Let a former Michigan farmer turned chef guide you in savoring locally grown bounty

As a kid, Abra Berens and her two sisters spent days each summer riding in a 5-ton wagon being pulled over their family’s Allegan County farm and sorting cucumbers flowing off a conveyor belt. Their task was to reserve only unblemished cukes of the ideal size and shape for pickling.

Sorting and hoeing fields of cucumbers in Bentheim may have mostly been her parent’s ruse for keeping their daughters outdoors and occupied, Berens muses. Nevertheless, she remembers feeling empowered by being a productive member of a working farm and learning what it takes to grow food.

“I like that food comes from a place,” Berens says, adding with pride that the diversity of Michigan’s agriculture is second only to that of the much larger California. “As an adult, my North Star has been trying to get nonfarmers excited about locally grown, sustainably produced food and to connect with what it’s like to be a grower.”

A century ago, at least 30% of the U.S. population grew food for themselves or others, but that figure has plummeted to about 3%. As a result, many Americans today are ignorant of how food is grown and harvested. Berens’ approach to turning the tide starts with teaching people how to better prepare and more fully enjoy foods grown in the Midwest.

Abra Berens and her husband, musician Erik Hall, reside in the Berrien County village of Galien.

Her first cookbook, Ruffage, an alphabetical celebration of 30 vegetables — from asparagus to turnips — was published by Chronicle Books in 2019 and was selected as a Michigan Notable Book by the Library of Michigan in 2020. (Apologies to anyone looking for guidance with Brussels sprouts. Berens says she forgot to send that chapter to the publisher and, by the time she discovered her mistake, the lavishly illustrated Ruffage was already 460 pages and Chronicle pulled in the reins.)

Berens’ second cookbook, Grist, is a guide to preparing grains, beans, seeds, and legumes. It will debut in October. A third cookbook, Fruit, will follow.
In addition to writing, Berens, a 2000 graduate of Hamilton High School, is the chef at Granor Farm, an organic vegetable and small grain farm in Three Oaks, Michigan. Berens and her husband, musician Erik Hall, reside in the Berrien County village of Galien.

Seize the season

Berens believes many of us take a cockeyed approach to cooking. Clipping a recipe from an old magazine because the picture of the dish looks yummy, then running out to a store to buy ingredients — some of which you may only use once — is impractical, she says.

Instead, she encourages people to “seize the season” and focus meal planning on whatever produce is currently being harvested. Shop farmers markets for appetizing vegetables and fruits that are fresh-picked, then search for a recipe featuring that prime produce, she says.

Even people who love sliced cucumbers in tossed salads may balk at the notion of eating them almost every day of the summer, but Berens’ method covers that, too. Learning flavor profiles inspires cooks to go beyond the printed recipe and make substitutions from what they have on hand — deliciously. 

Ruffage includes about 100 recipes with more than 230 variations. For example, cucumber salad with cherry tomatoes, parsley oil, and cottage cheese can easily morph into cucumbers with chili oil, melon, feta cheese, and mint. It could also become cucumbers with red onion, lemon vinaigrette, and parsley, or cucumbers with carrots, summer squash, crispy chickpeas, and curry yogurt. 

“The primary ingredients can be repetitive,” Berens says, “but the meals need not be.”

Bare Knuckle Farm

Berens learned this lesson well from her eight-year business venture with friend Jess Piskor called Bare Knuckle Farm. At the time, both were recent University of Michigan graduates who yearned for careers in diversified agriculture.

Piskor’s family allowed them to use 5 acres in a valley between two of their cherry orchards in Suttons Bay to start a vegetable farm. The operation was modestly successful, especially after they began offering a five-course meal after tours of the farm.

After five years, Berens and Piskor decided to dissolve Bare Knuckle. Berens intended to return to Chicago, where Erik was established, and where she had previously worked as a chef.

Abra Berens harvests greens for cooking.

With a move on the horizon, Berens vowed to feed herself from unsold produce as she labored that fall to button up the farm. The chickens had been moved to another farm, but 18 eggs remained. She pulled carrots from the garden and snipped new growth from kale that she’d chopped back weeks before because they were covered with aphids. 

From those humble ingredients, and because she knows different ways to prepare them, she dined on a different meal every night.

“I couldn’t have bought food in the store of this quality, even if I had dollars instead of pennies,” Berens says. “I was broke as hell, but I was eating some of the best meals of my life.” 

Her cookbooks have their genesis in a newspaper column called “From the Farm” that Berens wrote for the Traverse City Record-Eagle from 2013-19. The columns began as a guide for selecting and preparing produce at their flavor peak. The endeavor blossomed to include beautifully written essays about farming and rural life.

Which came first?

It’s not easy to pinpoint which of Berens’ interests came first — growing food or cooking it.

From a young age, she operated a farm stand of homegrown produce — not all of which was provided by her grandfather, Edwin Berens. Growing cucumbers was tightly woven into the fabric of her family.

Much of early cooking knowledge came from her grandmother, Hazel Berens, who measured liquids in glugs and whose cooking techniques included blooming, blistering, boiling, braising, and many more.

Abra Berens’ cheesecake recipe was featured in a 1997 “Cooking With Kids” column in The Grand Rapids Press. As a teenager in the 1990s, she worked at two of Holland’s finest restaurants, Till Midnight and Pereddies.

But it wasn’t until she moved to Ann Arbor to attend the U-M — and got a summer job between her sophomore and junior years at the famed Zingerman’s Delicatessen — that she fell head over heels in love with what she fondly calls “restaurant culture.”

She started out at Zingerman’s taking orders and bussing tables, then worked her way to the back of the house, where she was mentored by Head Chef Rodger Bowser, now a managing partner.

“I’d come in on my day off to watch Rodger make chicken paprikash or matzo ball soup,” Berens says. “He saw my strong interest in farming and cooking. About the time I was graduating, he suggested that I look into Ballymaloe.”

Ballymaloe is a 100-acre working organic farm, cooking school, and gardens located in County Cork, Ireland. 

Berens majored in history and English at U-M. Upon graduation, she planned to join the Peace Corps as an epidemiology specialist. But a three-month crash course at Ballymaloe, learning to grow and cook locally produced vegetables and fruits, was a better fit, she says.

A future in food

Berens loves her life as a chef and self-styled grower evangelist. 

She’s often asked to divulge which vegetable is her favorite. Truth is, growing vegetables makes her appreciate the unique qualities of each one, she says. But, when pressed, she admits her No. 1 is red cabbage because it keeps a long time, tastes great, adds crunch, and is pretty.

Berens says her college education makes her a better writer and gives her writing rich context. She’s grateful she never felt an inclination — or family pressure — to leave the family farm lifestyle behind her. 

That could have happened. Both of her parents were anesthesiologists. Dr. Lee Berens, now retired, practiced at Holland Hospital. Mother Jo Karyl Witte Berens practiced at Zeeland Community Hospital before tragically dying in a carbon monoxide accident in 2003, while Abra was in college. Sister Sally Berens is a federal judge and sister Nelltje Berens Prosise is a critical care nurse.

The cucumber farm where Berens grew up remains in her extended family. It is farmed by cousins Matt and John Berens. However, the closure of a local pickle processing plant years ago prompted the cousins to transition from cucumbers to radishes, turnips, and potatoes. They also grow non-GMO corn and black beans.

“Every member of my family was very busy with what we did individually, and the farm,” Berens says. “But we would always come together — sometimes late in the evening — around food. The table and the food on it was the center of how we connected.

“I hope others find that same joy in simple meals.”

Read more articles by Kym Reinstadler.