Category: Michigan Cuisine

In Food Writing, Northern Michigan Is …

A Beef & Pork Rutabaga Pasty from Nylund’s Pasties in Crystal Falls, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula. Yes, Michigan does indeed have an Upper Peninsula.

A couple of my biggest pet peeves have to do with Michigan food writing in general. There are quite a few food writers here in the state and, make no mistake, they’re all excellent writers. Michigan has a plethora (love that word) of foods, restaurants, festivals and cuisines and there’s plenty of material to go around.

One problem I have is when any of those writers claims that a specific project is supposed to represent all of Michigan when, in fact, doing so would be impractical at best for any short-term deadline. It can simply be expensive and quite time-consuming to get the physical coverage required for a given project.

Even the most well-meaning food writer makes this kind of mistake, and needs to be called on the carpet about it. Yesterday, MLive Entertainment writer John Gonzales released what he titled “Michigan’s Best Breakfast Joint 2013“. MLive hubs across the state had compiled voting lists from readers, who then selected the top two restaurants for a given area. Then John, along with Mike Jensen of Saranac, visited 30 restaurants over a six-day period before selecting their top ten. Yesterday morning they named Anna’s House in Grand Rapids “Michigan’s Best Breakfast Joint 2013”.

But John and Mike had never traveled north of Traverse City for the contest. They never set foot on the extensive land mass of the Upper Peninsula. Nor did they come down this way into either Lenawee County or Monroe County.

What Anna’s House had actually earned was the title of “MLive’s Best Breakfast Joint”.

Over in the comments on yesterday’s article containing that news, I made certain to make my feelings known about this. Other readers, including Robin Linwood of Porcupine Press’s UPMag, echoed my sentiments about the issue. John was understandably a bit defensive about it at first, but I got the impression he quickly understood it was the unfortunate mis-naming of the “award” I had a problem with. Some other readers, however, took issue with my “negativity”, saying I should have been more involved. I pointed out I was heavily involved in the selection and voting for the Genesee County portion, which they didn’t see. And I hadn’t really known what the coverage area was going to be. I think only John really knew what that coverage was.

The basic issue is that of geography. In either of the peninsulas it can easily take hours to get from one end or corner to the other of that peninsula. And if a writer is hoping to includes foods and/or locations from the other peninsula in their writing, they’d better book a couple nights in a hotel somewhere. It would have taken John and Mike months, maybe a year or more, along with considerable funding, to actually determine an honestly-named “Michigan’s Best Breakfast Joint”.

The other concept I have a problem with, one quite possibly shared with the quarter-million-or-so people of the UP, is a concept that shows up far too often in food writing and other journalism in and about the state of Michigan. It’s the one where “trolls” inaccurately and ineptly refer to an area that’s much too far south as “northern Michigan”. This area encompasses the land that begins north of Mt. Pleasant (excluding the tip of Michigan’s “thumb”), and ends at the straits of Mackinac.

The Wikipedia entry for “Northern Michigan” does a rather nice job of explaining the feelings about the inadvertant naming of this area by various groups of the state’s population:

“Across the Straits of Mackinac, to the north, west and northeast, lies the Upper Peninsula of Michigan (the ‘U.P.’). Despite its geographic location as the most northerly part of Michigan, the Upper Peninsula is not usually included in the definition of Northern Michigan (although ‘Northern Michigan’ University is located in the U.P. city of Marquette), and is instead regarded by Michigan residents as a distinct region of the state. Although, residents of the Upper Peninsula often say that ‘Northern Michigan’ is not in the Lower Peninsula. They insist the region must only be referred to as “Northern Lower Michigan” and this can sometimes become a topic of contention between friends who are from different Peninsulas. The two regions are connected by the 5 mile long Mackinac Bridge.”

