Friday, April 29, 2011

The West Side is the Best Side

Have you watched the new Pure Michigan commercial for Grand Rapids? Good stuff. In the directors cut you'll see clips of me eating Ultra Dogs and swinging on the giant tire at the Gerald R. Ford Federal Building. Read about more GR tourist attractions in my blog post from last fall, "20 Things to do in Grand Rapids Before You're Dead," and enjoy the show—

Monday, April 25, 2011

Vote BULL and Support Michigan’s Literary Tradition

When I’m not writing about Michigan I serve as managing editor of BULL: Men’s Fiction, and now I need your support. BULL is one of five finalists vying for 100K in funding through the Dockers “Wear the Pants” contest. BULL needs YOUR VOTES*—one a day, every day this week—to win this unprecedented sum for an independent literary journal.

With your vote and $100,000 in-pocket, BULL will carry on the literary traditions of Michigan writers like Ernest Hemingway and Jim Harrison, and lend support to a new generation of Great Lakes authors of men’s interest. BULL plans to grow into a full-scale publishing house, start a young adult division, continue our community outreach, and put good fiction in the hands of good men for years to come.

I first met BULL’s editor-in-chief, Jarrett Haley, as classmates in the MFA program at Notre Dame. Jarrett, a southern gentleman, and this Michigan native became fast friends based on our mutual love for old-fashioned storytelling. When Jarrett acted as officiant at my wedding he held Homer’s Odyssey at the pulpit, and when he founded BULL in 2009, I jumped at the chance to go along on the journey.

Now we ask for your support. To learn more about the contest and BULL visit or go straight to vote on Facebook.

*Unfortunately, voting takes place on a third-party Facebook application, so you need to “like” Dockers and allow Levi’s access to your most basic profile info. I would only offer that khaki pants are much more trustworthy than Facebook itself, so you’ve no need to worry any more than usual.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Bortell's: Return to Summer Fish Fry

If you like seafood, search for the fish-shaped sign on South Lakeshore Drive. From the Oceana Drive exit off US 31 in Pentwater, turn right on Lakeshore Drive and follow the winding lakeside road toward Ludington. Drive past the vacation cabins and beach mansions. When the road comes around a final wooded curve—just before the tree canopy lifts and the asphalt flattens—there, across from a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, is the sign. It reads simply, "Fish."

Thirty yards north of the sign you'll find Bortell’s Fisheries, a square cinder block building that’s home to some of west Michigan’s best seafood. Bortell’s has been in business for six generations, since 1898 when Uriah Bortell first put fish to fryer. Six generations of Germans later, the Bortell family continues to run a tidy, utilitarian ship.

The outside of the building is brightly painted in a modern fish décor, but the inside retains the old-world, rustic feel you might expect from a rural fishmonger. The room is crowded by a glass cooler that takes up half the space. Behind the cooler, a deep fryer and a bare-bones menu on the wall. To the left is a small glass refrigerator for pop, and on the front wall, wood slat paneling adorned with historic photos of the building and its family.

Fish are available fresh or prepared, à la carte or dinners with French fries and coleslaw. Menu items include walleye, whitefish, and a variety of local and imported seafood. I recommend the perch dinner for $13.60: Half pound of lake perch, half pound of fries, and a half cup of slaw, plus a Vernors ginger ale for good measure. The perch is some of the finest I’ve ever tasted—lightly breaded and übber fresh. Forget tartar sauce, forget lemon, forget salt; the fish is it—crisp on the outside, buttery and flaky on the inside.

Two dining options: To-go, or at outdoor picnic tables. For cooked food, the tables work just fine, and even in rain they’re covered with sizeable umbrellas. For hours of operation, an approximation of lunch to dusk seems about right. Open through Labor Day. 5528 S. Lakeshore Dr., Ludington, Michigan, 231-843-3337. *A version of this post was originally published on July 13, 2010.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Lake Superior Auroras

This photo comes from National Geographic: "A burst of solar wind—charged particles from the sun—struck Earth on Tuesday, triggering auroras as far south as Michigan, as seen in this picture taken from the shores of Lake Superior in Marquette. 'Just saw some amazing aurora this morning. Color was unreal. Haven't seen this kind of activity in awhile,' photographer Shawn Malone said in an email."

Photograph by Shawn Malone

Monday, April 11, 2011

Michigan Summer Reading List

Warm weather brings with it all my favorite summer pastimes: grilling, water sports, camping, and summer reading. Here’s a list of my favorite Michigan books. Take them to the beach or sit on a shaded porch — just be sure to do your reading outside:

Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State by Willis F. Dunbar: The gold standard for Michigan history. Dunbar begins with the glaciers that formed the Great Lakes and runs straight through history. The book is heavy on politics, light on personality, but is a great foundation for anyone interested in Michigan.

