March 3, 2024

Fermented Pickles, Aquatic Grass, and --- Pig Lard?

Local food growers and crafters making good on good-for-you niche products
By Ross Boissoneau | Aug. 15, 2020

Traverse City Pickle Co. Pickles
It’s hard to find a good New York deli-style pickle in Northern Michigan. So Brian Shaughnessy decided to make his own.

He had the time, as he’d retired from his position as superintendent of a Lansing-area charter school and moved north to be closer to his daughter and her family. He also had the knowledge and memory of the pickles he had grown up eating in New York. “There are a couple things you just can’t get in Michigan,” he said, pointing to New York-style bagels, ricotta cheese — and pickles.

What sets Shaughnessy’s pickles apart is two things: the process and their resulting fresh flavor. He eschews vinegar in favor of a salt brine and special seasonings. With no vinegar and no boiling, they need to be refrigerated, where they’ll keep for up to six months or more. “I’ve kept them for a year, but their [guaranteed] shelf life is three months.”

Shaughnessy says when first packed, the taste is about halfway between a typical dill and a cucumber. The longer they’re kept, the more sour they become. “It’s a slow fermenting process. The first month they’re fresh and bright green. They continue to ferment and get a stronger dill flavor.”

The pickles are a relatively cost-free snack, nutritionally: five calories (zero from fat) and 10 percent of the daily intake of sodium. Additionally, the fermentation process begets another benefit pickles preserved in vinegar don’t: probiotics and enzymes, both considered essential for gut health. Though Shaughnessy is quick to note he is not a health expert, gut health is widely believed to play a role in the strength of the immune system — a hot topic these days. 

Shaughnessy said while the company got its start at farm markets, it is not participating his year due to COVID-19. “We gave out samples, people would taste and buy it. That was probably 50 percent of our sales. We hope to be back on track [at farm markets] by spring,” he said.

He said he is getting requests from locations in the Detroit, Gross Pointe and Ann Arbor areas, so they are having a family meeting to discuss whether and how to grow bigger. There may even be more products on the horizon. Two possibilities: A Bloody Mary mix and a hot pickle. “Is it a retirement gig or a full-fledged business? We pick up a client every week. It’s kind of awesome,” Shaughnessy said.

Find TC Pickle Co.’s pickles in stores around the Traverse City area: Tom’s Markets, Folarelli’s, Oryana, Burritt’s, Hansen’s in Suttons Bay, Village Market and Cellar 152 in Elk Rapids. Cost is $9.99 per jar. Learn more at traversecitypicklecompany.com

Polish Heritage Farm's Renderable Lard
Looking for a healthy fat? Olive oil has its adherents, as does avocado oil. Fish like salmon are prized for their Omega-3 fatty acids, while safflower and walnut oils offer benefits of Omega-6 fatty acids.

There’s another fat on the horizon that’s making waves for its healthy nutrients and its flavor, and it might surprise you: Lard from Polish Heritage Farm outside Cedar.

Farm owner Tom Koch said the farm’s Mangalitsa pigs are specifically bred for their fat content, both for their meat and for lard. “They’re a wooly pig … bred for an Austro-Hungarian archduke. They have a slow growth rate.” That leads to more marbling, even a different color to the meat: rather than “the other white meat,” it tends to be red like beef.

Koch said the pigs are fed a diet rich in sprouted grains and walnuts. “They’re soy- and corn-free. We get spent grain from breweries and a malt company. I got six dump truck loads of black walnuts. We have a strict regimen on feed,” he said. 

The lard is pre-ground and is high in vitamins D and E. Koch said it’s easy to render: simply turn a crockpot on low and in six to eight hours it will be ready to use. He said once it is rendered it is relatively shelf-stable for up to a year.

Kathleen Bittner, Koch’s wife and the co-owner of the farm, said the body processes the fat easily. She also makes soap from the fat, which she said has impressive skin-softening qualities. “I’d never had soap that didn’t dry my skin. I’ve never been so clean and it makes skin soft. It makes great lather and gets the body to produce collagen,” she said.

Koch said each pig averages 30 percent fat. A 200-pound hog would thus have 60 pounds of fat, with just more than half of that — approximately 35 pounds — available for rendering into lard, according to Koch. 

The fat is currently sold at the Polish Art Center in Cedar, also owned by the family, and downstate at Srodek's Campau Quality Sausage Company in Hamtramck. It’s also now available at Treat Dreams, an ice cream shop in Ferndale, which during the pandemic has diversified into specialty groceries. Cost is $5.50 per pound, with packages averaging three to five pounds.

Ziibimijwang Farm Rice
In this time of the coronavirus, more people than ever are growing their own food. For native Americans, that’s nothing new. “We are very ag-minded. How do you think Garden Island (part of the Beaver Island archipelago) got its name?” asked Joe VanAlstine rhetorically.

VanAlstine is the food distribution programming director for the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians and chair of the board overseeing Ziibimijwang Farm. It began several years ago, when the tribe purchased 300 acres in Carp Lake. One hundred acres is tillable, which is where they grow beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cilantro, dill, kohlrabi, and a myriad of other herbs and vegetables.

The tribe has been working the land at Ziibimijwang Farm for five years. “We had some tribal members ask, ‘How do we feed ourselves if there’s a pandemic?’ The goal is to provide food sovereignity for the tribe: wild rice, hominy, squash, beans.”

But not all the food is grown on the farm. Case in point: The tribe also grows and harvests wild rice.

Wild rice isn’t really rice; it’s an aquatic grass. According to VanAlstine, Ziibimijang means “place where the food grows near the river,” so growing and gathering wild rice makes total sense. He’s reluctant to precisely divulge the locations where they harvest, as it’s a sensitive plant, susceptible to changes in water levels or toxicity.

Long a dietary staple for numerous tribes, development and invasive species have decimated the wild rice beds. VanAlstine said he recently returned from travels to Minnesota and Wisconsin, where he purchased 800 pounds of wild rice seed. “I’m bringing it back to the tribal community.

“It’s got more protein, less fat and has better carbs than rice. You can use it in all rice dishes, even a dessert with berries and maple sugar. You can stuff a pumpkin with it or dry it and grind it into flour. It’s very versatile,” he said. 

According to Healthline.com, a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of cooked wild rice provides four grams of protein, 21 grams of carbohydrates, 101 calories and a number of vitamins and minerals.

VanAlstine said the wild rice is not yet available in stores but is sold at farm markets in Petoskey, Charlevoix and Boyne City. It goes for $20/pound.

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