“I remember the first time I ever harvested potatoes at our farm,” said Abra Berens (BA 2004). “It was magical.”
“We were harvesting red endeavor potatoes, which were hot pink in the soil. And all of a sudden, I was thinking about the potato famine,” Berens recalled. “The potato is a monoculture that you can live off of—it provides all the basic nutrients. And so, to reach under and feel nothing there—what that must’ve felt like ...”
Berens is chef and culinary director at Granor Farm in Three Oaks, Michigan, in the southwest corner of the state. When she started there in 2017, she took a hands-on approach to familiarizing herself with the land. Months of study at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in the south of Ireland had inspired her love of uncovering the connection between food, place, and history.
But it was her time as a U-M History undergraduate student—and English double major—that first cultivated this interest.
“I had always thought that history class was about memorizing dates and things like that,” Berens said. “But I really loved the classes I took at U-M because they’re not that. They were more about understanding why something happened the way it did, and how we see that in our current context.”
She vividly remembers Professor Valerie Kivelson’s history of witchcraft class. “It was basically a history of misogyny class,” said Berens. “It was the first time that I was thinking, what is it about women that makes people uncomfortable enough to want to kill them? There’s this book, the Malleus Maleficarum, which the professor said is the most blood-soaked text in our history.”
That’s how it seemed most of her history classes went, she explained. When you enrolled, you expected a more straightforward approach to the title, but they turned out to be so much more than that.
I think it’s impossible to understand an ingredient without understanding the people who are growing it.
During her studies, Berens picked up a part-time job at Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, where she developed a taste for the culinary world. She brought the lessons learned from the classroom into the kitchen.
“I think it’s impossible to understand an ingredient without understanding the people who are growing it,” said Berens. “And it’s impossible to understand the food system they participate in without understanding the history.”
After graduation, Berens left Michigan for several years to travel and live with her husband in Chicago. But she felt drawn back to the agricultural landscape and returned in 2017 to work at Granor Farm full time.
“Michigan is the second most agriculturally diverse state in the union,” she explained. “We’ve got the fruit belt on the western side, a lot of row crops in the center part of the state, beans over in the thumb, asparagus in the thumb, hunting and fishing, and all of those things are also woven into animal production and dairy.”
She points to the diversity of the people as well in contributing to the broad culinary landscape. “It comes as a surprise to a lot of people that the largest Arab population in the country is in Dearborn,” she said. “And the food is real good in Dearborn, you know?”
Berens wanted to give others the opportunity to experience a true Michigan farm-to-table meal, so she developed Granor Farm’s seven course menu. The menu is a surprise to diners, as it’s all based on what food is available and good that day.
“The menus are really meant to be sort of a snapshot of our farm at a particular moment in time,” she said. Berens compares looking through old menus to looking through primary sources—an archival record of the land and how it was used. “It’s about creating that record, and finding a way to tell that story.”
In 2019, Berens published an award-winning cookbook, Ruffage: a Practical Guide to Vegetables, and has a new cookbook, Grist: A Practical Guide to Cooking Grains, Beans, Seeds, and Legumes, coming out this fall.
In Grist, Berens has included interviews with local Michigan food producers that she hopes will help shine a light on often overlooked people and processes.
While Berens has found happiness and success working in the restaurant industry, she insists there is value in a university education, especially when it comes to learning how to think critically.
In 2004, Berens attended the U-M History commencement with her father, who wasn’t too sure about her choice of majors. She had been working for Zingerman’s and planned on continuing to work there
That year’s guest speaker was veteran journalist and U-M History alum James Tobin (BA 1978, PhD 1986). Berens remembered Tobin saying that people will probably give you a hard time about your degree—not everyone is hiring people with history degrees from the University of Michigan.
“No, but the delis are,” Berens’s father joked.
The jobs question is a common refrain for those studying the humanities. As for Berens, she will let her work speak for itself. “Quite frankly, the history of witchcraft has no bearing on my life day to day,” she said, “except that it taught me how to think in a different way, in a critical way.”
While Berens does not directly use history in her career, her studies at U-M have shaped her perspective on land and the people who cultivate it—a lasting impact that she pays forward to diners every day.