Food is unique in our culture for its range of possibilities for human fulfillment. Food is for socializing, celebrating, savoring, ritual and tradition. People come together over food: we meet for dinner, get together for drinks or coffee, take the kids out for ice cream after a game. We grieve together over food. It nourishes us in the most basic and literal way, and sometimes, when we’re lucky or in good company, it delights and heals us.
Food has a major role in placemaking. Food helps make a place unique – think Detroit’s coney dogs, Memphis barbecue, California and Michigan wines, New York bagels, Chicago deep dish pizza, local craft beers and distilleries. It can represent an exotic culture or the more prosaic Toledo, Ohio. Food trucks, restaurants, farmer’s markets, and specialty food stores provide nourishment from the earthiest root vegetable to the most exotic pastries. Farm to table restaurants acknowledge by name the farms – the places – that provide their produce, meat and cheese. (For a short spoof of the farm to table thing, check this out.) And we don’t call visitors to northern Michigan Fudgies for nothing.
As many of you know, my folks live in lovely, historic Savannah, Georgia - the city General Sherman presented to President Lincoln for Christmas during the Civil War. I’ve done the historical (i.e. tourist) stuff, so what’s left to make me return again and again to downtown Savannah, with its ridiculously bad parking and blaring tour buses? It’s food. My favorite scones at an outdoor table overlooking Madison Square. The bourbon cinnamon sugar cookies at another outdoor table in the Starland district. The lavender shortbread cookies at the Paris Market (why yes, in fact they also have outdoor tables!). And the two exceptions I make to being fully vegetarian – crab cakes and the sashimi tuna at the dearly departed Toucan (which I guess means now there’s only one exception). You may note that the bacon-wrapped deep-fried mac and cheese from The Lady and Sons is not on my personal list, but Paula Deen is a draw for many visitors to Savannah, and legitimately so. She helped make Savannah a southern food destination.
Though I am a frequent visitor, I’m still a visitor, not a local. Does food influence where people live? You betcha. Residential developers are jumping on the food and place bandwagon. Here is a story about new residential developments for foodies. Prized locations are near farmer’s markets and restaurants. Lower floors incorporate gourmet coffee shops and restaurants. Kitchens include high-end appliances. One developer quoted in the article says “Today, when you put together a mixed-use project, you start by talking about the food and restaurants first.”
Often the first thing that draws people to a neighborhood is a new restaurant everyone wants to try. When that restaurant brings people, other businesses want to locate there because the street has a lot of activity (by people with money to spend). A neighborhood or street or even a town becomes a destination because of a restaurant. When I was in high school, Plainwell (Michigan) was a small paper mill town in the middle of cornfields. Arie’s restaurant put it on the map, drawing people from miles and miles away. At the time, I remember that there were restaurants you’d go to on prom night, and restaurants that were places you’d go to after a football game, but not many in between – until Arie’s. It has been closed for ages, but I can still remember it clearly.
If you didn’t have to choose your home based on a job, what factors would you look for? Is food on the list?
Bonus Material: Who can resist a placemaking article called “The Importance of a Giant Doughnut”? Not me.
A shout out to the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, because why not? If you are a fan of mustard, it’s a must-see. The gift shop is, naturally, filled with hundreds of mustard varieties and mustard-themed gifts. The guy who owns it, Barry Levenson, is very nice, and has a wonderfully quirky sense of humor. And it is a unique food-related destination that makes Middleton more than just a Madison suburb.
And from the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion, here is a video I helped create, featuring Grand Rapids, Michigan’s finest food destination, the Downtown Market. Rocket Pizza, the best. The grilled cheese at Apertivo, to die for. The cupcakes at Sweetielicious… the Mexican place… worth a trip for west Michiganders.
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