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A flavorful Mich.-mash: Every leg of a road trip has great food and experiences, including one for the thumb

Sunday, August 10, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

Road trip: Just the words can evoke memories. Or dread. The difference between a road trip and a vacation, says my husband, Ace, is the amount of planning. Vacations take more. Road trips are more serendipitous.

Of course, he thinks mowing the lawn is serendipitous. Maybe it's a guy thing.

The one REAL summer vacation I took as a girl (most summer vacations involved taking our horses to the county fair and sleeping near the barns), for instance, was actually a road trip. I just didn't realize it at the time. We headed to the northern wilderness of Michigan so my dad could show us his deer-hunting camp. He didn't believe in reservations (so this was clearly a road trip), and, one very late night, with no motel in sight, we pulled into a schoolyard driveway and curled up for the night in our station wagon. Mom, Dad, me, my brother, my sister and several suitcases. Somehow, I got the front seat, which was fine until I rolled over about 3 a.m. and hit the horn.

But I digress.

Ace and I took another Michigan road trip this summer. There was a wedding to attend. A friend to visit. Mother, daughter, brother, sister and their spouses to see. But we made only one reservation, a motel room in Brooklyn, Mich., the first night. Brooklyn, home of the Michigan International Speedway, is just a hill or two away (locals call them the Irish Hills) from Napoleon, where our daughter works at a YMCA camp.

Once we left the motel, official road trip rules kicked in. They include:

Stop at all (depending on the mood of the driver) produce stands and farmers' markets.

Avoid chain restaurants.

Avoid restaurants on main roads.

Avoid restaurants that offer more than one cuisine (Chinese, Italian and Indian, for instance).

Find tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurants located in the heart, not on the perimeter, of small towns, the kind of restaurants that have those old-fashioned milkshake makers near the counter and close at 7 p.m.

Stop at all (depending on the mood of the driver) ice cream shops. Again, avoid chains. After all, the point of a road trip is to experience things you can't find at home.

Stop and buy the local paper to see whether local problems are different from the ones back home. Usually they're not.

Try to stay with friends and family, but never go empty-handed. (Mom baked super-rich Nanaimo Bars.)

Be generous helping to buy groceries for friends and family so you'll get invited back.

Our first stop to see our daughter proved the wisdom of these rules. We grilled steaks (from my family's farm) on a Sunday afternoon, then later found The Parlour, an ice cream shop in Jackson, Mich. I have never seen bigger banana splits.

"Junior" portions seemed to have about a half-dozen scoops of ice cream.

From Jackson, we would head Up North to Hemingway country.

Our road trip wouldn't extend as far as "The Straits," short for the Straits of Mackinac, which divides downstate from the "UP," or Upper Peninsula. Michigan geography (the Lower Peninsula is shaped like a mitten, and I grew up in the thumb) is not as confusing as Maine's. Mainers claim they're "Down East." Maine looks like up to us.

After a night at the family farm to pick up my mother, we drove to Frankfort, where Joni and Luke's wedding took place. We were an hour early -- just in time for lunch on the waterfront. Mom and Ace had enchiladas, but I ordered Michigan whitefish. Despite our rule against mixing cuisines -- Mexican and fresh-water seafood? -- it was good.

We also loved the mix at the wedding reception, which featured both fish and filet. The bride's brother ordered the vegetarian meal; I did not. My last "vegetarian" repast at a wedding reception in Michigan's land of meat and honey turned out to be a fillet -- of fish.

The wedding's proximity to water caused some problems when the ring bearer and his cousin dipped into Lake Michigan and came up with a last-minute case of swimmer's itch. My cousin, Judy, their grandmother, admitted that there were some tense moments. Scratching all the way, they made it to the ceremony after a quick trip to the town pharmacy.

Dozens of roses in simple vases highlighted the ceremony at the First Congregational Church. Simplicity is beauty, as befits a teacher of art and her medical intern husband. Magically, the roses, gifts from the couple's friends, reappeared at the wedding reception at rustic Frog Pond Village in Interlochen.

No sooner had we found our table than my cousin Ann slipped me three recipes. "Your recipe for chocolate icebox cake frosting wasn't the real one," she said in a whisper.

"But I got it from Mother -- you don't think her sisters-in-law led her astray, do you?" I asked.

"The real one has German sweet chocolate bars," was all Ann would say.

Soon word went out that the first thing one of Joni's seven bridesmaids ate was the pansy in her salad. Ah, edible flowers! So that's the bride's swim team friends' secret to svelte. The bridegroom had 11 attendants, and I wondered whether this chorus of friends might burst into song. They didn't, but they were all smiles.

