This article was last updated in July 2023.
The familiar sounds of the waves on the shoreline fill the air. The Sleeping Bear Dunes tower like castles to the north; to the south, layers of dunes surround the mouth of the Platte River. This is a place of relief from warm days, solace from busy days, and a magical location to watch the sunset. I have gathered with family and friends many times at Esch Road Beach, one of the most beloved beaches in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We swim, then warm ourselves around a bonfire in the lingering purple light of a Lake Michigan sunset.
This year though, I wanted to see this place differently. I wanted to welcome these warm evenings with a gathering in this place where the summer seems to come alive. This event would go beyond the casual bonfire because I believe intentional gatherings are the best way to mark the seasons of the year and of our lives. So, together with some of my dearest friends and Timothy Young, founder of the jarred food company Food For Thought, we pulled together a beach dinner.
Growing up in Northern Michigan, the shore has been the backdrop to my fondest and deepest memories. Whenever I am away, my soul aches to be back along the shore, whether frozen from a cold winter or heated from the summer sun. I find comfort in the rhythm of seasons and how Lake Michigan shifts and changes with each of them just as we do. I have been away and come back with a deep love for how this place feeds us, comforts us, challenges us, and brings us together. So, where better to gather to celebrate summer, but along the shoreline of a beach where residents, whether local or seasonal, all find solace?
That evening we carted down a reclaimed wood table top that Tim had made, a cooler full of prepped food to be cooked over the fire, firewood, aluminum dishes and silverware, and local beers from Short’s Brewing Company. Tim has spent years in the area cooking and eating from the abundance that is found here in Leelanau County. He has built Food for Thought to help preserve the area and the food we all enjoy. Tim’s products make the flavors of the area accessible to those who live here year-round or those we come seasonally. From Bourbon Caramel to Blueberry Lavender Jam, Tim knows the importance of quality ingredients in whatever he cooks. This is why I knew he would be perfect to cook with on the beach.
Our plan was to cook a ton of veggies over the flame on the beach, as well as a whole whitefish, and bring along a summery salad with some bread and cheese. We wanted to keep things simple and to enjoy the abundance of the summer season. So several days in advance we went to the Sara Hardy Farmers Market in Traverse City and scooted up to Carlson’s Fishery in Leland to pick up everything we would need for the evening.
The day of the dinner, we gathered a few other items from Tim’s garden to place on the grill, such as gone-to-seed leeks from the woods behind his home. I had never seen anything like them before, having only known leeks as an early sign of spring. But Tim’s knowledge of foraging in the area proved to yield something new and exciting that we could add to the dinner that night.
As the sun began its descent to the lake and friends arrived, we set up the table and laid down rugs we could sit on. My friend Mae brought flowers from her yard, and Laura and Sam helped us haul everything in for the dinner. I arranged the flowers, and we lit the candles in anticipation of a sunset meal in the last light of a summer evening.
Tim roasted a freshly caught whitefish over an open fire. We tossed veggies on the grill and placed bread, salad, and cheese on the table. The conversation, as we waited for the fish to be cooked, was about summer traditions and how special the lake is to all of us. Before diving too deeply into the food, we raised our cans of beer to summer and making memories.
We passed plates to fill with veggies, fish, and salad. We ate our fair share of cheese and bread. As our plates emptied and the sun disappeared behind brewing storm clouds, Tim plated grilled peaches with currants then drizzled them with his amazing Bourbon Caramel sauce. It was the perfect topper to a relaxing and beautiful beach dinner that embraced the season.
Not long after we finished dinner, the storm came close enough for us to see lightning flash across Platte Bay. The incoming storm was the perfect reminder that nothing in life lasts forever, whether good or bad. We packed up and made it to our cars before the storm unleashed its buckets of rain. Headed home to lull into the sleep of a late-night summer rain, we felt full in every way summer fills the soul.
These days we have on the lake are precious and intended to be celebrated whether big or small, whether simple or not. These days are the ones that carry us through the hardest winter days and keep us warm during the harshest storms. May you find time this summer to gather on the shore and break bread with those you love.
Beach Dinner Recipes
Tips for Cooking Over an Open Fire:
Using small pieces of seasoned, dry wood, start your fire at least 15 minutes ahead of time to allow for a bed of coals to develop. Cook your food over coals not flames. Add new wood to the outer edges and move coals under the food when they are no longer emitting yellow flame. You control your heat by moving the heat to where the food is, rather than constantly moving the food.