The French use the word “terroir” in describing how regional factors, including soil, give a wine its personality. Here in metro Detroit, can our palates discern a home-grown familiarity that tastes of the American Midwest?
Nick Seccia, executive chef at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, detects a difference between ingredients harvested locally and those shipped from distant places. A devotee of the so-called slow-food movement, which emphasizes area growers, he bakes his Hobo Bread and polenta with wheat and cornmeal from Westwind Milling Co. in Linden, about 65 miles northwest of Dearborn.
“Their cornmeal tastes like corn — fresh, subtle,” Seccia says. “It sears up nice on the outside, but stays light on the interior.”
At The Henry Ford, he says, “We’re real cooks cooking real food. In the Eagle Tavern [in Greenfield Village], we strive to make the food as authentic as possible.”
Seccia’s Hobo Bread, which, according to hobo tradition, is baked in a can, contains raisins, cinnamon, walnuts, butter, and brown sugar. Those who buy the quick bread — sold at Westborn Markets, the R. Hirt Co. in Detroit’s Eastern Market, and The Henry Ford — indulge in baked slices of wheat that spouted and matured in fields just an hour or so away.
Metro Detroit sits like a dinner plate at the center of an agricultural buffet that provides ample meals — or the ingredients that create them.
Among the agrarian producers in metro Detroit’s outer, rural ring is a functioning mill that dates its beginnings to the era of President Andrew Jackson. The Westwind mill shows its age. Its exterior, dusty from clouds that rise from the gravel parking lot on dry days, is hardly a picture-book version of Americana. Next to the porch, a garden patch with hollyhocks, roses, cosmos, winter savory, and lavender has a look that’s more sun-baked prairie than manicured Colonial Williamsburg.
This is a practical working mill, as the owners say, rather than a tidy museum-piece depiction of what once was. Inside, Linda Purdy, dressed in shorts, flip-flops, and a sleeveless blouse, and her husband, Lee, wearing blue jeans and a Westwind T-shirt, get the day going. Tuesday means baking, which is done in the back kitchen while old pulleys keep 800-pound North Carolina granite millstones whirring up front. Their daughter, Summer, helps out in the small store.
It may look country simple, but this is no sleepy operation. One wonders, in fact, how the on-site owners of this family-run enterprise manage to also grow the grains they grind. Their farm is one of 14 that contribute grains to Westwind.
The Purdys bought the mill for $125,000 in December 2000 and opened for business eight months later in what was an act of desperation to save their farm.
Other buyers had considered purchasing the mill for use as a flea market, mini mall, or restaurant. Lee and Linda did the obvious: Use it as a mill.
“We had this idea that we could sell the flour instead of the wheat, sell the finished product instead of the raw material,” Linda says. “It was three growers when we started. Now it’s a little network, a sustainable food system.
“All those people sell us grain; we help them keep us going. We’re proof that local food and organic is possible.”
Their local network includes Ed Wracan, of Wracan & Son Honey in Lennon, who participates in Westwind’s local-food dinners during the winter months, and “Peppermint Jim” Crosby, whose farm in St. Johns is the country’s oldest continuously running family mint farm.
Linda speaks of their agricultural lifestyle with an ease that belies her roots on Detroit’s east side. She received a degree in history from Wayne State University, worked as a junior secretary for the late Detroit City Council President Maryann Mahaffey, and spent three years as a zookeeper at The Detroit Zoo before becoming a special-education teacher in Burton.
Lee, who runs the mill with the expertise of a journeyman mechanical engineer, grew up on the farm where they now live, and gained his knowledge behind the wheel of a tractor and through doing sales and service for grain elevators.
“I want the mill to have a little howl to it, like driving a tractor; you can plow a field and know what’s going on in the transmission,” he says. The mill “howls” without the benefit of modern convenience. “We’ve never bought a new piece of equipment,” Lee says. “The last major retrofit was in 1937.”
This handyman, who also bakes spelt-flour cinnamon rolls, speaks with pleasure and authority about lubrication schedules, the “tissue-thin” space between grinding wheels, and the “flailing” that soy, almonds, and various legumes do in a hammer mill. A hammer mill will also be used in Westwind’s new gluten-free mill, which he plans to complete this summer.
Lee’s vocabulary digresses into talk of short runs, long runs, furrows, and bolts. His detailed devotion to the process is also apparent in his milling log, a paper-and-clipboard affair with meticulous pencil-written notations. “I’m a bit of a Luddite,” he says with obvious pride.
That pride gave him the courage to offer samples of their bread to French agri-tourists who came through the mill not long ago. They judged it as good as the best breads in France, Linda says.
The Purdys emphasize the importance of what’s not in their products. “There’s no BHA, BHT, red food coloring — none of that junk,” Linda says. Nothing is bromated or preserved.“Have you seen Food Inc., about the myth of our food system?” Linda says. “I truly believe you are what you eat. Food is what we are. If what you eat is industrial … well.”
TO BUY WESTWIND:
By the Pound,
Ann Arbor; 734-665-8884
American Market Village,
Dearborn Heights; 313-730-0801
Ann Arbor; harvest-kitchen.com
Nature’s Finest Organics,
Waterford Township; naturesfinestsorganics.com
The Westwind Milling Co.,
Ypsilanti Food Co-op;
Ann Arbor; zingermansbakehouse.com