Amy Sherman talks with incredible speed about the local Slow Food movement – and beer.
As host of the upcoming Grand Rapids-produced PBS series, the "Great American Brew Trail," she sees it as a lifelong mission to teach people the importance of supporting local farmers and brewers.
It's a style of life that apparently agrees with Sherman, 38. In a crisp, staccato voice punctuated with laughter, she relates how she will try to cover the some 10,000 miles of coastline along Lake Michigan taping segments for the first season of Brew Trail, teach cooking classes at various Grand Rapids locations, and still find time for her family. If one were to try to identify the source of her energy, it's passion for food and drink.
Hoppy trails ahead
As a home brewer herself who started the hobby in the early '90s, Sherman has a huge place in her heart for microbreweries. Now she has parlayed her love for food and brew into a dream job – hosting the Brew Trail, a show that shares the pleasures of Michigan's diverse microbreweries. Each of the first season's thirteen, half-hour episodes will focus on two Michigan breweries and pubs as well as the surrounding community.
The Brew Trail's focus is mainly on lakeshore breweries, but it will also cover breweries in Grand Rapids and other inland areas. An independent production of Renner.TV, the show will initially be distributed through seven Michigan PBS stations and possibly Chicago PBS. Matt Renner, Amy Sherman, Jeff Gurel, and Wojtek Dabrowski comprise the team producing the show. The team has corporate sponsors, and a companion cookbook will help fund the program.
"Beer is a deep-rooted part of our culture," says Sherman. "Many people don't realize that the Great Lakes region is very culturally and geographically diverse. The unique blend of climate and tradition sets the stage for a huge range of beer flavors."
Every region has a history, she says. Settlers from the old country brought their strong beer drinking traditions with them, and the communities they started still brew their unique recipes today. Sherman says that nationally, Michigan is second in brew diversity, next to California.
If all goes according to plan, Great American Brew Trail will be a hit. Sherman wants to expand the show's horizons to other Midwestern states, the rest of the country and, ultimately, Europe. Right now, the project is a labor of love, but Sherman hopes it will soon turn into a paid position.
Food for thought
A self-taught chef, Sherman says that it's important to understand where our food comes from and how it gets to our plates. "Food is not only about taste and entertainment and pleasure, or aromas, textures, and flavors," she says. "Food also defines local culture. It is powerful on so many levels. One bite and you are transported back in time."
She says that she learned to cook by experimenting with recipes and reading every cookbook and magazine article she could get her hands on. "Julia Child did the same thing," says Sherman. "She cooked for herself because she loved it. She taught herself."
Over the years, Sherman has mined myriad morsels of food history and its ties to social backgrounds and social issues. "For example, why are artichokes important in the Mediterranean?" she asks. "They taste good! And they are made to grow in that kind of climate and soil, that's where they're from. Kind of like asparagus for us – it loves our sandy soil, our temperate lake climate."
A family affair
Sherman, 38, moved to Grand Rapids from her hometown of Detroit in 1990 to study political science and sociology at Aquinas College. She says that these subjects dovetail very nicely with her fascination with food and traditions. She originally planned to return to Detroit after school.
"I didn't think I'd stay," she says. "But Grand Rapids surprised me. It had a bad rep on the other side of the state, but I could see potential here, and I knew that it would be great someday. It is so much better now."
Food is a family affair for Sherman, her husband, Gerard "Jerry" Adams, and their three children, ages 10, 8, and 6. Adams helps run West Michigan Cooperative, the first regional online farmers' market which he co-founded. He also has a design firm, Media Rare.
Sherman and her family are ardent supporters of Slow Food, which she says is "an idea, a way of living, and a way of eating." She founded the Southwest Michigan Chapter of Slow Food USA, Potawatomi Convivium, an offshoot of the Slow Food movement that first caught fire in Italy in 1986.
She says that Slow Food is a global, grassroots movement that links the pleasures of food with a commitment to community and the environment. It's a response to our obsession with takeout food and fast food chains. "We're losing our food history and culture," says Sherman. "We need to get to know our local producers and celebrate the pleasures of the table, sitting down and eating with family and friends. We need to know where our food comes from. We need to think about who made the food. It's important to keep these traditions alive."
Mother knows best
Sherman attributes her love of cooking to her stay-at-home mom, a former policewoman who worked in Detroit during the late '60s riots.
"My mom cooked for us," says Sherman. "And my siblings and I were expected to contribute to the table. Our family made our own sausage, bread, ice cream, among other things. I remember my mom lining us up to make deep-fried wontons," she says with a giggle.
Sherman remembers her very first recipe, "Straw Nuts," a concoction of chopped strawberries, sprinkled with sugar and topped off with walnuts. "I was about 7 years old," she reminisces. "My mom still has the recipe card with my little kid's handwriting."
A nine-year stint as a pastry chef at Tuscan Express gave Sherman the freedom to explore and experiment with local products. "The best possible food starts with the best possible local produce," she says. "I want other people to be excited about local farmers and local food because it's my passion and my job."
Sherman says that over the years, she's seen an improvement in people's appreciation and support for local growers. "Now when I go out to talk about local food, I'm noticing that more and more people actually know the farmers' names," she says.
Victoria A. Mullen is (in alphabetical order) an actress, artist, attorney, photographer, and writer based in Grand Rapids. She is originally from Milwaukee.
Amy Sherman (3)
Crew filming PBS series, the "Great American Brew Trail," (3)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved