Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Henry Ford: Everything Old is Made New Again

Most of us only think of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in the context of elementary school field trips we would have much rather spend at Cedar Point ... when a 12-year-old is given the option between rollercoasters and hands-on historical education via painstakingly detailed re-creation (remember learning how to write with quills and ink wells in the Greenfield Village schoolhouse?), well, show me the 12-year-old who chooses the latter and I will show you a 12-year-old who is going to have a very difficult time with peer acceptance and social assimilation in high school. It's only as we become adults that we learn that learning can indeed be fun, and we drag our young students and kin (who would much rather be in Cedar Point) along with us to the Village.

But even as adults sometimes we miss some of the finer details. Yes, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village is a phenomenal collection of local historical artifacts, a treasure trove of Detroit's automotive history (and by extension, America's industrial history), as well as an elaborate piece of preserved Americana: "American's Greatest History Attraction." But did you know that the food service program in both the Museum and the Village (including the Village's full-service restaurant, Eagle Tavern) is one of the most passionately and progressively locally-sourced menus in metro Detroit?

'Tis true. When Director of Food Services and Catering Jesse Eisenhuth took over the operations just a few short months ago, he saw that there was already quite a bit being sourced locally, but there was opportunity for so much more. "We try to do as much as we possibly can," he says. "Our ice cream comes from Melting Moments in Lansing. We use Guernsey [from Northville] milk. Even our bottled water is from Absopure [based in Plymouth]. I've been looking at every single item we use here to see if there's some way we can use a product made locally instead."

For him it's not just about supporting the local economy - it's about staying true to the educational component and historical accuracy that Greenfield Village strives for. Simply put, in the mid-1800s (the era in which the Village is set) food and beverage products would have been made locally utilizing produce and livestock grown and raised on nearby farms that would change with the seasons. Sustainability is not just about good business sense and being ecologically-conscious; it's a matter of authenticity.

This new practice being implemented across the board by Eisenhuth even extends to the beverages. "We're historically accurate with everything else here; why not drinks?" he points out. In that spirit, they carry a selection of "Spiritous Liquors" in the Eagle Tavern and bar from Michigan's New Holland Distillery, which include whiskey, gin, two kinds of rum, and a "Michigan grain spirit" (called such because "vodka" would have been unknown at this time, except maybe as moonshine). New Holland's spirits were also chosen because the labels have a look more suited to the 1850 era (versus something like the cheeky 1920s-era pin-up girl on the Valentine Vodka label, superior though the product may be). Beers (called "malt beverages" on the menu) are custom-made from Detroit's Motor City Brewing Works with labels exclusive to the Henry Ford, and are bottled in such a way as to appear more era-appropriate (though bottled beer would not have existed back then). "With everything we do we consider 'how can we position this properly to have it here?' We're not going to the extreme of carrying Bud Light. We're still keeping our look and feeling [with these beers]."

The cocktails are another example of this practice. Classic cocktails are prepared in classic ways, like the Mint Julep which is really a simple preparation of simple syrup, muddled mint and bourbon or brandy. "It's also part of the educational process, which is part of our identity here," Eisenhuth explains. "We can make the drink however someone wants it - with more syrup or with rum instead - but how we make them here is historically accurate." The drink recipes have been changed to be more local and era-appropriate; for the Mint Julep, the Greenfield Village Herb Associates grow their own mint that is used in the drink. They make their own simple syrup (as they would have done in 1850), as well as their own aromatic bitters using a recipe from the Jerry Thomas Bartenders Guide published in 1862. "The drinks wouldn't have been fancy back then," Eisenhuth notes. "They would have only had two or three ingredients just to mask the flavor of the alcohol." (Hence the use of bitters, which do that job rather well. And let that serve as a warning to you.) If you still question their commitment to the authenticity here, then know this: currently they are planting Orange Pippin trees, which is a specific kind of apple, in the Village so that in time they can make the historic bitters recipe really as it was made.

One more time: they're growing apple trees in order to make more historically accurate bitters. Lots of bars are making their own bitters nowadays, but how many can claim that?

Drinks are also served with a macaroni straw. Why? Because plastic hadn't been invented yet (though a metal straw would have been more common then). "You can taste history here," says Eisenhuth. "There's something here for everyone, including the adult kid."

