Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice

Check out this fantastic old travelogue video on our pleasant peninsulas. I lifted this footage from Absolute Michigan, one of my favorite sources for information on the Great Lakes State, and I believe they borrowed the video from Seeking Michigan, so it's making the rounds:

Look About You from Seeking Michigan on Vimeo.

Chili Dogs or Soap, Detroit?

American Coney Island or Lafayette Coney Island; which is better? Travel Channel Food War’s episode on Detroit hot dogs tried to answer the question, and local bloggers went gaga over the show. I didn’t watch, but I’m guessing it didn’t produce a satisfactory resolution.

Last Sunday afternoon I ate at Lafayette, and (dear god) I ventured into the downstairs bathroom, down a sticky, skinny, creaking stairway to a dingy 1950s “decorated” bathroom with a ceiling so low I had to duck. And on the sink, the most disgusting soap I’ve ever seen.

So the real chili dog debate in Detroit is not about which restaurant is better, but whether to wash my hands in the basement. With that soap, I’d be better off lathering my hands in chili sauce. 

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Das Boot of Metzger’s German Restaurant

How could it be that I’ve lived in Ann Arbor for three years and have never tried Metzger’s German Restaurant? I like meats in casing, I like beer, and I love exotic European cultures. Plus, I drive by nearly every weekend on my way to Pinckney State Recreation Area. Well, I finally stopped and I fully endorse Metzger’s as one of Ann Arbor’s finest.

Metzger’s is in a strip mall, and more or less looks like a Big Boy from the outside. But inside it’s unmistakably German; what my wife described as, “cozy with clutter but also immaculate.” The walls are lined with beer steins, cuckoo clocks, and family seals. There’s dark wood trim and not much light. Best of all, the patrons are mostly old German folks who will watch and whisper if you dare attempt to drink das boot.

Ah yes, das boot. 80 ounces of Franziskaner Weissbier topped off with two small lemon wedges (for health, I guess). Das boot was nearly as big as my head (photo), and there is a distinct sense that, by ordering das boot, you’ve unwittingly signed up for some sort of competition. Germans are so odd – how can such reserved, neat, polite people be such overindulgent booze hounds?

Rather than order a full meal I selected a hodgepodge of mettwurst, bratwurst, saurkraut, potato pancakes, and soup. The food was, well, German. Simple, tasty, and utilitarian – purposeful in it’s ability to soak up beer.

Metzger’s menu describes their 75-year history, and touches on the same Michigan-German tradition that created Ann Arbor’s German Park: Despite the political turmoil of the first have of the 20th century, a dedicated, resilient German immigrant population carved out a niche in southeast Michigan and has been thriving ever since.

Who knew there were so many Germans in Ann Arbor, enough to support the German Park Picnic, the Heidelberg, and Metzger’s? Who knew Germans liked to party so hard? I’ve been to the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, and the real Germany has nothing on Michigan’s version. Cheers (if you can lift das boot).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Best View in Kalamazoo: WMU's East Hall

I graduated from Western Michigan University in 2003, and I worked at the Archives Library during most my undergraduate days. Kalamazoo holds a special place in my heart, particularly the campus and surrounding hangouts.

My absolute favorite spot in the entire city is East Hall, part of WMU’s historic - and often forgotten - East Campus. Built in 1903 as the original Western State Normal School, East Hall once housed classrooms where future teachers honed their craft on area school children.

Unfortunately, East Campus has fallen into disrepair, now crumbling and segregated from the main campus. At times there has been a push to restore the old campus, spearheaded by the Friends of East Campus group, a collection of alumni and concerned citizens aiming to restore the dilapidated buildings and get the students back on East Campus - but for now only a proud few ever visit.

Highlights of East Campus include graduate student art exhibits, the Archives Library, secret underground tunnels, beautiful architecture, the old library stacks of North Hall, and the fantastically disturbing fact that WMU’s first president Dwight B. Waldo’s ashes are encased in the building walls.

And the best East Campus attraction, my personal favorite – the view from the top of the hill. WMU’s mascot was once “The Hilltoppers,” named for the hill East Hall sits on. The hill provides a spectacular panoramic view of downtown Kalamazoo. Unless you’re at a lake, this is undoubtedly the best lookout in the state of Michigan. Visit during the summer and you can even heckle the football team working out on the practice field at the bottom of the hill.

There was a time when a trolley car brought students up and down the hill, and there was a time when WMU had a unique nickname (Boo, Broncos – Yeah, Hilltoppers). But East Hall still stands tall over Kalamazoo, the view is still great, and lovers of East Campus still hold out hope.

To learn about the history of the building and the campus, I highly recommend visiting my former employer, the Archives and Regional History Collection. The Archives Library is located in the old gymnasium and provides a great resource for area historians and curious tourists – and the climbing ropes are still hanging from the gym ceiling.

*This post was originally published a few years back. Seemed fitting that the first "archives" post would be about the archives.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Water Safety and Rip Currents

Good tips from Michigan Sea Grant on how to stay safe in the waves of the Great Lakes: Water Safety and Rip Currents. I would add just a few additional tips for staying safe in "rip tides" or "rip currents." -

1. Teach kids to swim in the Great Lakes. Swimming pools are good for perfecting strokes and dives, but there's no substitute for first-hand knowledge of how your lakes behave. All bodies of water move in unique patterns and it can take a lifetime to get to know your lake.

2. Respect the water. The Great Lakes are powerful. Enjoy at your own risk, and know when you've reached the point of exhaustion.

