by Lou Mancinelli
Near Spring Mill Creek in Conshohocken (five minutes from Chestnut Hill), where the quiet and rural River Road meets Barren Hill Road, a general store that also served as the town post office was constructed in 1831.
In 1978, chef, world traveler, former Germantown Friends School (GFS) teacher, multilingual French-born Michele Haines opened the Spring Mill Café in that building. She made the tablecloths for the five lunch tables herself. Thirty-five years later the café serves up to 40 for brunch, lunch and dinner six days a week
Haines organized a global celebration of women and food event to raise funds for Les Dames d’Escoffier International Scholarship and Green Tables initiative, which helps provide food and nutritional education, at The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College in University City on the first week in May.
“I love projects,” says Haines, who recently returned from five weeks in Australia and the Philippines, where she followed her interests that had been roused by a magazine article and ended up in various locations across the country. “I don’t care where they are.”
Haines will be making crepes in Sister Cities Park along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway May 10, the Saturday before Mother’s Day. She will be joined by a Russian chef whom Haines will be visiting in Nizhny Novgorod, Philadelphia’s sister city in Russia, later this month.
It was Michele’s wish to do a project through Slow Food, a global organization founded in 1986 with more than 100,000 members in 150 countries dedicated to eating locally, that triggered Haines’ recent trip to Australia and the Philippines.
There, she encountered something not unlike herself, women who own and operate their own businesses. She also coincidentally encountered other members of Slow Food, like at a cheese farm located in a UNESCO Heritage site in Mindanao, the second largest and southernmost island in the Philippines, run by a woman named Olive.
Haines, 71, is unsure whether she encounters more women now running their own businesses abroad or at home than there were during her travels in the past, but it is something she is more aware of now.
Haines was born in 1942 in the Touraine region of France on the border between Nazi occupation and the Vichy regime. In 1944, when her father was killed in an American bombing, she was found safe in his arms. Though she won scholarships to Radcliffe and Stanford, her family prohibited her from attending. When the chance to work as a United Nations translator surfaced, she capitalized on the opportunity and in 1961 moved to New York City.
But Michele disliked how the program turned her into a machine. She quit within five days and joined a federal program run out of Florida State University, training foreign language teachers for American high schools.
In the summer of 1963 the program sent her to Tallahassee, which she had never heard of until then. That same year she traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Civil Rights marches. She was arrested twice, once because she sat next to a black friend in a restaurant and refused to move. On one occasion a man attacked her. She defended herself by picking up a nearby wooden stool. It was red by the end of the encounter.
The next stage of her career brought her to Providence, Rhode Island, where her fluency in French, German and English gained her acceptance into Brown University’s graduate-level Russian program.
That is where she met her husband-to-be of over 40 years, New Jersey native Arthur Carroll Haines, who at the time was an undergrad at Brown. In 1965, she joined the faculty of the Mary C. Wheeler High School, a Montessori school in providence, RI, where she used her expertise to found a new language program: not German, French or Russian but Spanish. A few years later, when her husband’s enrollment at the University of Pennsylvania brought Haines to Philadelphia, she joined the GFS faculty, where she taught French before founding its Spanish department.
Sometime last year Haines called her friend Bob Schmidt, a former GFS teacher she had not seen for about 40 years. Haines wanted to do an event in Hawaii. “He had moved off the mainland years ago,”Michele said, “and it turned out he was a member of Slow Food Hawaii. The two of us organized the event, and last summer I traveled to Hawaii.”
While in Hawaii, one of the people Haines met was the assistant to the Consulate General of the U.S. in Melbourne, Australia. Haines is a woman of action who has traveled to more than 70 countries by herself, so she turned on the charm and said she would love to cook a meal for the U.S. Consulate in Melbourne. One thing led to another, and a year later it was arranged. In late February she traveled to Melbourne for nine days, where she cooked a traditional French meal for members of the Australian Parliament.
About the same time she was planning her Melbourne excursion, she read an article about an organic coffee farm run by women in the Philippines. Haines contacted a Russian couple she had met a few years ago while in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. The couple operated a cyber café in the Philippines, so Michele arranged to visit both them and the coffee farm.
“You have to trust yourself, and when you see something exciting or something interesting, just do it,” said the local chef, “because then other things start to fall in place, other things start to happen … You can always find a way to have a trip. You just have to work a bit harder.”
Her independent streak translates into liberty when traveling alone. “If I want to turn left, I turn left, and I don’t want to have an argument about it,” said Haines.
When she was in the Philippines during her recent trip, she read a magazine article about a woman named Olive who operated a cheese farm. Haines contacted her and visited the woman. The woman had started by making cheese for her children and wanted to learn more. She traveled to California and Wisconsin and now runs her own cheese farm and is a member of the Slow Food Movement. Her husband runs an ecology resort and maintains a retreat for the Philippine eagle, the world’s largest eagle and a critically endangered species.
To Haines, these coincidences and connections are beautiful. The link stretches from France to Tallahassee, from Providence to Hawaii to Manila and many more points in between.
“A path is being made for me,” says Haines.
More information at Spring Mill Café, 164 Barren Hill Rd. in Conshohocken, at springmill.com or 610-828-2550.