Granted this level of detail is impossible to carry out to absolute authenticity, or there would be a whole lot of things unavailable to visitors which would make for a whole lot of unhappy customers (if you've ever tried to get between me and my morning coffee, amplify that by dozens of caffeine-deprived middle-aged mothers wrangling hundreds of screaming children EVERY SINGLE DAY), but in those cases there is still a concentrated effort at carrying local products so long as they are cost-effective. Most products that the Henry Ford carries are from within 150 miles of the museum (and are mostly from Michigan though occasionally do extend into northern Ohio); most places are considered to be "local" if they stay within 200 miles.

In addition to sourcing locally, the Henry Ford is also committed to sustainability in greening initiatives as well.

Compostable products are from Michigan Greensafe Products in Detroit (including "plastic" drinking cups made from corn). They bale and recycle their own cardboard. They use filtafry to filter and recycle all of their fryer oil and have started to recycle paper, plastic bottles and cans. Even down to their condiments they show an eco-conscious sensibility, carrying ketchup and mustard in large pump containers with biodegradable condiment cups instead of the ecologically disastrous plastic packets. And once again, this environmental awareness is dual-purpose: in 1850 recycling went without saying, so much so that it didn't need its own name, and there was no such thing as non-biodegradable.

It just goes to show that everything old is made new again. As eco-consciousness, sustainability, sourcing locally, even classic craft cocktailing have become the hottest "new" trends in food, fashion and industry, what's really happening is that society's mindset is shifting away from Bigger Faster Stronger to Smaller Older Slower, rejecting the incessant expansion brought about by industrialization and embracing the idea of a "simpler time," so far removed from our current culture that it seems foreign and exotic. By getting back to the idea of having a small community in which you know your farmer and who makes your artisanal products like breads and cheeses, where you grow your own herbs and can your own fruits and create your own compost pile of biodegradable materials to supply nutrients to the soil in which you'll grown your own garden, we haven't stumbled across a new concept - we've rediscovered a very, very old one.

It seems only fitting then that a place like the Henry Ford would take the concept very seriously.

From the restaurants to the cafeterias to the food stands, the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village offer the most local, sustainable, and historically accurate dining experience you're likely to find pretty much anywhere for a historical attraction of this magnitude, or even just as far as your everyday restaurant is concerned. Eagle Tavern and A Taste of History Restaurant are open daily 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October 15, or whenever Greenfield Village is open.

If you're interested in learning more about the places that the Henry Ford sources their products, here is a list of just some of their providers:

Fresh-ground pork - Ernst Farm, Ann Arbor , MI
Chicken breasts and products - Eat Local, Eat Natural, Ann Arbor , MI and KBD Detroit , MI
Hot dogs and brats - Dearborn Sausage Co., Dearborn, MI
Milk pints and dipping ice cream, Guernsey Farms Dairy, Northville, MI
Custard is - CF Burger, Detroit, MI
Ice cream novelties (cookie sandwiches and moment bars) - Melting Moments, Lansing , MI
Bottled water - Absopure, Plymouth , MI
Pies - Achatz Handmade Pie Co., Chesterfield Township , MI (some pies also made from scratch in-house)
Early Joe cider and vinegar products - Almar Orchards, Flushing , MI
Bread, bagels, Danish, etc. - ASB Distributors, Lincoln Park , MI (they distribute local products)
Dinners rolls - Avalon Bakery, Detroit , MI
Coffee - Becharas Brothers Coffee, Highland Park , MI
Corn chips and tortillas - Casa Hacienda, Detroit , MI
In-season produce produce - Jon Goetz Farm, Riga , MI .
Cotton candy mix, popcorn kernel, popcorn seasonings - Detroit Popcorn Co., Redford, MI
Ketel Corn - Kettle Corn of Michigan,Wyandotte , MI
Soda and assorted Faygo products, Detroit , MI
Slush Puppie 100% Juice Slushie, Northville , MI
Eggs - Grazing Fields, Charlotte, MI
Pasta - Mamma Mucci, Canton , MI
Peanut Butter - Naturally Nutty, Traverse City , MI
Old-fashioned candy - Shernni’s Candy, Washington , MI
Dried cherries - Tabone Orchards, Traverse City, MI
Assorted cheese - Traffic Jam and Snug, Detroit , MI
Flour and corn meal - Westwind Milling, Argentine, MI