Reader Holland Sparty posted some notes yeaterday that, I have to admit, help to describe accurately where this mis-naming comes from among Michigan’s “trolls”:

“Dave, consider that there are many regular folk (myself included) who live in the lower half of the lower peninsula that consider going ‘up north’ to be going to places such as Traverse City or the Leelanau area or Mackinaw City. We don’t necessarily consider the UP as going ‘up north’ but simply going to the UP … To be clear, obviously the UP is further north than the northern lower peninsula but for many of us the UP is something more distinctive than simply going ‘up north’.”

In considering this rather accurate description for a while, I came to the conclusion this has created more of a problem than us “trolls” can bring ourselves to admit. I understand the state has a geographical situation different from a lot of states in the Union, but that does not mean anyone should ever ignore or push aside a certain population.

But unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happened.

The few miles across the occasionally dangerous Straits of Mackinac weren’t connected by the 5-mile-long Mackinac Bridge until 1957. Lower peninsula-based food writers, other journalists, and the general population, tend to treat the upper peninsula as though it’s some sort of Siberian outpost. Is it any wonder then that the upper peninsula peoples regularly vote on seccession and have since 1858? That they even have their own version of the Michigan State Fair, held since 1928? That they refer to us as “fudge-sucking trolls”?

No, travel along the four-lane bridge isn’t as easy as any of us would like. And during inclement weather it can still be a dangerous crossing. But the upper peninsula is indeed part of Michigan. All of us need to think of it that way and treat it as such. Otherwise, they’re just going to leave like they’ve wanted to. And that would be a sad day.

Here are some simple facts:

  • Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the true “northern Michigan”.
  • The land that begins north of Mt. Pleasant (excluding the tip of Michigan’s “thumb”), and ends at the straits of Mackinac, can only be accurately called “northern lower Michigan”.
  • Michigan’s food writers, and other journalists and writers, will always have a responsibilty for accurate reporting, without the common and outlandish claims of their writing being of a statewide nature, which they can rarely achieve with any honest practicality anyway.

So here I am, six miles north of the Ohio state line, and after writing all this I’m craving a beef & rutabaga pasty with gravy. Go figure.

Monster Candy, May’s Candy Shop, Mackinac Island, Michigan

The Monster Candy, about 4″ in diameter, from May’s Candy Shop on Mackinac Island in the straits between the peninsulas of Michigan.

It was just over a year ago Mary and I were on Mackinac Island a few hundred miles north of here. One of the shops I had wanted to visit for a few years was May’s Candy Shop. Normally I would visit a shop like that solely for their goods, in the case of May’s the fudge their family has been known for since the 1930s on the island. I didn’t go there specifically for the fudge though that day. Head Candymaker Lee May was a friend from the University of Michigan School of Art & Design, where I was video studio coordinator while Lee was a student. Unfortunately, during that week last August, Lee was in Chicago getting things ready for graduate school in the fall.

A weird thing happened. I left the candy shop after buying … nothing. And I really don’t know why.

Fast-forward to just a few weeks ago. On their Facebook page May’s Candy Shop wrote, “Happy September 1st everyone! We’ve reached our last SPOTLIGHT candy of the season… Monsters! Remember, all you have to do is like, comment, or post on our page and you’ll be entered to win!” Four people commented, and ten plus myself clicked the “Like” link. Five days later, it turned out a Monster Candy was headed my way!

The box showed up this morning:

The box itself is a classy thing on its own, being covered with foil-stamped white glossy paper. The old-style image of Arch Rock, a popular tourist attraction on the island, actually shows proper perspective of a sailboat on Lake Huron as seen through the opening in the rock from the correct height and distance. And while the box is definitely intended for use with May’s well-known fudge, the writing on the red tape holding it closed told what was actually inside.