I attacked the salad with the same enthusiasm as the pansy-eater. The wedding cake was almost as beautiful as the bride. The only thing I didn't devour was the birdseed hurled at the couple from pretty cross-stitched bags handmade by Deb, the bride's mother. All in all, a wonderful day with kin.

We had such fun that it was nearly midnight when we hit Traverse City. I can't say we attended the town's annual Cherry Festival, but we did get in on its traffic jam.

Then we got a nighttime view of Petoskey, which inspired Hemingway's Nick Adams stories. The Michigan Hemingway Society pays tribute for a weekend each year, and this year it's Oct. 17 to 19. Topic: "On the Road."

The next morning, we hadn't been at Barbara's house on Lake Michigan but a few hours when a spontaneous food event presented itself. In Good Hart's tiny store, I spotted a "thumb" favorite. "It's Mooney's ice cream!" I said to Mom, who is usually up for a scoop. "What kind would you like, Barbara?"

"Before lunch?" she said accusingly, then acquiesced.

And so it went. We had a delicious dinner at a Polish restaurant called Legs Inn in Cross Village, where my mother enjoyed her first pierogies. They were served in a garden overlooking Lake Michigan, but it was hard to concentrate on the view. My whitefish was wonderful, but so was the curly-headed waiter from Poland.

At Pond Hill Farm we bought some luscious strawberries, and I made rustic shortcake with whipped cream to top off our deli chicken and ribs.

After three glorious days drinking in the sunsets over Lake Michigan, we headed homeward. Not far from Traverse City, Ace spotted a gas station and I spotted a cherry stand. I wasn't a cherry lover, but these sweet cherries converted me.

Our last stop was for lunch at Grayling Restaurant, where Mom and I reminisced about our family's canoe trip down the Au Sable River. My parents, better prepared to pilot horses than canoes, ended up in the underbrush. My baby sister shrieked, "What the hell are we doing here?" (We still don't know where she learned that word.)

Back at the farm at the end of our trip, we made cherry-apple cobbler and ate the last of the strawberries for breakfast.

And we counted our blessings, but never our calories.

Food editor Suzanne Martinson can be reached at or 412-263-1760.

PG tested recipes

Apple Cake

  • 1 cup oil (we used canola)

  • 3 eggs

  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

  • 4 to 6 apples, peeled and chopped

Preheat oven to 325 to 350 degrees. Grease bundt or angel food cake pan.

In large mixing bowl, beat oil, eggs and sugar until light.

Add dry ingredients and vanilla and mix well. Add walnuts. Fold in chopped apples (we used a combination of Fuji, Golden Delicious and McIntosh). Pour into pan.

Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour. When done, the cake will pull away from the sides of the pan and, when the top is pressed with a forefinger, the cake will pop back up.

When cool, frost with Cream Cheese Frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting

  • 3 or 4 ounces cream cheese

  • 4 tablespoons margarine or butter

  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

  • 1/2 pound confectioners' sugar (about 1 1/4 cups)

Cream butter and cream cheese. Add vanilla and confectioners' sugar. If needed, add additional sugar to get desired spreading consistency.

Ann Satow, Frankenmuth, Mich.

Cherry Apple Crisp

This recipe is from a wonderful cookbook, "Cherry Home Companion" by Patty LaNoue Stearns (Arbutus Press, $29.95). Stears is former food editor and restaurant critic of the Detroit Free Press and is now a resident of Traverse City, Mich., known as the Cherry Capital of the World.

  • 3 cups peeled and chopped apples

  • 2 cups fresh cherries, pitted

  • 1/2 cup, plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 1 cup granulated sugar

  • 3 packages instant oatmeal with cinnamon and spice (see note)

  • 3/4 cup pecans, chopped

  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar

  • 8 tablespoons butter (1 stick), melted

  • Pecan halves and fresh pitted cherries for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine the apples, cherries (we used sweet cherries, which were in season) and 2 tablespoons of the flour; toss to coat. Add the granulated sugar and mix well. Place in a 2-quart casserole. Combine the oatmeal, pecans, 1/2 cup flour and brown sugar. Add butter and stir well. Spoon over the fruit mixture and bake uncovered for 45 minutes. Garnish with pecans halves and cherries. Serve with ice cream.

Serves eight.

Note: For the instant oatmeal, we substituted 1 1/4 cups oatmeal plus 1 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug.14, 2003) In the recipe for Apple Cake in Sunday Magazine, the baking time was omitted. The cake should be done in 45 minutes to 1 hour. When done, the cake will come away from the side of the pan and the top will spring back when lightly touched with your index finger.

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