Lake Superior as Dinner Table: Q&A with the author of ‘Life in a Northern Town’

Author Mary Dougherty // Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Press

Author Mary Dougherty // Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society Press

Lake Superior roosts above the Upper Midwest like a temperamental god. From its bulk (it contains 10 percent of Earth’s fresh surface water) to the age of its oldest rocks (about 2.7 billion years) to its forceful power (at least 350 shipwrecks), the lake is a titan that influences everything within hundreds of miles of its seemingly endless shores.

Its effect on food is no small thing, either, and perhaps nobody knows that better than Mary Dougherty. Dougherty is a former owner of Washburn, Wisconsin’s well-regarded Good Thyme restaurant and she writes with wit and precision about farming, family, and food in a new book from the Wisconsin Historical Society Press called “Life in a Northern Town.”

Dougherty’s recipes run the gamut from local to regional to international inspirations, but they’re all products of a remarkable tapestry of farmers, cheesemakers, fishermen, orchard owners, and others who form the culinary ecosystem of Lake Superior’s South Shore.

The cover of Dougherty's "Life in a Northern Town" // Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

The cover of Dougherty’s “Life in a Northern Town” // Photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

At the heart of your book is this incredible sense of place, centered around Lake Superior. Why is that such an important idea for you?

Gary Snyder, he’s a poet from California, says: ‘Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.’ That’s kind of what the book is. For me, the way the way I dug in is having people around my table.

And that’s how I’m taking responsibility—I think food is a great convener. We need the table more now than we ever have. All food comes from some place, and that place is someone’s home, and that has consequences, good and bad.

What is it that makes the food community of Wisconsin’s South Shore so special?

When you go into restaurants, they often list all the farms where they get their food from. But because [Bayfield] isn’t so big, you know the farmers from other contexts than just being ‘the guy who grows the tomatoes’—you may have just seen them at the grocery store, or they’re part of your book club, or your kid has worked for them…

I’m not saying that it’s utopia up here, but because it’s a little bit smaller, the farmers aren’t just the farmers. You know them for the other roles they play in the community.

When you look at your seasonal table and when you work on a recipe, what’s the common thread that ties all the food together?

Lake Superior, to be honest with you. The lake drives the weather and provides us with fresh fish that other CSAs wouldn’t have access to—whitefish, trout, walleye. Our growing season does present a certain challenge—it’s obviously shorter than… well, anywhere, really.

One hundred miles south of here it gets warmer a lot quicker. But the farmers here have been able to use hoop houses to extend the growing season. We have a unique microclimate that’s really conducive to fruit—we have apples, that’s kind of the Bayfield thing, but we have currants, and raspberries, and blueberries, and strawberries. The soils are different throughout the region.

We don’t have a culture of large-scale farming, lots of row crops. Because of our weather, our farmers have to be a little more resilient and diversified. You can’t plant 500 acres of corn and expect it to work out well. We have heavy rainfall events up here, it’s colder. […] Our farms are smaller and more diverse.

You’ve been active in fighting against factory farming in northern Wisconsin—what drives that fight? How hard has it been to rally community support?

I got my book deal and I learned about a [planned] 26,000-hog factory farm [near Ashland] on the same weekend. So I knew that somehow the book and the factory farm proposal were related.

In the past six years, we’ve had three 100- to 500-year rainfall events that have resulted in flooding, particularly in the region where the factory farm would have been.

Knock on wood, we’ve been able to stop that farm. When push comes to shove, this community does come together to protect what we hold dear, which is Lake Superior. We stood up to a multimillion dollar industry and said, ‘No, that’s not going to happen.’

How do you do that? Generally money tends to triumph in fights like this.

You do that by creating vibrant, resilient local communities that don’t look to that kind of development as the answer, that have been able to create economic vitality from within. I think we’ve been doing a pretty good job with it. Northland College has a food facility where they have huge flash freezers that they let local farmers use to preserve the harvest. Northland College has a Center for Rural Communities. There’s a USDA grant they’re working on that has to do with resilient local foodsheds.

We don’t keep factory farms out by fighting against them, we keep them out by bolstering our local communities so they’re strong enough to not need them.

What’s the biggest lesson you hope people will take away from “Life in a Northern Town?”

I want to tell the story of why I love my home, and why my home is special to me, and share it with people in the hopes that A), they will fall in love with my home like me, and if they learn about it they’ll want to protect it; and B), that they’ll look to their own homes and they realize that they love their homes, so they can tell the stories of their place that will inspire folks to take an interest and get involved.

“Life in a Northern Town: Cooking, Eating, and Other Adventures Along Lake Superior” is available for purchase at most bookstores, as well as online through the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.