When I opened the box I saw the Monster Candy as seen in the first photo in this post in a sealed plastic bag. It already looked amazing, the chocolate seemingly swirled on top as thickly as Lee’s people could get it on there without being sloppy. Flipping it over on a plate, it became apparent the foundation of the Monster Candy is dozens of walnut halves. But what’s that glossy stuff that had seeped through the walnuts? I had forgotten they had posted this particular photo from inside the main of their three stores:

I grabbed a sharp boning knife and, spitting the thing down the middle, found the utter deliciousness I was trying to figure out:

So why are they called Monster Candy when they’re so obviously a larger version of, well, something else? To be blunt, that term is actually copyrighted by another company. Besides, these are considerably larger and would have to be called the “sea” version of … that other thing. These are different though. I was concerned about Lee’s use of walnuts as I haven’t had good experiences with them and thought I wouldn’t like it. But these walnuts are certainly fresher than most others, not stale, and definitely not hard on the teeth. The soft caramel inside is amazingly smooth and not overly rich, having just the right amount of sweetness. And the chocolate is simply … It’s obvious May’s has tons of experience creating chocolate as this is some of the best I’ve ever eaten.

This Monster Candy tasted like I need more. That’s all there is to it. Thanks, May’s!

I think next time we go to May’s on Mackinac Island I’ll need lots of money. And maybe a flatbed cart.

An Unintentional Break

A more recent pic of the Ground Bologna Sandwich Spread, an image that’s also a little more appetizing than the other one. Someone’s said all that’s missing in this photo is topping the ground bologna with a fried egg. I’m thinking that’s good thinking.

I know. It’s been three months. Three entire months since that last post way back on June 13th.

It’s been a busy time, what with a new infant granddaughter in the house, all the city events here in Luna Pier over the summer, and cooking the Snack Shack line at the waterpark in Dundee. Over weekends and on some holidays there are a lot of orders to cook, a lot of food to put out the serving window, a lot of party pizzas, chicken tenders with beer-battered French fries, mozzarella sticks … all the good stuff to provide energy for people playing in the water for hours on end.

Detroiter Thornetta Davis performs as headliner of the day-long and first annual Luna Pier Bootleggers & Blues Festival, July 23, 2011. Next year the festival will be two days with more than the five acts that entertained the crowd of 2,000 this year.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that it’s once again very difficult to be creative for the blog after cooking at work all day.

There have been some starts in that time and certainly some advances. I’ve found creating pasta sauces is actually a whole lot easier than I thought, so a couple of those are in the works. And I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out how we might serve at the beach again next summer with the new beachhouse that’s going in not having a rentable kitchen space.

Had an interesting dream about that first image in this post. It seemed I was adding Panko breadcrumbs to the Ground Bologna Sandwich Spread, heating up some olive oil, and frying patties of the stuff in a pan like I would a good crab cake. I woke up fairly startled. I’ve had really good Fried Bologna Sandwiches before, not only in various homes but also in a barbecue joint called Baldy-Q’s in Swanton, Ohio, where the bologna was cut a good 1/2″ thick and fried in the pan slowly to heat it through. A Fried Ground Bologna Sandwich? On a grilled bun with provolone, with maybe lettuce and thick-sliced tomato? Yeah, that’s how these things get started sometimes …

So I’ll get working on some things. I really feel a need now to be creative in the kitchen again, especially with the food variety at work being now more-or-less a constant. I just need to go shopping and get some decent ingredients. Let’s see, would that be an onion roll or a kaiser roll …

Finally, here’s a pic of our beautiful granddaughter Allie, photographed by Ashlea Phenicie at Sundance Photography. Yeah, I’m a proud grandpa. 🙂

Todoroff’s Jackson Coney Sauce, Retail Package

Click on any image for a larger version.

While you’ve probably heard of both Flint and Detroit Coneys, the disputes about which one is best, and the decades-long dispute between the Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island over which one is the best Detroit coney, you probably have never heard of the third contender in the state of Michigan: The Jackson Coney. Developed by George Todoroff, the Jackson coney has been sold at Todoroff’s Original Coney Island at 1200 West Parnall Road in Jackson, Michigan, since 1914.

