The Alchemy of a Good Meal
Words by Shea Petaja Photographs by Tec Petaja
What characteristics do Northern Michiganders share? One word that comes to mind is resourceful, and regional catering company Epicure definitely represents that idea.
We live on a sizeable peninsula known as the “pinky” of Northern Michigan, surrounded by big lakes and lathered with little ones. We live here by choice, not default, and share a mutual respect for this decision. The four seasons move in and out of our area without permission and we move with them. We call ourselves Northerners and with this title we are claiming land, stretching our vocational abilities, and learning to love each other in towns with little elbow room. I hesitate to call us scrappy. I prefer to use the word “resourceful.” Case in point: Andy Schudlich and Cammie Buehler, co-conspirators of Epicure Catering & Cherry Basket Farm. These two friends met years ago as transient twentysomethings working the local kitchen scene with no intention of settling. As the years rolled on and their lives took shape, it became obvious that given their creativity and connections, something magical would happen. And it did.
Cherry Basket Farm, which also houses Epicure Catering, is situated around the bend in Omena, a small but mighty town even farther up the pinky. Many farms in this area are threatened by development and this farm was no different—it was on the subdivision chopping block before Cammie’s parents snatched it up. The original five buildings stand tall as if they were predestined for their current purpose: to house epicures. And while most events are for strangers (can you call Chef Mario Batali a stranger?), we the locals—the Northerners—partook in its glory one evening.
Before our gathering, I meandered around Cherry Basket Farm, building by building, soaking in the history and wishing I could hear the walls speak. I snuck into the white board-and-batten kitchen house, and inside I found Andy working his alchemic chef magic. Smoke from the fire pit outside drifted in, the smell building anticipation. A local Native American fisherman had brought Andy a walleye from the lake that morning and Andy had plans to bake it in a salt cocoon over the fire. The salt would harden like concrete, allowing the flavors to soak into its flesh.
As I watched him whisk the salt I asked, “What recipes do you use?” He replied, “Recipes? There are no recipes. It’s more like, ‘That’s not sticky enough, it needs more water,’ so I add it.” His kitchen help spoke up, “I’m just glad there is a hammer involved!” I didn’t understand, and Andy wouldn’t confess; he’s a culinary prodigy with many legendary secrets. A mutual friend leaned into me later that evening and said, “Did he tell you about the time they were swimming in Lake Leelanau? Andy spent the whole day collecting clams from the bottom of the lake, brought them to shore, cooked them on a fire he built and flipped over kayaks to use as tables.” I laughed: there are no edible clams in Lake Leelanau, but there are legends and evenings spent eating over a kayak dinner tables.
As the sunset and the lake breezes drifted across the farm, I took a deep breath of the good life. Under the canopy tree sat 20 people ready to partake in the talent of Andy and the fortitude of Cammie. A parade of goodness began, and with each plate presented, the decibel of the conversation dropped. Cammie broke the silence. “Wow. I think we have enough!”
At the table that evening, we embraced the splendor of food and friends before us. The candles flickered in applause. Our table was tucked in between barns and next to an orchard. These were our friends and this food was our pleasure. What Andy and Cammie were able to create from their land and the land we claim as Northerners brought us together. Each of our contributions was being shared and we passed the goodness around. I glanced over to see Andy grin. Perhaps he knew something we didn’t, or perhaps this was another story being tucked away for the keeping.