3. If you're not a strong swimmer, be careful of the waves, and don't let your kids in the water if you're not capable of saving them yourself.

4. If there's violent waves, swim with a partner and keep an eye on fellow swimmers. Preparation and responsible swimming saves lives.

Relieving Stress the Old Fashioned Way

Somehow I ended up staying in Ann Arbor last weekend - even with so few precious summer days remaining. Maybe it’s a sign I’m ready for fall. Maybe the world has gone screwy. Why was I not swimming in Lake Michigan? I think the heat is starting to freak out. I'm seeing things, behaving strange. A brief retelling of this week’s oddities:

I was reprimanded by my recreational softball league for cursing at an umpire over blown ball and strike calls. We’re talking about softball, folks, softball. Maybe my frustration with the Tigers is manifesting itself in recreational city leagues. I sent an apology letter.

Rick Snyder won the republican primary. Is this the first time I’ve voted for a winning candidate in anything, ever? Possibly.

The aurora borealis were visible in Michigan, unless you live in southern Michigan and it’s cloudy. In that case, your streetlights were visible.

I tried yoga for the first time and it’s much more difficult than I expected. What I thought was going to be a lot of slow breathing and stretching turned out to be hell on the core. A2 Yoga is no joke. Word to the wise, hangovers and giant cups of coffee are not the best pre-cursers to an hour-long torture session in a 100-degree warehouse. Yoga does not, as they would have you believe, relieve stress.

Tried Casey’s Tavern for the first time. Best burgers in Ann Arbor. Followed up burgers with an old fashioned at Gandy Dancers. Third best cocktails in Ann Arbor after Knights and the Earl. Old fashioneds do relieve stress, but why does this restaurant look like a Disneyland castle?

Watched the Great Gatsby. I hate to admit it, but lately my state-of-mind seems to most resemble Tom’s. He would have yelled at the umpire, too. But not Nick, no, Nick would have kept his cool. Fantastic film,  bummer that Nick’s last line is omitted. Best closing line in literature, ever? “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther … And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist was on vacation in northern Michigan and according to his tweets he swam in Lake Michigan waves and managed to stick to his training regiment and forgo the fudge on Mackinac Island. This excited me way too much.

I published a guest post, “13 Tips for Enjoying Poker,” on one of my favorite blogs, Art of Manliness. Hopefully this built up some currency in my man bank, because I think I just spent it all in this whiny post. Time to finish with something positive -

Found my long-lost jump drive with all my old, deleted blog posts. I'm going to have to dust a few off and repost in the coming months. Also saved were short stories, poems, essays, beer reviews, my grad school thesis, notes, basically everything I wrote from 2004 to 2008. Very exciting.

On another positive note, I'm teaching freshman writing again this coming semester at Adrian College. Fall is on its way, y’all. Three more weekends to enjoy the Great Lakes, then we hunker down in Ann Arbor for eight months of grading papers and putting together puzzles. I love puzzles:

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dead Even Burritos

There’s a Mexican restaurant in Muskegon called El Camino. There was a time when I was El Camino’s most loyal customer. I visited at least once a day, and I literally drank the hot sauce; I still would. When I drove down Henry St., the kitchen staff waved.

El Camino was in a hole-in-the-wall across the street from two of Muskegon’s busiest bars, and directly on the boundary between Roosevelt Park and Muskegon Heights; two areas of town on the exact opposite end of the spectrum in terms of prosperity and race. El Camino was, in a small way, the melting pot of Muskegon; cheap, ethnic cuisine for diverse and sometimes drunk patrons.

After I moved out of town, two changes to El Camino altered the face of Mexican food in Muskegon. First, El Camino moved one building east into Muskegon Heights, into the old Tony’s Steakhouse, presumably for the larger space. The other change was that the kitchen manager, Pablo - the face of El Camino - left to start his own restaurant about a mile west into Roosevelt Park. I’m not sure if Pablo left for personal or professional reasons, or both. Frankly, the reason he left is not the point. The point is, a line was drawn, and loyalists were forced to choose sides, more often than not, Pablo’s side. But for me, there was no side to choose. El Camino lost its atmosphere and Pablo’s Tacos, though the darling of Muskegon burritos, was completely foreign.

I often thought about Pablo and El Camino. Whenever I found myself in a fancy city, surrounded by Mexican food that uses too much cilantro and not enough beans and gravy, I craved a baby buck with half botana. For years I heard that Pablo’s Tacos was so much better than El Camino, and I wondered. There’s a sense around Muskegon that Pablo’s is better than El Camino ever was, that without the handcuffs of El Camino, Pablo has reinvented Mexican food for west Michigan. Friends told me I would love Pablo’s.

With all the drama, I admit I’ve avoided Pablo’s. As much as I loved the man and his burritos, I think I felt too nostalgic for El Camino. Even after an amicable breakup, nobody wants to hang out with their ex – in a twisted way, both Pablo and El Camino broke up with me. So here’s the letdown: I finally tried Pablo’s last weekend and there is no side to take. The burritos are exactly the same; wet, greasy Mexican food designed to put patrons to sleep and soak up booze. It’s meat, it’s beans, it’s cheese. Pablo’s buffet earns the point for after-bar gorging. But, El Camino still holds the patent on the hot sauce, which Pablo has thus far been unable to recreate. For lunch, El Camino; at 2:30am, Pablo’s.

And if you want tamales, for crying out loud, skip both of them and go to Rosita’s (wild card).