One of the key points about the Jackson coney and why it’s important is that it’s linked to the development of what’s known as the Michigan Hot Dog that’s popular in upstate New York and parts of Quebec. From the Wikipedia article on the Michigan:

(i)ts also been reported that the Plattsburgh origin of the “Michigan” name came from Plattsburgh residents, Jack Rabin and his wife, who discovered the Jackson Coney Island Hot Dog while vacationing in Coney Island, fell in love with it, and subsequently recreated the sauce at Nitzi’s, their “Michigan Hot Dog” stand on Route 9 just outside of Plattsburgh … At least one other story exists linking Plattsburgh to the “Michigan Hot Dog”. This story claims that a Canadian, possibly a salesman, traveled between Montreal and New York City. and – on his way home – he would stop in Plattsburgh and spend the night at the Witherill Hotel. Apparently, he would bring back several of Todoroff’s “Jackson Island Conies” and get the cook at the hotel to warm them. The cook liked the flavor so well that he created a similar sauce with similar taste and it caught on and spread in several of the local restaurants. Soon thereafter, everyone in Plattsburgh began referring to them as, “Michigan hot dogs”.

This past Saturday while shopping at the Country Market in Adrian, Michigan, for the ingredients for Sharron Lee’s fruitcake for the previous post, I glanced in one of the island freezers and spotted this tub of sauce.  Having never been to Todoroff’s at any point in my life, even though I’ve lived here in Michigan the majority of it, I had to have this container of “Todoroff’s Original Chili No Beans”, aka original Jackson coney sauce. I then promptly sent Ryan off for a couple packs of Koegel Viennas and some decent buns.

One of the things we’ve noticed about pre-packaged hot dog and coney sauces is that they seem to lack the flavor of the same sauce directly from the restaurant of the same name. Ron is one of the cashiers at the Kroger in Point Place, Ohio. When Rudy’s Hot Dog of Toledo recently released their sauce in a can, Ron told me some of his customers had pointed out the canned version didn’t quite taste the same since it hadn’t been simmering in grease all day.

Before taking the above photo, I made sure enough of the grease … er, oils … had simmered to the top of the Todoroff’s sauce to illustrate that their version is probably quite close to what’s served in Jackson. Of course, if you want to spoon this off go right ahead. The flavor probably won’t suffer since apparently it’s the same as what’s served in the restaurant.

Todoroff’s original Jackson coney sauce … regardless if they want to call it something else, or if someone in New York wants to call it a Michigan … is pretty darn close in flavor and texture to my beloved Flint coneys. Serving it on grilled Koegel Viennas also added the correct meat and “snap” of the casing to really show how close the Jackson sauce is to the Flint sauce.

And for Mary’s and my daughter’s benefit, Todoroff’s sauce doesn’t contain any of those danged organ meats.

I’ll be picking up a few more of these next time. And the Viennas, too. We … I mean I … need a stash.

Recipe: Sharron Lee’s Classic Dark Christmas Fruitcake … with Pork Fat

Click on any image for a larger version.

Scott Lee is an old friend of mine. Not that he’s actually old … he’s as middle-aged as I am, and slightly older by a few months. But Scott’s been around most of my life. We met in art class in 6th grade, spent time studying magic and illusions for a while, transitioned into those funky tube stereos and big speakers in the late 70s and early 80s, and because of the physical distance between us since have basically hung out off-and-on only whenever possible.

Throughout the 1970s and into the mid 1980s my own mom would make hundreds of decorated sugar cookies at Christmas and spread them throughout the neighborhood, including sending batches over to the Lees’ house. Scott’s mom Sharron had a similar but slightly different tradition. Sharron would spend the time to make dozens of fruitcakes and send them off to family and neighbors, including us. And I mean … dozens … of fruitcakes. Scott and I discussed this this weekend and we estimate she’d make an average of 50 of those fruitcakes each year, with each one being intended for a different family.

One rather interesting aspect of these particular fruitcakes from Sharron was their texture. They were never what is considered to be your normal fruitcake. There was never the thought the following year of, “Joyce, we’ll just put another coat of varnish on the cotton-pickin’ thing and give it to someone else!” Sharron’s fruitcakes were actually good. People tended to indeed eat them.