Brewed in Detroit by Peter H. Blum: Michigan’s craft beer enthusiasts will enjoy this history of Detroit’s breweries. Blum profiles beer eras, styles, and brewing families. Brewed in Detroit has a lot of cool pictures, and it might just get you drinking Stroh’s again.

Michigan Breweries by Paul Ruschmann and Maryanne Nasiatka: This book helped me discover Michigan beer. The industry has changed a lot since I read it, but this encyclopedia of breweries and brewpubs is a great base for planning a beer tour of the state.

Weird Michigan: Your Travel Guide to Michigan's Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets by Linda S. Godfrey: If you’re looking for an odd-ball adventure or a ghostly encounter, this is your guide to some of Michigan’s more bizarre attractions and legends.

Michigan’s Columbus: The Life of Douglass Houghton by Steve Lehto: Douglass Houghton was Michigan’s first geologist. He was an intellectual, explorer, mayor, and professor. He lived hard and died young. He discovered more of Michigan than I’ve visited. If you don’t know Houghton, you don’t know Michigan.

From the Vine: Exploring Michigan Wineries by Sharon Kegerreis and Lorri Hathaway: An introduction to Michigan’s wine industry, a nice starting point for a weekend on the Leelanau Peninsula, and helpful for putting together dinners using local wines.

In addition to the non-fiction, travel, and history books, there are plenty of works of fiction that showcase the state’s unique and varied cultures:

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: Start with “Up in Michigan” and keep right on reading.

True North by Jim Harrison: My favorite of all Harrison’s works, True North’s narrator, David Burkett, explores the Upper Penisula as he comes to terms with his families destructive logging past, among other things.

American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 finalist for the National Book Award, this short story collection is set near Kalamazoo and explores the extremes of poverty and desperation.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides: Detroit is a central character in this epic tale of Greek immigrants in Michigan. If you’re looking for a history lesson on the motor city, this book is a great place to start — not to mention, a literary masterpiece.

Freshwater Boys by Adam Schuitema: Eleven short stories set on the Lake Michigan coast, where boys become men on the waters of the Big Lake and its surrounding cities and forests.

Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon by Dean Bakopoulos: Another book set in Detroit. Though more fantastical than Middlesex, Bakopoulos does capture a snapshot of southeast Michigan’s mood.

Now You Love Me by Liesel Litzenburger: A collection of interrelated short stories that explore a child's life in rural Northern Michigan.

Michigan has always been home to fantastic authors. They don’t always write about Michigan but we’re still happy to have them. I also recommend Theodore Roethke, Robert Traver, Elmore Leonard, Jaimy Gordon, Stuart Dybek, Laura Kasischke, Michael Zadoorian, Matt Bell, and Kristina Riggle.

I’m sure I missed more authors than I recommended. What other books belong on my list, and what else should Michigan be reading?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Aging Gracefully with Michigan Whiskey

Growing Old Together
Cheers to growing up and growing old with Michigan whiskey. New Holland Brewing was one of the first Michigan microbreweries I came to love. Then just when I was ready to test the waters of Michigan’s burgeoning distilling industry, lo and behold, New Holland Artisan Spirits was right there with Zeppelin Bend, a straight-malt whiskey.

Zeppelin Bend, as New Holland explains, “begins with a brewer’s mash coaxing sugars from malted barley into a liquid wash. This wash is twice distilled and aged in new American oak with a heavy char...” for a “... classic American-oak finish.” The whiskey has no age statement, though my guess is that it’s quite young.

I purchased bottle number 112 of 360, from barrel number 7.8. The 375 ML bottle costs right around $39—I think a fifth is $70—so I’m not likely to make Zeppelin Bend a staple of my liquor cabinet—yet. Zeppelin Bend is well worth it for the novelty or for a Michigan-themed tasting, or simply to nurture the young industry.

Here’s what this whiskey novice thought:

Color: Pale copper, with hints of red almost like a summer sunset.

Nose: Sweet vanilla, faint pine and juniper, and a little bit of oak. There’s also an intimidating alcohol smell.

Palate: Thankfully, the strong alcohol smell dims into a subtle flavor of vanilla, syrup, and oak. Sharp.

Finish: Licorice and mint, and a maple syrup flavor that is light, sweet, and surprisingly refreshing.

Overall: A nice starting point for Michigan whiskey. Zeppelin Bend is a bit “boozy” but not nearly as violent as your nostrils tell you. Good for a rainy summer afternoon spent on a covered porch.

With age, we’ll all learn to relax.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Bonnie Jo Campbell Interviewed

Kalamazoo author Bonnie Jo Campbell discusses her life as a writer with Randall Glumm, at the Lansing Online News. Campbell is the author of Q Road and Women and Other Animals, and was a 2009 National Book Award finalist for American Salvage. Her new book, Once Upon a River, is set to come out in July. The video is part one of four at “VIDEO: An interlude with author Bonnie Jo Campbell.”