Homestyle recipes and Mitten classics fill Mandy McGovern's cookbook, "My Little Michigan Kitchen"


Mandy McGovern and her book My Little Michigan Kitchen

Author photo by Melissa McGovern; book cover art by Michael McGovern.

What makes a food classic to Michigan for you?

This diverse state includes foods from many backgrounds, such as Lebanese, Native American, and Polish. Michigan is also known for its seasonal produce: blueberries, cherries, apples, and sweet corn, among others. Regional dishes abound, too, like pasties, fudge, and Detroit-style pizza. Many definitions are clearly possible.

A new cookbook by Mandy McGovern, My Little Michigan Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from a Homemade Life Lived Well, contains McGovern’s take on Michigan fare. This book springs from McGovern’s interest in food. When traveling, she would purchase a cookbook about the cuisine in the places she went. As she tried recipes from those books, she shared her explorations on her blog, Kitchen Joy, which she started in 2013 to document her cooking. McGovern then wanted to create a cookbook of her own focusing on Michigan.

The 100-plus recipes in My Little Michigan Kitchen cover breakfast, brunch, bread, soups, salads, sandwiches, vegetables, sides, main courses, desserts, drinks, dressings, dips, sauces, and also basics like pie crust. Monkey Bread, Roasted Butternut Squash Soup, Grilled Asparagus, Chicken Pot Pie, and Spiced Oatmeal Cake are among the recipes. 

McGovern will share samples and speak about her book on Thursday, June 13, at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor. 

Q: Tell us about yourself. 
A: I was born and raised in Grand Rapids with a love for family, traveling, eating, and enjoying Michigan’s beautiful natural resources. I’ve been married for 13 years to my childhood friend turned high school sweetheart, and we have two daughters, ages 3 and 1. I went to college for dental hygiene, which was my full-time career for 10 years. My husband and I had the opportunity to live in Italy for a good portion of 2014 as part of his job. After we returned to Michigan, our oldest was born, and I was able to stay home with her and also devote more of my attention to my blog -- and also pursue my cookbook dream. Now I’m blessed to be able to adventure around Michigan sharing my book and meeting other food-loving Michiganders, and it is a dream come true.

Q: What draws you to your kitchen again and again to create recipes and cook for your family?
A: The short answer to this is that I love food, but it’s really more than that. I look back over my childhood and my life so far and the memories that stick with me are all so intertwined with meals and ingredients. No matter how hard life might have been at times, a homemade meal was a way that I was loved well by various people in my life. Those memories around food and family are experiences that I want to continue to cultivate in my life with my husband and our two young daughters.

Q: You describe your new cookbook, My Little Michigan Kitchen, as a “Michigan cookbook” in your introduction -- and it’s also clear from the title! For you, what makes something a food from Michigan? Is it your personal experiences with it, the seasonal produce, state history, the ethnic diversity here, or something else?
A: For me, My Little Michigan Kitchen is a book that represents Michigan in a few ways. I tried really hard to keep the recipes fairly straightforward in terms of ingredients and techniques. I want this book to be one in which everyone can find something they would enjoy. I also wanted to include recipes for some of my favorite Michigan classics, which include Up North Pasties, Coney Dogs, Smoked Whitefish Chowder, Mackinac Island Fudge, etc. 

Some of the recipes taken at face value do not necessarily seem like ones you would necessarily call a Michigan recipe either, and that was done intentionally. A few examples of this would be Caprese Salad, Tomato Sandwiches, and Cucumber Sandwiches. Having lived in Italy a few years ago, I’m as much of a Caprese snob as you might expect, but I also feel very strongly that Michigan agriculture is world class. We have an unbelievable variety of local produce that rivals anything you can find elsewhere, and this includes tomatoes and cucumbers. When in season, locally grown Michigan tomatoes are plentiful, and they shine in a Caprese salad or on a simple tomato sandwich. Cucumber Sandwiches are infinitely more delicious when made with really good local cucumbers. Recipes like these that don’t use many ingredients really rely on good quality produce and Michigan is able to supply that need really well.

