Mmmmmm … Michigan cherry pie!

Today’s piece is by former newspaper publisher and University of Michigan Regent Phil Power, a longtime observer of Michigan politics and economics. He is also the founder and chairman of the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, bipartisan centrist think–and–do tank, designed to cure Michigan’s dysfunctional political culture; the Center publishes the online Bridge magazine, where this article originally appeared. The opinions expressed here are Power’s own and do not represent the official views of the Center. He welcomes your comments at [email protected].

July is cherry season, one of the great glories of summer in Michigan.

It’s a subject near and dear to my heart, as my ancestors were among the first people to plant Montmorency cherries (called “sours” to distinguish them from the dark red eating cherries, “sweets”) in northern Michigan.

My great- great grandfather, Eugene Power, started a family farm near Elk Rapids, today still a tiny town northeast of Traverse City, late in the 19th century. He was among the first local farmers to plant cherries, which thrived on the sandy, well-drained soil and for a time became the dominant crop in the area.

The location – between Grand Traverse Bay and Elk Lake – was perfect, as the lakes moderated the cold winter winds and usually delayed flowering in the spring until after the last frost. Even today, much of the land around Traverse City that hasn’t been raped by the developers remains in cherry orchards.

10 cents for 30 pounds

My father, also called Eugene Power, remembered his first job was out on the family farm, picking cherries for 10 cents a 30-pound lug. That was a whole lot of cherries for a dime, but back in those days a dime went a whole lot farther than today. My grandfather, Glenn, who started out as a surveyor, helped lay out the newly planted cherry trees in long, straight lines.

There is a family picture of great-grandfather Eugene standing in his orchard, wearing a white shirt and necktie and a Panama hat, with a farm hand holding a pruning knife standing behind him.

It wasn’t easy being a pioneering family way back then. You couldn’t be sure the trees, once planted, would thrive or bear well. And there was always the risk of a late frost. Prices, too, bumped around a lot; a big crop meant low prices but high volume, while a small crop brought high price but low return. And capital, once lost, was very hard to regain.

A pioneering family

Family legend says the Powers were all a bit eccentric. My ancestors left a secure position in Farmington – an Oakland County town they founded when they first came to Michigan in 1824 – to move up north and start a farm. My grandfather left the farm to become a businessman in Traverse City, while my father struck out on his own as an entrepreneur in Ann Arbor. And I started my own newspaper company, largely from scratch, in 1965.

But that was the way of the pioneers, my ancestors and the ancestors of countless Michiganders who made our state and our nation what it is and whose creativity and, well, eccentricity made all the difference in the new lands of the New World. Reflecting on this history makes me feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants looking back in pride on our accomplishments as a nation and hope at our shadowed future. It’s that spirit of hope and confidence that makes our July 4 national holiday so important to so many.

And so, just in time for the sour cherry season, here’s our family recipe for Montmorency cherry pie.

My father preferred his pie with vanilla ice cream. I’m more of a purist, so I skip the ice cream. But I do like the pie cold for breakfast.

Either way, it’s a delicious way to celebrate Michigan cherries and mark our national holiday.




Enjoy Pi Day with a fabulous pecan pie


Every year has a Pi Day, but this year’s , which takes place next Saturday, will be a once-in-a-century happening.

Pi, of course, is the mathematical constant that describes the relationship between the circumference of a circle and its diameter. And so Pi Day occurs every year on March 14 to celebrate the first three digits of pi, 3.14.

But there’s something odd about pi, which you probably remember from your school days. It’s infinite. You can keep dividing a circle’s  circumference by the diameter and you’ll never get a final number, there will always be something left over. And the sequence never repeats. Pi has been calculated to more than a trillion digits past the decimal.

So this year, on March 15, 2015 we can add two numbers and celebrate 3/14/15. If you want to be even more precise, you can carry the calculation out further and celebrate at precisely 9:26:53 – a.m. or p.m. You’ll be forgiven if you take two seconds to mark the occasion: some argue that 9:26:54 on 3/14/15 is more the accurate time because the 11th digit of pi is 5, which would cause the 10th digit to round up to 4, rather than 3. (Though by the same logic, we should celebrate Pi Day next year, because the sixth digit, 9, should round the fifth digit up to 6.)

The first Pi Day was organized by Larry Shaw, a physicist at the San Francisco Exploratorium, in 1988. Visitors joined the museum’s staff in marching around the circular spaces and then eating fruit pies. The Exploratorium still has annual Pi Day celebrations.

Congress has even gotten into the act. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution in 2009 recognizing March 14 as Pi Day.

There’s also a Pi Approximation Day, July 22, which makes sense if you write the dates European-style, with the day first, followed by the month: 22/7 is a close fractional approximation of the value of pi.

Lots of colleges and other organizations celebrate by eating pie, throwing pies or holding contests to see who can recite the most decimal places for pi. At Princeton University they also celebrate the March 14 birthday of Albert Einstein, who worked there for 20 years. In addition to pie eating and pi recitation, there’s an Einstein look-alike contest.

Even the ancients knew that a circle is a little more than three times its width around. In the Bible book of 1 Kings (7:26), a circular pool is described as 30 cubits around and 10 cubits across.

