Questions & Answers with Community Faces
Following a life downstate in the East Lansing area, working for the Department of Mental Health, Suz McLaughlin moved to Benzie County and became a cook. A really good cook. Her catering company, Still Grinning Kitchen, has been a favorite in this area for more than 20 years.
McLaughlin’s business is probably best known for her appetizer platters of fresh, local (when possible) veggies and cheese spreads that typically are piled high with asparagus, green beans, pickled beets, carrots, and cherry tomatoes, as well as homemade pita chips. The cheese spread, on its own platter, is as big as a birthday cake and just as pretty, topped with olives, red onion rounds, lemon zest, artichokes, and loads of parsley. (Chances are that if you’ve been to an event at Betsie Bay Furniture or the Elizabeth Lane Oliver Center for the Arts, for instance, you’ve probably enjoyed these platters!)
McLaughlin herself, however, is probably best known for her activism on local issues ranging from supporting local foods to fundraising for local scholarships, from advocating for fresh water to participating in the crafting of zoning ordinances.
Continuing with our interview series on Benzie County characters, The Betsie Current caught up with McLaughlin while she was buying fresh produce at the Elberta Farmers’ Market.
The Betsie Current: How/when did you get started working with food?
Suz McLaughlin: I kinda like to eat, and I come from a long line of good cooks—even my mom, who clearly states she doesn’t cook. My first job at the tender age of 15 was with food.
Current: Can you explain what it is that you do and how you are different from other caterers in the region? How has the ‘local foods’ movement helped to advance your work?
McLaughlin: First, in the catering world, I’m ancient! Second, I believe in and was raised on good food, sometimes right from our own backyard. I am very privileged to have had this foundation for my own version of ‘Good Eats.’ This is what I attempt to give the folks that I work with—it’s a food-style, a life-style. I am very grateful to live in a particularly bountiful area of Michigan, second only to California in the diversity of our crops. I am also fortunate, due to my food foundation, of always celebrating, seeking, utilizing, and enjoying local foods. This isn’t a new thing for me; it’s a lifelong endeavor. We have, finally, farmers’ markets almost every day of the week! This is huge and saves me so much time from running around to everyone’s farms or gardens. I love supporting these amazing, hard-working individuals who produce such beautiful food products; I wish more folks would make this a regular part of supporting their community.
Current: Is there a busy season for you or is it pretty constant year-round? What kinds of gigs do you do, and what kinds of gigs do you like doing best?
McLaughlin: I am very fortunate to have some events [sprinkled throughout] most of the year. But certainly the typical ‘season’— maybe April through the holidays—keeps me busier. It’s somewhat interesting to see this ancient caterer go from graduations, weddings, and showers to funerals, memorials, and 50th wedding anniversaries. I get to do the most interesting gigs and meet amazing folks in beautiful areas, even the big boats. I was able to do the first wedding at Point Betsie Lighthouse, just after the county took it over, with a wonderful young couple. Things were fairly rough on site, but their love of this particular landmark and their enthusiasm was infectious! And I had an opportunity to work on as ‘kosher’ a wedding as possible, with all the traditions. Catering is a privilege: many times you are assisting in the celebration of the best of a particular event in someone’s life—even in a funeral or memorial, this is the case.
Current: How have you seen your work grow? And how do you hope it will continue to grow? What’s next? Or are you happy with how it is now?
McLaughlin: I’m actually kinda seeing my work not grow so much—remember that ancient part. But it has become more solid and perhaps more focused. I always say it takes a village to help me do this, and I have been most fortunate to work with some of the best folks! They make it possible for me to maintain what I do. I am very happy, but I also seek to always evolve, too. What that specifically means, I have no idea!
Current: What are the favorite products to make, the year-after-year stand-by products that everyone loves? And what things are new this year that you’re testing out? How do you get inspiration—from things you read, things you eat elsewhere?
McLaughlin: Thanks long ago to a dear friend now long gone, I was gladly thrust into the world of chocolates! What a lovely opportunity to play, and boy what interesting things I have learned. As for what’s new, I am very excited that a new friend will be coming from Okinawa—a fellow veg-head—and I know I will learn much from her. Last year, I learned about traditional Polish cuisine from another friend; I got pretty good at the assembly line of pierogi, paczki, and, yup, vodka! Friends from Scotland will add to this eclectic assortment, as well. My inspiration comes from almost everyone, everywhere and anywhere: a la Julia [Child], one of my all time favs!
Current: How have things changed over your tenure as a business owner in Benzie? What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living here? What’s the best or most rewarding part of your job? What’s the toughest part?
McLaughlin: Yes, I’ve been catering for about 20 years, but I also had a B&B for a while, too. Now, I also rent rooms in my eclectic home. What are the biggest challenges and rewards of working and living here? Challenge: Earning a decent living! Reward: You are only limited by your own imagination! The most rewarding thing is definitely the people I get to work with. The toughest part is standing for what seems like 9 million years—seriously, if standing was an Olympic Sport, I would win!
Current: What are some ways that you (and your business) give back to the community? What other things are you involved with, and how did you get involved with them?
McLaughlin: Like all other local businesses, I am asked to help out a lot; as much as possible, I always try to find a way to be supportive. I am a sucker for anything environmental, any individuals or families facing hardships, and anything that is community oriented. I’m a board member for the Friends of Betsie Bay, the Benzie Community Water Council [which has put on the Benzie Water Festival for the past five years], and the Benzie Solar Initiative, which are all environmental causes with a public education component. I’m also on the board of the Northern Michigan Culinary Arts Community, which puts on community dinners and discussion at Grow Benzie. For most of these groups, I help out with fundraising for local scholarships. Most recently, I am thrilled to be a part of the Steering Committee for the Betsie River/Crystal Lake Watershed Management Plant. I’ve learned such a great deal from all of these experiences. I was fortunate to be ‘on the ground floor,’ so to speak, for most of these organizations—I was raised to believe and participate in the principles of giving back and community involvement. This is how I choose to build my community!
Current: How have you seen Benzie County change since you first got here? What are your hopes for the area in the future?
McLaughlin: Well, I remember going to a meeting and being told that I should not let people know my political beliefs. My response is this: I hope we, the people, lift our collective noses from our grindstones and speak up about what kind of community we desire. I loved this quote from several years ago, it’s been a model for me: “Communities can be shaped by choice or they can be shaped by chance. We can keep on accepting the kind of community we get or we can start creating the kind of communities we want.” –Richard Moe, former director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Current: What else does Frankfort need? What does Benzie need?
McLaughlin: In my humble opinion, we need to listen and learn from one another more. We need to abolish the common phrase, often heard: “Because that’s the way it’s always been done!’
Current: What are your favorite local events and activities? Any favorite dining, recreation, or hiking spots? What’s your perfect summer day look like in Benzie County?
McLaughlin: Funny question, as I am rather crazy cramming in work [during the summer], like so many others this time of year, but the idea of a lovely day to admire the beauty and playing in whatever fashion appeals at the time is rather delish! Most of my favs these days take place in winter, actually. I love having time to attend the lively, always interesting League of Women Voters weekly discussions or just a meal with my dearly beloveds or supporting a local cause. I love hiking and exploring everywhere in this gorgeous area! In winter, I am a practicing hermit with wonderful people-time now and then.
Want to book Suz McLaughlin and Still Grinning Kitchen to cater your next event? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature photo: Suz McLaughin at the Elberta Farmers’ Market. Photo by Aubrey Ann Parker.