One of my favorite things about Michigan is the huge boost in popularity of farmers’ markets, especially in urban settings. It’s no longer a long day trip to go find a farmers’ market on a Saturday. Many towns offer weekday markets, and even some evening markets have been popping up in my area recently, which I think is amazing. One of the hardest parts of creating a cookbook about “Michigan food” is that we quite literally can grow just about anything we would like to here, so in some ways most anything can be considered “local.” That helped me to be able to include recipes that are really easy to recreate elsewhere also. If this book ends up in the hands of someone who lives across the country or the world, I want them to be able to use it with ingredients they have available to them as well so that they can have a taste of Michigan wherever they might be.

Q: You collect cookbooks from places you visit. What are some of your favorite place-based cookbooks? How do the places and recipes interact?
A: This is a tough question because there are so many to choose from! I absolutely adore cookbooks that give a bit of a “slice-of-life” perspective, either in the writing, the recipes, or the photography. I really enjoy Around Florence by Csaba Dalla Zorza, which I got in Florence while I was living in Italy. It has a good balance of recipes that I was somewhat familiar with, as well as many that were brand new to me, and it is a great way to learn about ingredients that we might not use as often here either. I also love that it is written in Italian. In fact, I never worry about what language a cookbook is in anymore because translating is so easy now with Google Translate on smartphones because you can take a photo of the page, and it is translated for you immediately. 

Another favorite is Sweet Paris by Michael Paul, not only for what the book itself offers but also for the experience I had surrounding its purchase. I have always wanted to visit Paris and to shop at Shakespeare and Company -- just like Julia Child did back in the day. And I was fortunate enough to get to visit Paris with my husband and two of our dear friends who live in Europe to celebrate mine and our friend’s 30th birthdays. It was such fun, completely aside from the book itself, that I would adore that book even if the pages were blank. An added bonus, though, is that the book is fantastic, and the photos bring me right back to our Parisian adventures. That’s what I want from My Little Michigan Kitchen. I want it to remind Michiganders of home, and also to draw folks here who maybe haven’t visited before.

Q: As a Michigan native myself, I appreciated recipes for bran muffins (a childhood staple of mine), cherry chicken salad (appearing on many menus up north), Detroit deep dish pizza (classic), banket (a Dutch almond dessert), and Boston Coolers (since Vernors originated from Detroit), among others. You write about your love for your mother’s meatballs and the combination of cherries and almond, as well as many other dishes and flavors. Do you have absolute favorite recipes that, if you could only make one more meal, you would choose those from this book? 
A: What a great question! And a very difficult one, too. If I had to make one last meal from the book it would have to be Thanksgiving dinner. This is literally what I serve every Thanksgiving at our cabin in northern Michigan:  

Green Salad with Apples and Cranberries
Potato Rolls with Cinnamon Honey Butter
Mulled Apple Cider
Balsamic Glazed Carrots
Jellied Cranberry Sauce
Sweet Potato Casserole with Toasted Marshmallows
Creamy Mashed Red Potatoes
Dry Brined Turkey
Salted Maple Pie
Dutch Apple Pie

Q: There are also some recipes from the 19th century sprinkled in the book, such as one for shortcake. There are how-to instructions for things like making maple syrup, too. What motivated you to include these?
A: The two antique recipes you’re referring to are recipes I came across years ago in an old book on food writing and they stuck with me. I find it so interesting to see how things that we take for granted now were so different not all that long ago. One of the recipes requires using the board from the bottom of a boat on the shores of Lake Superior in the preparation. I find it so charming to read really old methods for cooking, so I felt like including them would be something others might enjoy. 

Making maple syrup is something that I think can sound really intimidating but is actually really simple. I wanted to show how homemade syrup can be made on a really small scale with almost no financial investment required. It’s a resource that I overlooked in my front yard for several years before we decided to make our own syrup. 