When Mary and I got together six years ago she found it odd that there were fruitcakes out there I considered not only edible but good-tasting as well. Sharron’s fruitcakes were where that knowledge had originated, spreading to some (very few) commercial fruitcakes over the decades.

Having always been enamored by these fruitcakes, a couple years back I asked Scott if he had any idea where that recipe was. Sharron had previously passed away and I imagined one of Scott’s sisters or his brother may have ended up with it. But oddly enough, Scott told me that even though he doesn’t cook whatsoever (never has, never will) he had been given all his mom’s recipes. Digging through them he actually found it.

In March of 2009 he scanned the typed page of notebook paper and attached it to an email.

I took one look at that second line and about died laughing.

It’s absolutely true. Everything is better with pork fat.

Including fruitcake.

Since receiving the recipe itself from Scott almost two years ago, I’d been wanting to go ahead and recreate what Sharron did to some degree. As it says at the bottom of the page, “Note: The above receipe will fill 5  1 qt. Loaf Pans”. Sharron would obviously make an average of 10 batches each year, starting probably just after Thanksgiving and continuing for the next few weeks. I knew I didn’t want to do this much. Five loaves seemed fine.

But I always found some reason to put it off.

However, in the past couple weeks this bug has bit hard and I felt I needed to do this before Christmas of this year. So yesterday with Adam and Ryan in tow, I bit the bullet and went shopping.

We happened to be in Lenawee County in southeast Michigan so we went to one of our favorite groceries there, the Country Market on Maumee Street on the west side of Adrian.

The first thing we noticed was how expensive good fruitcake is to make. The two 8 oz containers of the green and red candied cherries were $5 each. The 1 lb container of mixed fruits and peels was also $5. The nut meats, depending on what we decided to use, was anywhere from $5 for walnuts to $10 for pecans per pound for the fresh ones.

The reality is that, even if you don’t get everything absolutely fresh, these five fruitcakes are going to run about $6 each, which is what we spent: about $30 total. In the 1960s and 1970s when Sharron was making these fruitcakes full-bore, I imagine the total per five fruitcakes was still 10 – $15. I never realized how much she had spent on this annual project.

The cheapest item was the pork fat.

There was no pork fat in the meat case like there normally is at Country Market, over by the fresh pigs’ feet and pork livers. One of the butchers went into the meat cutting room and retrieved this fat for us from a number of cuts. The label he put on it had it at 31 cents/lb.

When shopping for the ingredients we had to figure a few things out. The “nut meats” we assumed to be walnuts, but looking at commercial fruitcakes in the store we found references to walnuts, pecans and almonds. While the walnuts were less expensive, pecans have a much better flavor so that’s what we picked. Almonds just didn’t seem right at all.

“Green Label Molasses” seemed rather odd but also kinda familiar. Looking in the area of the syrups we found the Grandma’s Molasses brand has a product with a green label, which is their hardier and less-sweet “robust” variety. This sounded appropriate for Sharron’s fruitcakes so that’s what we got.

And while we could have gotten fresh dates and chopped them, we went ahead, wimped out, and bought the Sun-Maid pouches.

For the flour, when we were in the DC area over Labor Day weekend I ended up with a reason to go to Trader Joe’s to pick up a bag of their unbleached all-purpose flour. As this bag was still in the freezer we decided the fruitcakes would be a good use for five cups of it.

