The inaugural MI Fest

Badass Beer was the best brew on offer. Well, maybe that’s not the best place to start, but it’s pretty much where we started. This was the first-ever MI Fest at MIS in Brooklyn, Michigan, and if nothing else, it was a unique experience.

An outstanding September day set the stage: fresh breezes blew away ominous clouds to reveal sparkling blue skies; the temperature was brisk yet comfortable. My husband and I left our 1-year-old with a sitter for a very rare night out and headed for the 1,400-acre Michigan International Speedway complex, most famous for hosting NASCAR races twice a year. The event, billed as “an outdoor music & camping experience,” was set up in a large, rolling field used as camping space during NASCAR. Wristbands on and backpack checked, we entered and soon found ourselves browsing an array of artisan and farmer’s-market-type booths, just after passing the impressively long lines at the Third Man Records van.

The variety of stands really added to the “festival” for us, and we ended up buying a few chocolate chip cookies (dry and bland), eying some jewelry and – after much finance-related discussion and some bartering – purchasing a very cool handmade ashwood-trimmed birdhouse. So that was fun.

the Third Man Records van

But, we were thirsty. And that was a problem. Perhaps this is de rigueur at all the events these days, but it seems deeply wrong to me: water was $4 a bottle, and that was the only water one could get. This, I was not a fan of. Empty (or full) water bottles were not allowed into the festival, and even if they were, there was not a single drinking fountain or even a damn hose to be found. Touted as a family-friendly event, there were kids here, and pregnant ladies, and hell, really drunk people! Maybe I’m being an old fart, but this is beautiful, wonderful America, where you can drink free-flowing water from almost any tap and not get sick, and here 12 ounces of water cost more than a gallon of gas – and it was the only water available at a 12-hour festival. It offends me.

It's wet and it's cold. Yay.

Ah well, we like beer, and so we gravitated to one of the refreshment stands dotting the grounds. Twelve ounces of Badass Beer: $5; 16 ounces of either of two varieties of “light” macrobrews: $7; I won’t quibble with these prices. Although my husband and I briefly debated the price-per-ounce question, it was a moot point, as I had no desire whatsoever to drink a light macrobrew. So Badass it was. And the discussion of that beer is another topic for another blog, but let’s just say, it’s good if you really want a macrobrew. ‘Nuff said, thirst quenched.

But this was a music festival, right? When we showed up, The Romantics and Ty Stone were blasting out music that seemed to compete for our attention – the two stages were only about 100 yards apart. Music from one stage vibrated the air during the lulls in songs being performed on the other. I don’t think the artists loved this, and at least one performer commented on it between songs. However, this motley collection of acts seemed to make the best of it for the most part. I should mention at this point that when I bought our tickets, there were three stages planned and a host of mostly-Detroit-based talent on the ticket, but that all evaporated a few days before the event launched. The tickets didn’t sell as robustly as the organizers had planned, and I also caught wind of the promoter bailing just before the event, and MIS assuming control. So two stages and less bands, but really, I didn’t care. I was here for one reason, and one reason alone: The Raconteurs.

Yet Jack White didn’t take the stage for a few hours, so we tooled around the grounds, eventually brushing past the main, “MI Fest” stage, where Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn fame) was doing his thing. Since this sounded like run-of-the-mill-radio-country to me, and that isn’t really my thing, we drifted to the “Grandee” stage, where The Rockets were slaying it.

OK, these guys are old. They played one song that we thought we had heard before. But you know what? They totally rocked! Maybe we were chuckling as they went through their clearly time-honored posturing, but it was undeniably enjoyable. The lead singer posed and writhed and sweated, the guitarist jammed out on a righteous solo and they delivered a tight set of fan favorites. Sweet!

Here’s another odd facet of this festival: the variety of acts, and the people they attracted. The attendees were a mix of families, young and very cool hipsters, and the retired set in their Velcro sneakers and fanny packs. All this diversity made for some stupendous people-watching!

Many people brought lawn chairs, blankets and coolers of food and “camped out” near the main stage. This was fine for most of the day, but things got hairy when the headliners took the stage and fans began pressing closer around, stumbling over chairs and trampling blankets. (However, many of these “campers” packed up and left after Sheryl Crow finished up; they saw what they’d come for and left more room by the stage for me!)

