Autumn and early winter seem to provide the perfect opportunity to add a few pounds to the old physique. With the first winds of autumn, my appetite revs into high gear. Then I become a bit more sedentary as I wait for snow to cover the ski trails. And of course, Thanksgiving and Christmas provide opportunities for gluttony.
So by the time the new year rolls along, I am attempting more activity and realize I’ve made things quite a bit more difficult for myself. While I am not one to diet, I know it is time to search out healthier food options.
To this end, I sought out restaurants that provide healthy options. What I discovered is that the owners of In Common in Thunder Bay and The Bad Seed in Grand Marais, and those who manage the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op in Grand Marais, not only provide healthy food but also have an abiding concern for the health of the communities in which they operate.
Dani Thunder started at In Common, in Thunder Bay’s Waterfront District, as a server, moved into management, and last year took over the restaurant from founders Tara Lewis and Mitch Donovan—just a few months before the onset of the pandemic. Thunder has striven to maintain the original vision of providing good, handmade food with a cool eclectic vibe. She has maintained a full menu that provides options for people with all dietary needs. She has continued to source her food locally even if it means higher food costs, and she has provided an all-inclusive space where people from all walks of life feel comfortable.
Part of providing an inclusive environment where people feel safe is that some who entered could not afford the food. Meals were provided, and this led to the formation of a pay-it-forward program where donations were solicited from patrons, law firms and community organizations to provide meals. Thunder says she is “blessed and grateful for all the support we have received.” The pandemic has also created a sense of community among the neighborhood businesses. Businesses that are competitors are coming together for the good of the community.
So what of the food? Thunder describes it as “soul food” in the sense that it is house-made and feels home-made. As it is an all-inclusive space, they try to provide food that fits everyone’s dietary and culinary needs. Want meat? No problem. Want vegan? Check. Gluten free? Of course.
For healthy post-holiday food, Thunder recommends their Good Energy Bowl. This consists of kale, chickpeas and tofu with a turmeric and tahini dressing. Another good choice would be the vegetarian sandwich. Thunder did stress, though, that they avoid processed foods, so one can probably order whatever suits their fancy and remain healthy. Good. Sign me up for the house-made bacon jam grilled cheese featuring Thunder Oak gouda.
South of the border, Christina Conroy had been a fixture in kitchens around Cook County for around five years before she began Rebel Girls Catering, which, with the addition of a food stand in Grand Marais, has since evolved into The Bad Seed. She has continued to offer meals for delivery from her Facebook page.
Conroy is from Kansas City, Missouri, where she developed an affinity for smoked meats. From there she moved to San Francisco, once again working as a cook. There, she found herself working in vegan restaurants and created a lot of Asian and East Indian dishes. Her affinity for curries can be seen in the menus she creates at The Bad Seed.
The idea for Rebel Girls came when she was between jobs and taking courses in social work. She began creating lunches for delivery and promoting them on Facebook. This service has been well received, and this past summer she opened a food stand in town. She thought a name change was in order. The name The Bad Seed comes from one of her favorite children’s books and also represents her farm to table philosophy. This winter she is back to delivering meals and catering and hopes to purchase a food truck by spring.
Conroy is currently working on a pilot program that involves putting together food boxes for people going through health issues. These boxes include three to four pre-made meals and 10 to 12 mix and match items such as curry, soups, salads, roasted sweet potatoes, and her immune broth.
While The Bad Seed will always provide delicious smoked meat options such as brisket, they also offer many vegan and vegetarian options. Her curries, with lots of locally-sourced veggies, are a big hit. Another popular item is her walnut taco meat tacos with a smoked eggplant spread. She also uses lean cuts of pork to make chorizo for her potato and chorizo tacos topped with salsa verde. Or there’s the Mexican style grits made with cauliflower, butter, low-fat milk, diced green chilis, and cotija cheese. Another option is her jambalaya with cauliflower, rice and shrimp.
Conroy describes cooking as a way to bring people together, almost like a love story. She says, “it makes me happy to see people eating my food.”
There are plenty of healthy grab and go options at the Cook County Whole Foods Co-op, as well as a commitment to the community. It is a part of the co-op’s core mission to use locally-sourced foods when possible, and they also fund scholarships for local growers.
Soups have always been a big hit at the co-op. During the pandemic they have stopped selling them hot, but their favorites are frozen and sold in microwave-safe containers. According to deli manager Adam Mella, they rotate among their top 10 best sellers. Along with their ever-popular clam chowder, beef chili, and mulligatawny, you will find vegan options such as their black bean corn chili, and vegetarian options like the Peruvian red quinoa, Russian potato leek, or their stalwart creamy tomato basil.
They now have pre-wrapped hot sandwiches. A personal favorite is the wild rice burger, served on a sesame bun with Triple Crown barbecue sauce from the Twin Cities. Other healthy options are the turkey club and the veggie burrito with basmati rice, peppers, onions, corn, black beans, and a mild salsa.
If you are looking for even lighter fare, you can grab one of their fresh salads. The green salads are served with the co-op’s shallot vinaigrette. You can opt for the chef salad for something with a little more staying power. The influx of citrus fruits also heralds one of Mella’s favorites, the winter citrus salad, often served with a grapefruit vinaigrette.
Their rotation of other grab-and-go items includes their roasted cauliflower lasagna, and the pad Thai that includes extra firm tofu and a fish sauce. Mella is a strong proponent of this item, as it is not something that is easy to make at home. They have also been periodically pickling vegetables, a tasty and versatile treat that can jazz up many dishes. As a large percentage of the items they make are from ingredients sold at the co-op, you can attempt your own versions of these take-home classics.
Those who purvey healthy food items, it seems, put the same care in preserving the health of their communities as they do in preparing the healthy foods they love.