America: Eating our values one bite of whitefish at a time

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-2010_07_30_web_Crumm_VFW_Post_3676_Saulte_Ste_Marie_hosts_a_fish_fry.jpgSAULTE STE. MARIE, Michigan We discovered a Michigan gem that most outsiders will never find. But, stepping into VFW Post 3676 Friday evening netted what Benjamin describes as “the best fried fish I have ever eaten in my life.”

This national conversation is about sharing more than words. One of the best ways to strengthen a community is to break bread together and nearly 300 men, women and children did so at this VFW post on Friday night. They came in waves throughout the evening, because the place only holds a little more than 100 at a time. Families sat together at long tables, served by friendly women scurrying back and forth to a steaming kitchen window. High in their hands, these servers held gold: plates heaped with golden-brown fillets of Lake Superior whitefish.

“They were swimming yesterday,” said a man sitting near us as our plates arrived. “Caught yesterday and you’re eating them today.”

This is one way you can get involved in this national conversation unfolding throughout August. Yes, we are talking about weighty issues: our future as Americans, our core values, the fears and disagreements that divide us. But, first, let’s eat!

You can help us. Three towns where we’re staying over night in the next week or so are Miles City, Montana, Seattle, Washington, and Eureka, Oregon. Do you know of a place we should have supper in those spots that out-of-towners wouldn’t find? We’re not asking for top restaurants. For six months in 1986, David filled in as the Free Press Food Writer and, in the 1990s, he occasionally reviewed restaurants for the Free Press. We know fine dining and it’s easy to find.

We also aren’t looking to tour VFW posts nationwide.  We enjoyed our evening with the folks at VFW 3676, but now we’re looking for other spots outsiders wouldn’t discover.

Is this turning into a food column? Hardly. But, had we started asking about American values in the VFW hall Friday, we would have turned a marvelous community dinner into a shouting match in a hurry. Instead, we ate our community values.

“It’s a family secret that makes this fish so good—and I’m part of that family,” Sue McKerchie said as she finally sat down to her own fish dinner after everyone else was served.

We pressed for hints to the special recipe. “No,” she said firmly, then decided to tease us a bit, “Well I will tell you that paprika is one important ingredient.”

Why wouldn’t outsiders have discovered this treasure? First, Saulte Ste. Marie is lined from I-75 to the Soo Locks with brightly lit restaurant signs and this is just a Veterans of Foreign Wars post. Second, even though we had spotted a handbill for the fish fry, we couldn’t find it. We stepped in the front door of the VFW post, an almost empty barroom, and thought we were mistaken.

Turning to leave, a local woman told us: “The fish fry is in the hall out back.”

That’s where much of this small town along the Soo Locks had settled on Friday night. Many in the hall were veterans, but most were not. They were spouses, friends, neighbors. We chatted with a retired autoworker from metro-Detroit who is Native American and moved to the Upper Peninsula when he retired and began working again for his tribe. As we swapped stories, we all stuffed ourselves on fish that, just a day ago, had been swimming in the world’s largest system of freshwater lakes.

Now, help us! Got a spot we shouldn’t miss in Miles City, Seattle or Eureka?

Editor’s note: David Crumm was previously the religion writer for the Free Press. He and his son, Benjamin, are on a 40-day trip across America to explore our love for it. You can read about their journey at readthespirit.com and the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com/americajourney

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