It was tough luck for The Rockets that Sheryl Crow began 15 minutes before they ended, as they finished up to a sparse crowd. We stayed on for the end of the Rockets’ set, then dispersed through the gathering twilight to see the big-ticket draw.

Not Detroit

Sheryl sounded great and presented a high-energy performance. This pocket-sized singer ran through her hits and actually seemed to enjoy doing it. If I could give her personal feedback, I’d advise her on two topics. First, know where you are. Yeah, Brooklyn, Mich. is near Detroit, just like Nyack, NY is near New York City or Benton Harbor, Mich. is near Chicago. Over and over, she shouted out things like “are you feeling me Detroit?” Um, we’re two hours from Detroit. That ain’t right. Second, send out a lackey and see what kind of event you’re at. Shouting out, “how do you like those corn dogs?” doesn’t really work when there are no corn dogs on offer. Trying to redeem yourself by asking about the (non-existent) funnel cake doesn’t help, either. We were eating ribs and burritos. And waiting for The Raconteurs!


I was grinning from ear to ear and bubbling with excitement as night fully blossomed and the crew set up The Raconteurs’ equipment. Once they finally took the stage, I was not disappointed! Courtesy of Jack White and the rest of this finely-tuned music machine, I was transported to a galaxy of awesome, along with the rest of the remaining crowd who came not to hear country music or bands from the 70s, but for this, this.

As long as I’m dispensing advice, here’s some for Jack: I know you’re in your own world and that’s why we love you, but please consider us, the little people, before you turn your back to the crowd to jam out with the drummer; we want to see you tear it up, man! I know, I’m just being greedy. I’ll admit that, for a few moments, I understood those screaming girls in the old Beatles movies. Overall, their performance was fantastic. I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating by using the word Epic. When it was all over, I wanted it all again, and again!

I walked back to the car in a bubble of music-fueled joy. The festival had a few kinks, sure, but if The Raconteurs return next year, so will I.

Spin did a good write-up and took some solid photos


“The best thing I ever ate,” Jackson edition

As Food Network/Cooking Channel junkie, I usually only watch the true “cooking” shows (and by the way, I’d like to have dinner and drinks with Ina, Paula and Nigella!). However, I stumbled across an episode of “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” the other day. On this particular episode, celebrity chefs were waxing poetic about culinary creations from specific establishments in their hometowns.

This got me thinking about regional fare I’ve enjoyed in various locations I’ve lived: northern New Jersey, Chicago, the Netherlands. It’s easy to think of numerous “best things” from these locals. Then there’s Grand Rapids: also easy. Just off the top of my head … Cangrejo Del Rio from San Chez (washed down with a mango mojito), an Alpine Veggie sandwich on pumpernickle from Schnitz, a wood-fired pizza with portobello mushrooms and goat cheese from Wealthy Street Bakery, a veggie dog from Yesterdog … oh my I could go on and on, but I’m just making my mouth water and yet get the gist.

So then I started thinking, what’s Jackson got?!? Plenty of chain restaurants, to be sure. A great Coney dog? Maybe, but that’s kind of like boasting of an ultimate Philly cheese steak in Wichita, isn’t it? I’ve heard great things about the burgers at West Point Lounge, but when I went there with three other people who all got burgers, no one was raving or declaring new-found love. There are some decent bar-and-grills and restaurants here, but is there anything that really sets us apart? It’s a question that I pondered rather glumly for a while.

Until … I remembered Hinkley!

In the tradition of many a great local “best kept secret,” Hinkley Bakery is tucked away on a residential street in a not-so-great neighborhood. With only a slim yellow sign proclaiming “Bakery,” it would be easy to drive right passed the aging brick building. The parking lot is filled with potholes, there isn’t so much as a seat inside for patrons, and the hours are rather unusual – 5:30 am to 1 pm, Wednesday through Saturday. But, all these things don’t seem to affect this family-owned business any, as I’ve never visited without also having to wait in line.

Behind the glass cases inside the tiny bakery awaits something far better than visions of sugarplums, something ambrosial, something that can certainly be called one of the best things I ever ate: Hinkley donuts!

