Northern Michigan Food: On this particular November afternoon, when a thick smear of charcoal clouds casts a daylong twilight, when drizzle runs in thin squiggles down the windows, and when a chill wind madly flickers the few remaining leaves on the trees, there is perhaps no better place to be in all the North than Susan Odom’s kitchen at her Hillside Homestead inn. Offsetting the chill outside, the self-taught food historian and pie-crust-obsessed baker is pulling one pie after another out of her wood-fired cookstove.
A buttermilk pie, a cream pie, a squash pie, an apple pie, and the pie she calls “the king of pies”—a mincemeat pie. “Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about mincemeat pie in nearly religious terms,” Odom says, as she sets the brown beauty on the table.
The aroma of subtle woodsmoke and the scents of so many pies whorling in the country kitchen is certainly potent enough to evoke spirits of the past from this circa-1910 farmhouse. And that would be entirely apropos, because not only are Odom’s pie recipes from that era, so is every other thing here. The wallpaper pattern, the paint colors, the Hoosier cabinet, the china pattern, the Round Oak Chief stove, the breed of chickens—Brahmas—that cluck and strut outside in the yard, and, eventually, the pigs she intends to buy this coming spring. She’s been researching pigs, actually.
“See that picture on the wall, it’s a farmer from about 1900, a Kalchik, and he has that enclosure there with his pigs,” she says. “I think they are a combination of Duroc and Berkshire. See how they are spotted and dark.”
Odom’s pie making and fixation on historical minutiae all fit together in the tourism destination concept that began to form in Odom’s mind back in 2005, and which she opened in July 2011. Part history travel, part culinary travel, part agricultural travel, Odom’s historic farmstay, as she labels the concept, is an inn set forever in 1910 in the countryside of Leelanau County.
Odom dresses as a 1910 farm wife, she cooks meals made with foods available at the time (in January, tasty squash sides, but no strawberry shortcake), and she laces history—stories, perspective, facts—throughout when chatting with guests. She also offers guests the opportunity to become involved in daily work if they want to, like feeding chickens, helping cook dinner, stoking the stove. The farmstay concept is more common in New Zealand and Germany, and light work is generally part of the plan, she says.
The history part of the idea comes from Odom’s museum background, seven years at Greenfield Village working in the Firestone Farm as a historical interpreter. “Everything here has to have a historical context,” she says. “To create an authentic experience, it has to be based on reality, not based on whatever fantasy happens to be in my brain at the moment.”
When at Greenfield Village, Odom generally portrayed normal people going about a normal day during a given period. She fetched water in buckets, cooked pies, ate with other interpreters as a family at the table, all while museum visitors watched. “Growing up, I was taught you don’t eat in front of guests, so that always made me a little uncomfortable,” she says. She wanted to share the food, but not just out of politeness. She wanted people to more fully experience the era, and flavor can be a time transporter. And she wanted people more engaged, where they could help with dinner, eat the food, spend the night and touch all the stuff. Want to play the pump organ at Hillside Homestead? Have at it.
Odom concedes it’s tough pulling this all off pretty much solo (she hires a helper part time). “At Greenfield Village, I had a whole machine behind me. Here it is just me.” She sweeps her hands from head to toe, indicating her hair pulled back tight in a bun, her floor-length autumn-hued dress, her woven dobby apron—stalwart enough to fend off spills, but dressy enough with its small repeating print and bronzy hue to impress guests. “If I show up like this, it can be plain weird. So I have to put you at ease, while also doing everything else. It is a lot for one person to do.”
To keep it from being “plain weird,” and to avoid coming off as a suffocating history bore Odom blends her deep historical knowledge with a smart and modern sense of humor, like, say, when she talks about the task-mistress attitude that cookbook writers laid down when instructing breadmakers back in the day.
“Old cookbooks talk about baking bread, and they talk about getting up really early and pulling your hair back and putting on a clean dress and a clean apron. Make sure you don’t have any rings on, and definitely no stray hairs. If you are going to do this, do this right. Don’t go into the kitchen half dressed. Get dressed, get yourself ready, go into the kitchen. Pay attention to what you are doing. Make your bread properly, and then clean up.” She considers for a moment all that Victorian righteousness. “You can hear the finger wagging a mile away.”
Food is central to her Hillside Homestead concept, and food takes a lot of work, so Odom was very intentional about choosing the year 1910 for her setting. “There’s a lot better kitchen stuff available then than in, say, 1885 or 1860 or 1850, which are other time periods I’ve worked in,” she says. “You start to see enamelware, lightweight pots, the ideas of industrialization and commercialization start to appear. It’s all part of the story.”
(Indoor hearth cooking, by the way, is as bad as it looks. All that smoke and all that bending over. “It’s awful,” Odom says.)
Despite the historical roots of her Hillside Homestead, Odom herself had no connection to Leelanau County, in fact had never visited until 2008. A friend told her she’d probably like Northern Michigan, so she drove north from her lifelong hometown of Plymouth, Michigan. She was in a time of transition—she’d sold her house, her grown son had moved away, she was ready for a new job, and she was single, so the decision was hers. Odom ended up loving Up North, and initially rented a house in another northern county. But every few days she found herself drawn back to Leelanau. “I loved how historically intact it was,” she says. “I thought, Well, maybe this is a sign. I’m driving over to this place like three times a week while trying to figure out what to do with my life.”
One day she found what she now calls The Beauty Spot. The view is just a mile and a half from the circa 1900 farmhouse that eventually became her home, and is just west of St. Wenceslaus church on Kolarik Road. From a high ridge, the land falls away to deliver a grand view of Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau and that rolling Leelanau County landscape. “I got out of my car and climbed up on the road embankment, and it was so beautiful I just cried,” she says. She hadn’t realized till then how important it was for her to be surrounded by natural beauty.
Just as important, both for her soul and her business, was that kindred foodie spirits lived nearby. When she first visited Tandem Ciders, now her neighbors, she told the owner, Dan, about historical farm drinks called switchels, cold drinks made with fruit vinegars diluted with water and taken to men in the field on hot days. “When I came back the second time, he said, ‘oh, you’re back, I want to talk more about those switchels.’ ” She was stunned. “Normally when I talk about my historical food stuff people just zone me out. Not only did this man not zone me out, he remembered me and wanted to continue the conversation, and I thought, My god, I fit in here!”
If you go
Hillside Homestead, (231) 271-1131, [email protected]
Room and breakfast: $190/$180 In Season—May 1 to October 31. $160/$150 Off Season—November 1 to April 30.
Historic dinner for your group: 6-person minimum/20-person maximum. $50 per person, plus tax and gratuity. Individualized menus are arranged during the reservation process. You may book a dinner whether staying the night or not.