Edible Cleveland enlisted a couple of locals to give us an insider’s perspective on the burgeoning local food scene on the Lake Erie Islands. Beth Kretschmar spent her teen summers working on Put-in-Bay and fills us in in part one. Stephen Celeste lives on Kelleys Island year-round after spending most of summers of his life on the island and shares island stories in part two below.
The food revolution has been televised—abundantly. Hopefully, that means more fresh and healthy food for all of us. Sometimes, though, that kind of media saturation causes a cultural backlash that reduces phrases like “farm-to-table” and “locally grown” to the latest trend. However, if long-time residents of Kelleys Island are any indication, then healthy local food isn’t just a passing fad.
Drive about an hour and a half west from downtown Cleveland on Route 2, following signs to the Kelleys Island State Park. Then board the big orange ferry, cleverly named the Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line, and you’ll arrive on an island distinguished by its abundance of natural beauty. The allure of the lake itself is obvious, but the island’s more subtle appeal is that much of it is still green space, owned by the village, the state, or the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Beaches, quarries, and ponds host ecosystems that harken back to a time when the best way to get to the island was by canoe—dragonflies, bullfrogs, and salamanders abound. More to the point, though, ramps, wild chives, and even the occasional morel can be found here, if you know where to look.
Kelleys is a rarity not only because of what is here, but also because of what you won’t find here. There are no chains—no Applebee’s, no Starbucks, and nothing even closely resembling a McDonald’s. The successful businesses on this island are independently owned and are almost exclusively run by couples, who, through a mixture of love, patience, and a desire to be in the same place long enough, become family. And family is what Kelleys Island values.
While the folks here are not exactly what you’d call “early adopters,” there are a handful of home-grown locals leading a food revolution, and the island is responding. They are not doing it to be fashionable or even because it’s fun (though that is a factor). They are doing it because they realize that having a relationship with the land works. It makes their lives healthier and more sustainable, and the food they get to eat makes them happier, as well.
In Our Own Backyard
Patti Fresch and Steve James are producers at heart. They love nature and they cook often and with flair. Their beautiful little garden and greenhouse produce a bounty of herbs and veggies, which they sell at a weekly market table where tourists and locals can come to get a taste of some truly scrumptious lettuce. The greenhouse and the fences that protect the gardens from ravenous deer were constructed by hand using only reclaimed materials found on Kelleys Island.
On the other side of the island, Chuck and Cindy Herndon live in a house that is surrounded by Chuck’s striking sculptures, many of which are chiseled from giant stones he’s collected locally. They are both EMTs and come from families on Kelleys Island that date back several generations. When they aren’t busy volunteering at the Kelleys Island Historical Association, they enjoy raising many happy free-range chickens that spend their nights roosting next door to the sculpture studio. I feel privileged to have received some delicious samples from Cindy’s veggie gardens, their cute greenhouse, and their giant old apple trees. They are always happy to sell a dozen eggs to a visitor or share some apples with whomever might use them well.
If you head back toward town from the Herndon’s, you’ll pass by one of Joe Wolfe’s hives, but you won’t even know it. Nestled in a grove of trees, you’ll hear the buzzing long before you see the bees. Martha, Joe’s wife, will probably tell you she has nothing to do with his bees, except to watch and enjoy. In her eyes, he does all the hard work. It’s easy to see, though, that it’s Martha’s love and support—not to mention the smile on the faces of those who taste his honey—that Joe really enjoys. Yeah, he loves his bees and spending quiet time (if it can be called that) working with his hives, but he loves all of us more. Love is the real secret to the best tasting honey around.
From Backyards To Mealtime
The revolution continues as many of the island restaurants are integrating more locally sourced ingredients into their menus. This shift is possible in part because distributors like GFS, Northern Haserot, and others who serve Kelleys Island, have begun to carry more of these items. Also, not surprisingly, there is a significant push to have local beers, wines, and even liquors available in the Kelleys Island bars. Going local here isn’t about following a trend, it’s about a real desire to exhibit quality and support small businesses.
While all island business owners understand the importance of community support, one couple in particular have spearheaded and epitomized the push toward fresh, healthy, and local food for the restaurants on our little island. Bret and Lynn Maiers have been on Kelleys Island for 16 years. This is their ninth summer operating The Caddy Shack on Division Street in the middle of town, and just last year, they took over an island tradition—The Island House—just up the road. They put care and consideration into every ingredient they use and every draft they pour (over 60 between the two businesses). From house-prepared, locally sourced meats to herbs and vegetables often from locals’ own gardens, Bret and Lynn are always finding ways to keep a tight sourcing radius. In fact, for Mother’s Day brunch at The Island House this year, they managed to offer a completely Kelley’s Island produced quiche, with Cindy’s eggs, of course—a logistical feat of gastronomy I’ve not seen in 30 years on this island.
Personally, I have very high hopes for Kelleys Island’s future. I want many more island grown and prepared products to be added to our menus, so a growing number of families can share the bounty of our home. That is the enduring identity of Kelleys Island at its best. It is a place where families are feeding families. A place that helps to prove that better, smaller, closer, and cleaner food is not a fantasy or a fad—it is our inheritance and it must also be our legacy.