If you’re early enough, you’ll have your choice of dozens of freshly made little tastes of heaven. The classic glazed, fresh and warm, perfectly light and addictive. The favorite of many is the chocolate croissant, slathered with chocolate frosting. It sounds over-the-top, and maybe it is, but it’s also transporting. But my personal pick is the cream-filled long john (what I’d call an eclair back in a Jersey bakery). The fresh dough is fried to perfection, with the slightest crust on the outside and nothing but airy deliciousness inside. A generous portion of fluffy cream fills the concoction from end to end, and thick chocolate icing crowns the entire masterpiece. Amazing? Absolutely.

I’m thankful to Hinkley donuts for providing Jackson not only with an incredible way to start the day, but also with a reason to brag.

The Absent Hostess … or the Night Before the Next Morning

How to be a good host when you won’t actually be at home with your guests? That’s the quandary I recently ran into, which I solved with a simple dish: oven-baked french toast. This is a do-ahead treat that you can assemble the night before, pop in the fridge and simply slide in the oven the next morning, with your eyes still half-closed, as the coffee perks. It would work equally well as a hearty hangover breakfast, prepared long before the makings of the hangover are even underway. Whether or not I’ll be imbibing, I’m thinking this will become my new New Year’s Day tradition. In any case, I’ll fall asleep with sweet thoughts of the custardy breakfast bliss that awaits.

Oven-Baked French Toast

  • 1 loaf soft-crust Italian bread
  • 1/2 C butter, melted
  • 1 t cinnamon
  • 1/4 t nutmeg
  • 1/2 C packed brown sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 1/2 C 2% milk (use 4% for a richer dish, or go all the way and use 1 3/4 C cream, eliminating the ingredient listed below)
  • 1/4 C half and half
    1. Combine butter, spices and brown sugar in shallow bowl. Briefly dip each piece of bread in butter mixture, using a pastry brush or your hands if necessary to slather each side.
    2. Transfer each piece to a buttered 9 x 13 glass pan, packing tightly and making two layers of bread.
    3. Beat together the eggs, milk and cream, adding in any remaining butter mixture, then pour evenly over prepared bread.
    4. Cover and let sit in the fridge overnight.
    5. Bake 25-30 in a preheated 375 degree oven and enjoy with Michigan maple syrup.

      A mouthful of Thanksgiving

      It’s hard not to love Thanksgiving. This time-honored American tradition is, at the heart, still actually about gathering with family and being thankful. Though there’s no shortage of cartoony turkeys or plastic-leaf garlands on the market, it’s difficult to sully this day with cutesy characters and commercialization. Yes, there are probably special ingredients to buy, and in larger quantities than usual, but that’s all just leading up to the opportunity to relax, enjoy each other and partake of a butt-kicking feast.

      So how about an ultimate dessert to contribute to this feast? Well, since the beginning, or almost the beginning, of the Thanksgiving tradition, pumpkins have been part of the celebration. We’ll start with that. My rule for desserts is usually chocolate, but since chocolate and pumpkin may not be the ultimate pairing, make it cream cheese. Hmmm, sounds good, but we could probably tip the scales of decadence with nuts and caramel. Might as well. And just a regular crust won’t do, it needs to stand up to the filling and accentuate those pumpkin-pie spices. Gingersnaps, of course! OK, sounds like we’ve got a winner.

      Pumpkin Swirl Cheesecake with Pecans, Caramel and a Gingersnap Crust

      Crust and Caramel

      • 25 gingersnaps, crushed (about 1 1/2 C)
      • 1/2 C finely chopped pecans
      • 1/4 C butter, melted
        1. Mix above ingredients and press firmly onto bottom and 1″ up sides of a greased 9″ springform pan.
        2. Bake 10 minutes in preheated oven (350 for silver pan, 325 for dark nonstick). Remove and let cool.
          • 14 oz. caramels, unwrapped
          • 5 oz. evaporated milk
          • 1/2 C chopped pecans
            1. Microwave caramels and milk until combined, stirring often.
            2. Pour mixture over crust and sprinkle with pecans.