The Greek mathematician Archimedes determined that pi was approximately 22/7. The Greek letter “pi” was first used in 1706 by Welsh mathematician William Jones. History Today has an interesting article about Jones and the development of the pi symbol.

You might want to mark this once-in-a-lifetime day by buying a commemorative tee-shirt; you can find many varieties for sale on Amazon.

Better yet, eat pie. Here’s a great recipe for a pecan pie from my sister, Sue Holliday, who makes it every Thanksgiving.

But before I sign off, I have to share an old joke.

A young lad in Appalachia is the first in his family to go to high school. When he comes back to the holler, his pappy asks him what he learned in school, and the boy says he learned geometry.

“Well say something in geometry,” says the father.

“Um, er…well, today I learned pi-r-squared,” says the boy.

“Hah!” says the father. “Shows what good all this high-falutin’ learning is! Everyone knows pie are round – cornbread are square!”

Eat Pie, Love Life

Right after Christmas I read a wonderful story in the Detroit Free Press about a woman who loves to make pies.

Linda Hundt, a Michigan State grad, spent the 1990s and more working full-time as an aide to former Michigan governor John Engler. She liked her job–but her passion wasn’t in politics, it was in pies.

While still working for the governor, Linda found the time to bake 60 pies a week in her church’s kitchen. She sold them from a refurbished food case on the front porch of her farmhouse.

She finally left politics in 2002 and a few years later, with the help of a home equity loan, Linda opened the Sweetie-Licious Bakery Cafe, an almost-too-cute pink-drenched shop in DeWitt, a small mid-Michigan town. There’s another branch in Grand Rapids and one coming soon in the Detroit area.

A national pie champ

Over the years Linda managed to win 16 first-place ribbons and one Best of Show in the Crisco National Pie Baking Contest, a 100-Year Anniversary Innovation award from Crisco and the Food Network Pie Challenge. She’s been written up in dozens of local and national publications.

I smelled a good Feed the Spirit topic, but it got even better when I went to Linda’s website. There I learned that she had also published a cookbook called–surprise!–Sweetie-licious Pies: Eat Pie, Love Life. I had to have it. And I love it!

A Valentine of a book

I decided to write about Sweetie-Licious this week because Valentine’s Day is upon us. Linda’s book is like a hardback Valentine, all pink and frothy, full of super-saturated color photos and gushing with love. If the recipes don’t make you yearn to sink your teeth into one of those pies, Clarissa Westmeyer’s gorgous photos will.

My daughter took one look at the book and burst out laughing, saying it looks like something from the 1950s. It’s true: just look at this photo of Linda and her mom, Joan McComb, opposite the book’s foreward. In the book at least, Linda always wears shirtwaist dresses (usually pink or red) with poufy crinolines and a June Cleaver-style apron. But that’s part of the fun of the book.

In her introduction, Linda, 50, describes how she got her start in baking with a Kenner Easy-Bake Oven. It was her favorite Christmas gift when she was 6.

The Easy-Bake was destroyed in a house fire when Linda was a young adult. Years later, Linda’s husband bought her another one for Christmas. When she opened the package, she said, “all the joy and love I’d felt from cooking and baking throughout my life came rushing back. I realized that my mission in life, my dream of changing the world one pie at a time and loving people through my food, all started from that little oven.”

While in high school, Linda made her first pie, coconut cream, for her boyfriend, John Hundt, who is now her husband.

Recipes and values to live by

After telling her personal story, Linda launches into the recipes. First there are recipes for crusts and toppings. One surprising detail: Linda recommends freezing the pie crust before filling and baking it. Another surprise: Linda doesn’t make double-crust pies. Many of her recipes call for a crumb topping. Other pies are topped with caramel, whipped cream or meringue or simple garnishes.

Then come more than 50 recipes for pies, each with a beautiful photo, and each with a story – about a person who made that particular pie or a person who really loved it.

The recipes are divided into chapters – not divided by the type of pie but by values Linda holds dear, qualities like Character, Faith, Gratitude and Joy.

All about love

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’ll tell you what Linda has to say about Love, in her final chapter:

Finding love in all things in life is, I believe, truly life’s purpose. A heart bursting with love brings happiness to all who encounter it. Love fuels us, and when we find the “loveliness” in everyone, the world is simply sweeter. Hugs, deeds words, and kind gestures are all expressions of this most powerful virtue.

But baking a pie for someone may be the ultimate testament to love, as the love you bake in it will be crimped into every corner of the crust and suffused in every bite of filling!

So if you haven’t already bought that overpriced heart-shaped box of chocolates or ordered a dozen red roses, consider baking a pie for your sweetie this week. He or she will taste the love.

A true honey pie

I chose Linda’s West Virginia Honey Pie for this week’s recipe because the title is so appropriate for Valentine’s Day and because I’d never seen a honey pie before.

She created this recipe in memory of pleasant summer days spent with her grandparents at their farm in West Virginia. Her grandfather, a retired coal miner, enjoyed hunting, vegetable gardening and caring for bees.

Her grandmother would make pans of cornbread that Linda would drown with Grandpa’s golden wildflower honey. “My daddy always claimed that we all should work as hard as honeybees, as he too kept bees as a teenager during World War II,” Linda said.

(Come back next week for another Sweetie-Licious recipe in honor of President’s Day.)