chives, tarragon, parsley and basil - have no hope of ever approaching the "quality of their fresh counterparts". And so we start to wonder just what we have been missing. And the clincher comes, again gently but so deftly, as we are informed that sage, a rugged tasting herb generally relegated to Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, "when fresh can be so delicate as to be almost unrecognizable." I'm intrigued and convinced!

5. If you too are now determined to grow some fresh herbs for yourselves, come see us at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market. Growing seedlings for culinary herbs has been one of our passions for years. We have tons of varieties - perennial and annual, eight different varieties of basil, and lots of good ideas about how to use these flavorful little friends. Erma will be glad you did!

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Another good reason to garden!: Working in Dirt Can Actually be Healthy

Exposure to certain forms of soil bacteria can boost the immune system, which can in turn improve mood as effectively as antidepressant drugs.

Mice exposed to a benign soil microbe, Mycobacterium vaccae, performed better on a behavioral task commonly used to test the effectiveness of antidepressants.

The mice were placed in water and observed to see how long they continued swimming before giving up. The mice who had been exposed to Mycobacterium vaccae continued swimming for a much longer time.

These results are similar to those from a previous study, in which human cancer patients treated with the bacteria reported significant improvements in their quality of life.

Researchers suspect that the microbes are affecting the brain indirectly by causing immune cells to release chemicals called cytokines, which stimulate the production of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin.

The lead researcher on the study, Chris Lowry, added that, "These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health. They also leave us wondering if we shouldn't all be spending more time playing in the dirt."

Holler Fest 2016
August 26-28