              • 4 8-oz. packages cream cheese, softened
              • 1 C sugar, divided
              • 1 t vanilla
              • 4 eggs
              • 1 t cinnamon
              • 1 t nutmeg
              • dash ground cloves
              • 1 C canned pumpkin
                1. Beat cream cheese, 3/4 C sugar and vanilla until well blended. Add in eggs one at a time while blending
                2. Remove 1 1/2 C batter and combine with remaining 1/4 C sugar, spices and pumpkin
                3. Spoon 1/2 of pumpkin batter onto caramel, top with plain batter, and repeat. Gently swirl with a butter knife for a marbled effect
                4. Bake 45-55 minutes in preheated oven (see above for temperatures). Cool completely, then refrigerate before serving.

                  Sleeping Bear Winery’s grand opening

                  Tomorrow night, South Central Michigan welcomes yet another winery to the ever-expanding scene: Sleeping Bear Winery will host a ribbon cutting ceremony at 6 p.m. on March 11. Located just north of I-94 in Albion, at 2110 North Concord Road, Sleeping Bear Winery offers both wine and cider. In addition, their Taste of Michigan store features gourmet food items made in our state.

                  Wake Up Weekend in Grand Rapids

                  Since moving from Eastown in Grand Rapids just over a year ago, there a some things I don’t miss a bit, like vandalism of my home or car, keeping the cops programmed into my cell phone and driving 30 minutes in order to hike with my dogs. But, this thriving city also holds many attractions, events and festivals that offer a good excuse for a road trip.

                  On January 22 and 23, Grand Rapids will host Wake Up Weekend 2010, an “annual two-day celebration of animal-friendly food, art, education and advocacy.” The two days of mostly free events will feature lectures, a film and vegan culinary treats.

                  Calvin College, my alma mater, will be the site of a workshop, “The Many Faces of Food Activism,” a vegan potluck dinner and a lecture on Friday the 22nd.

                  The full day of activities scheduled for Saturday the 23rd begins with a session with Bryant Terry and a $10 vegan buffet at 11 a.m., and ends with a screening of “Fowl Play – The Untold Story Behind Your Breakfast” at 9:30 p.m. A lecture, meeting, reception, an art exhibit and a vegan chili cook-off fill the hours in between.

                  This sounds like an incredible weekend that I wouldn’t want to miss.

                  The Ed Cooke Memorial Taco Feast

                  Each Christmas season, participants from all over the country gather in Michigan to celebrate an annual event, the Ed Cooke Memorial Taco Feast. As the name suggests, this tradition revolves around tacos, and was founded upon the late, great Ed Cooke’s affinity for tacos and his general zest for life.

                  If you haven’t heard of this Feast, that’s because all the participants are members of Ed Cooke’s family, by birth or by marriage. But the fact remains that 30 or more celebrants travel from across Michigan and from as far away as Florida, Iowa and even the United Arab Emirates each year to enjoy this event.

                  The Feast was established about 20 years ago, soon after my grandfather Ed Cooke succumbed to cancer. As the eldest grandchild, I am lucky enough to remember his warm, booming laugh, which once dominated similar taco-fests. In tribute to his hearty appetite, the Taco Feast began as a competition, the dubious title of “winner” going to whomever could put away the most tacos. Yet that focus has shifted over the years as grandchildren have grown up and the family itself has grown: With Ed’s six children and spouses, their children and spouses, and their children, the number of participants increases steadily! Minor tweaks to the Feast are continually introduced, such as the recent trend of the “older grandchildren” handling all the required chopping and shredding, and menu additions like vegetarian-friendly beans and chopped cilantro. However, the spirit of the Feast remains unchanged from year to year.

                  It may not be an internationally famous festival, but it’s a tradition that was created – and firmly remains – in Michigan, and one that is cherished by four generations of the Cooke family.

                  When you shoot buck in rut…

                  Ah, the things you learn when you marry a hunter. For one thing, you actually come to know what a “buck in rut” is; it’s a male deer that’s hot to mate. You also learn that those hormones coursing through the buck’s body have an effect on the taste and odor of its meat which some might qualify as adverse. When said buck is shot in the gut, the flavor and aroma of select portions of the meat unequivocally take a nose dive.