Q: You keep a blog called Kitchen Joy. Are recipes in the cookbook from your blog, or are they new? How did you choose what to include?
A: There’s definitely a number of recipes that originated on my blog but then found their way into the book. I originally set out not to include any blog recipes, but then I had an overwhelming number of people saying to me which recipes they love from the blog and that I should include them in the book. I ended up including some of the most popular recipes from the blog in addition to all of the new recipes that I created strictly for the cookbook.  

Choosing which recipes to include was difficult. I went back and forth for weeks with index cards taped to my basement wall listing each recipe that I wanted to include in the book, and I would re-arrange the cards on a daily basis. I ended up having to cut out a lot of really good recipes that just didn’t quite fit with the vibe of the rest of the book. I also tried to be mindful of the harder-to-source or less common ingredients and use them in two recipes whenever possible. For example, almond paste is not necessarily something that everyone keeps on hand like I tend to, so if someone goes to the trouble of buying it to make Banket, they can also go ahead and make “Secret Ingredient” Tart Cherry Pie. 

Q: This is your first cookbook. What surprised you about writing a cookbook?
A: Honestly, I think I had a pretty good grasp as to what I was getting into when I started this project. I think what surprised me most was how enjoyable it was. I really just had a lot of fun along every stage of the process. I researched for months and months about the process and steps involved, so I was really prepared for what laid ahead. I loved all of the little road trips my daughter and I would take to research recipes, the visits to farmers’ markets, testing and re-testing the recipes, taking the photos, sketching the artwork, etc. I got to do a little bit of everything, and it was never boring. 

Q: You express gratitude to the Plainfield branch of the Kent District Library at the end of the book. Tell us more about how the library was an “oasis for writing and editing this book.”
A: True story. I am sitting in the Plainfield branch of KDL right now as I answer these interview questions. I found during the cookbook process that my mind needed a change of scenery in order to focus on the non-kitchen portions of the cookbook. Working from home with two little girls under age 2 is lively, delightful, and distracting. I tried coffee shops and bookstores, but once we moved to our current home halfway through the cookbook process and I got acquainted with my new local library branch, it was the perfect fit for me to focus. What better place to write a book than somewhere that you’re surrounded by books? My branch offers study rooms, which are really quiet little rooms with a table and chairs and an outlet -- everything I needed to be able to transcribe my handwritten recipe notes into their digital form. 

Q: Pictures of food, sites around Michigan, and your family are plentiful throughout the book. What elements do you consider when you photograph your food?
A: I wish I could say that I have a really detailed shot list when I’m going to photograph a recipe, but truly, the only thing I really deeply care about is the lighting. I tried my best to time my final recipe tests when I would have dreamy, late-afternoon light. If the lighting is good, everything else about the setup is so much easier. I tried to keep the overall vibe of the photos in the book really consistent, and also different from what I was doing on my blog at that time. I had always been pretty bright and colorful in my blog photos, and I really wanted the photography in the book to be a bit richer and deeper in tones, with a lot of neutral-toned props and accents. I leaned toward a lot of wood and textured linens so that the food would be the main focus. Photographing for print versus for computer screen is something I had to get used to as well. Lots of photos that look amazing on screen just don’t translate to print without looking really dull. I really tried to keep that in mind when I was taking my photos for the book.

Q: This summer, you have several events for this cookbook, and your blog is active. What are you working on next?
A: I’m actually really looking forward to giving my blog more attention than it had been getting while I was so busy finishing the cookbook. I intentionally kept the recipes in the book really straightforward as much as possible, so I’m loving being back on the blog with some more technical recipes. I am in the middle of a series on sourdough right now, and I’m just enjoying the creative freedom that blogging has to offer. 

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Mandy McGovern will share food samples and speak about her book "My Little Michigan Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from a Homemade Life Lived Well" on Thursday, June 13, at 7 pm at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.