Back to the pork fat: When discussing this recipe with butchers at Country Market and our friends at Kilgus Meats they’ve mentioned it would probably be alright to use suet or even lard in place of the ground pork fat. But I wanted to remain as true as possible to what Sharron did so I insisted on using pork fat. One issue I ran into though was that, once we started making the fruitcakes, I found the one pound of pork fat didn’t go through Mary’s mom’s hand-crank #10 meat grinder all that well. It took probably 30 minutes of cranking forward, cranking back, then forward, then back, over and over and over again, until all of it was either ground or, as it turned out, slowly purĂ©ed. Next year I’m most certainly asking the butcher to grind it …

Once the pork fat was ground and the oven was set to preheat at 325 degrees F the rest of the recipe flew by rather well. Adam and I were concerned the pork fat wasn’t melting correctly when we poured the boiling water over the fat, molasses and brown sugar. The pork fat broke up faster with a whisk but I made the mistake of touching the bottom of the bowl with the whisk and ended up with a lot of molasses/pork stringiness in the end of the wires.

One major issue is that the mixture becomes considerably thicker the more it’s stirred. Once the flour is added the density begins to build almost exponentially. This continues as the candies and nuts are added and more and more ingredients are folded in. I ended up reaching for a stronger and larger mixing spoon. It became obvious to us the recipe needs to be re-worked in an effort to point this issue out and to end up with a lighter and less-dense fruitcake after baking. Mixing the fruits and nuts separately and then gently folding them into the mixture would probably help.

Another interesting discovery is that, once the fruitcakes are removed from the oven, unless they’re refrigerated (and largely because of their density) they are quite hot for a couple hours and continue to cook. Testing these fruitcakes for “doneness” with a toothpick or butter knife is completely pointless. Just take them out after an hour, put them on the cooling racks and leave them alone till they’re cool.

Finally, these quart-size foil pans are great for these fruitcakes. I just gave each one a couple flexes and the fruitcake would drop right into my hand. Perfect.

I have to commend Sharron Lee for her tenacity in making so many batches of these fruitcakes over the years. I’m not sure when she started but I remember starting to receive them early in the 1970s. Scott estimates his mom stopped making these in the mid 1980s when his youngest sister finished high school and went off to college. The fruitcakes were quite a beautiful, time-consuming and yes, expensive, thing for her to do for the people who received them, the people she really cared about. Hers are the kinds of real Christmas traditions that last as memories forever.

Sharron Lee’s Classic Dark Christmas Fruitcake
Makes five 8″ x 3-3/4″ (one-quart) loaves

1 lb pork fat, ground (no lean meat in it whatsoever)
2 cups dark brown sugar
1 cup molasses, preferably Grandma’s brand Robust variety
2 cups boiling water
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground nutmeg
5 cups all-purpose flour, unbleached
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp table salt
1 cup chopped pecans, walnuts, almonds or a combination
1 lb mixed fruits and peels
1 lb chopped dates
1/2 lb candied red cherries
1/2 lb candied green cherries

Preheat an oven to 325 degrees F. Put the ground pork fat, dark brown sugar and molasses in a large mixing bowl. Slowly pour the boiling water over the other ingredients and stir until most of the pork fat is dissolved. It’s best to start with a spoon, then continue with a whisk, ensuring not to touch the whisk to the bottom of the bowl.

In another bowl sift the dry ingredients and spices together and ensure they are well incorpated. Gently mix them into the wet mixture until everything is just blended. Don’t mix it too much or it will become thicker and more dense.

In yet another bowl mix the nuts and fruit together without breaking them. Fold them gently into the batter.

Spoon the batter into five 8″ x 3-3/4″ (one-quart) loaf pans, making sure to only fill the pans halfway. Bake them in a 325 degree F oven for one hour but no longer. After one hour of baking remove them to cooling racks, where they will continue to cook inside as they cool for a long period of more than an hour.

Note: To make these into rum-soaked fruitcakes cut a piece each of parchment and cheesecloth for each fruitcake. Moisten each cheesecloth with a tablespoon of dark rum and lay the cloth on its parchment. Remove the fruitcakes from their pans onto each cheesecloth and sprinkle each with another tablespoon or two of the dark rum. Wrap the cheesecloths tightly around the fruitcakes then wrap the parchments around them as well. Place them into an airtight container or even a large resealable plastic bag and allow them to age for ten weeks.