                  After recently learning all these things, I then learned exactly what it takes to turn about 40 pounds of venison into sausage.

                  As someone who does not eat factory-farmed meat, sausage is a delicacy I rarely get to enjoy. So it was a logical choice to make sausage out of the salvageable meat from the gut-shot buck in rut, which retained a slightly musky quality.

                  My wonderful husband spent an afternoon processing the buck in our basement, while I helped by washing hair and dirt off the meat, keeping Steve supplied with cold beer, going out to Prime Cuts to buy a few pounds of fat trimmings from organic, hormone free beef and locating casings at Roundtree Meats. (OK, so I made a few exceptions to my usual eating policy for this sausage. I’m doing my best, but I’m no saint!)

                  After Steve ground the meat and the fat in a friend’s industrial grinder, the real work began. Recipes were researched and devised, ingredients chopped and assembled, and then we commenced with the sausage-stuffing.

                  It was a long process that spanned over several days and completely dominated our small kitchen, but we think the results are well worth it. In the end, we made several different kinds of sausage: bratwurst, jalapeño-cheddar bratwurst, sweet Italian sausage and Cajun boudin. In addition to the venison mixture, we stuffed the later with ground liver from an elk Steve shot in Montana last fall, rice, peppers, herbs and spices. Our freezer is now stocked with a variety of homemade sausages that will be wonderful both in recipes and on buns in the chilly months ahead, and on the grill on sunny summer evenings.

                  Published in: on December 22, 2009 at 10:28 am  Comments (3)  
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                  Venison ham

                  According to Wikipedia, a “ham” is “the thigh and rump of pork, cut from the haunch of a pig or boar.” I would like to expand this definition; after all, other animals have perfectly delicious haunches! The hearty accolades we received last night after serving a large smoked venison ham at a 12-person holiday dinner party prove this contention.

                  The large ham came from a doe my husband shot early this fall. After we had it smoked at Jerome Country Market, we froze it and waited until we had occasion to feed a crowd. With the last day of autumn upon us and Christmas right around the corner, we thought it was a perfect time to have each of our immediate families over for our Second Annual Winter Solstice Celebration.

                  After letting the ham thaw in the fridge, I slathered it with a mixture of butter, molasses, brown sugar, cider, bourbon and cinnamon and cooked it at 325 degrees for 2.5 hours, basting occasionally. Steve then carved it up, and it was promptly devoured by both venison lovers and those who have traditionally been a little “iffy” about deer meat.

                  I’m not sure the glaze had much impact on the taste, but the flavor itself was indeed marvelous. The ham was succulent, flavorful and fresh. We might just have started a new tradition!

                  Here is a venison ham with no bone; ours was bone-in.


                  Published in: on December 21, 2009 at 5:18 pm  Leave a Comment  
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                  Thanksgiving dessert, featuring Dark Chocolate Cherry Pecan Pie

                  With cherries pictured on top, without on the bottom, both surrounded by other Thanksgiving treats

                  Yesterday was a wonderful Thanksgiving, with a cornucopia of delicious food shared by much-loved family members. The dinner spread was rivaled only by the dessert options. My dessert contribution was a Dark Chocolate Cherry Pecan Pie, a new twist on a “Turkey Day” classic. For the pie, I used dark cherries that my husband and I picked in Jackson County this summer, and I then pitted and froze. Make this pie, and I predict that second helpings will be in your future.

                  Dark Chocolate Cherry Pecan Pie
                  3 large eggs
                  1 C light corn syrup
                  1/2 C sugar
                  1/4 C butter, melted
                  1 t vanilla
                  1 C chopped pecans, plus pecan halves for garnish
                  1 C dark chocolate chunks, plus extra for garnish
                  1 C pitted and halved frozen cherries, thawed

                  Mix all but cherries together.
                  Pour about 1/2 of mixture into 1 deep dish/4 C volume 9” pie shell (I like the refrigerated take-and-bake kind, prepared to package directions).
                  Add cherries in an even layer, then top with remaining pecan mixture.
                  Use additional pecan halves and chocolate chunks for garnish.
                  Protect crust edges from burning with aluminum foil or a pie crust shield, then bake in preheated 350 degree oven 35-45 minutes.