It’s Pączki Day!

Every year, the first time I see a box of pączki at Meijer, I get excited. It’s not because I can’t wait to sink my teeth into one; I can easily eschew those leaden pucks and wait for fresh treats on Fat Tuesday. No, it’s because when I see pączki, I know that even though the ground may still be covered with snow, spring is really, finally, just around the corner.

Well, the snow is still on the ground, but Fat Tuesday dawned mild and sunny in southeast Michigan. As a self-respecting bastion of Polish culture and tradition, in Jackson, one can purchase pączki on practically every corner today. A treat that never blipped on my radar while living on the East Coast, pączki are filled pastries traditionally enjoyed before Lent, specifically on Fat Tuesday.

I waited in a line that snaked around the inside of the tiny Hinkley Bakery to pick up a dozen of the soft, dense pillows, filled with cream, custard or jelly. Last year, I did the same thing at European Bakery.

Yeast donuts that rise before being fried and filled, pączki may have originated when Polish Catholics were trying to use up all the sugar, lard and fruit in the house in preparation for Lent. At their best, they are spongy and light. The most traditional fillings may be prune or raspberry, but pączki are available with a range of fillings, including cream, blueberry, custard, apple, lemon, and cream cheese. Judging by the 20 or so orders I overheard today, custard is the breakaway favorite among Jacksonians on the southwest side. Traditionally covered with sugar, they may also be glazed.

I’m not sure how many people are observing a day of feasting and merriment today, before beginning tomorrow to abstain from much-loved pleasures or vices, but I am sure that enjoying a pączek is a tradition most anyone can embrace. After all, it’s the perfect time to indulge before cutting out the junk in preparation for bathing-suit season. As for me, I’m not a bit Polish, but I never met a morsel of fresh, fried dough I didn’t like.

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 10:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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“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.

A brewery for Jackson (again)

Since moving south of Jackson, Michigan about two years ago, I’ve direly missed easy access to the craft beer scene. OK, so I was completely spoiled in Grand Rapids. Although I despaired when I first moved to West Michigan in 1995, I’m amazed to reflect on how cool, hip and desirable this region now is, due in large part (for me) to the booming brewing scene there. There’s my “brewery home,” the Hideout, where I also worked; Founders, with great beer, food, music, parties and atmosphere; and Grand Rapids Brewing Company, where I’m a “lifetime” mug member. HopCat (where I also worked) draws beer aficionados from all over, and the BOB also has a brewery. New Holland recently opened Brewery Vivant near Eastown, where I used to live, and Schmohz holds down the eastern fringe. More breweries are less than a 45 minute drive away from the city center, and Grand Rapids itself holds other establishments that don’t brew but that are outstanding places to enjoy craft beers from Michigan and across the world.

And then, there’s Jackson. Jackson’s got … bars. Sure, Ann Arbor (and her beer scene) is just down I-94, but it’s a full hour from my house. Not very feasible for a pint after work or a nightcap after dinner. Some joints here serve a seasonal Bell’s, if I’m lucky (and more often than not, servers will tell me they’ve got “Bell’s” on tap; when asked what kind, they give me a quizzical look, as if I’d asked them which kind of Bud Lite they carry). I’m just stating the facts here, and I understand why all this is. The social atmosphere in Jackson just doesn’t nurture or attract lovers of craft beer. This is the land of NASCAR and Budweiser — not that I’m knocking these things, and not to say these are mutually exclusive with microbrews, but there are definite, demonstrable demographic trends behind these generalizations.

However, microbrew lovers do exist here, just not in critical mass. Proving this point is the fact that a brewery’s been tried before: There is a brewery building that’s languished just east of downtown Jackson, the gleaming brewing equipment it contains earning an almost fabled spot within the brewing culture of Michigan. This is the site of at least two former breweries, but the darkened edifice has taunted local lovers of local beer for seven years now.

Wilcox's homebrew club: they brew to escape

Enter Phil Wilcox, a founding member of Jackson’s homebrew club, Prison City Brewers. Thanks to him, we have some good news: this building will soon open its doors once again. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

Jackson’s Citizen Patriot ran an article on this budding business; the comments posted by local readers reveal the overall current in Jackson, which is not overwhelmingly positive. This proves my former point, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Breweries are big business these days, and many Michiganders are willing to travel a bit for good craft beer. So, although the new brewery may be called “The Local Pub & Brewery,” if this venture succeeds, my guess is that it won’t be thanks to local patrons. It will be the craft beer lovers from Dexter, Chelsea, Ann Arbor, Lansing and Kalamazoo, or from even farther away, who will keep this dream alive. Or maybe I’m wrong; prove me wrong, Jacksonians! Hey, I’m local, and I’ll be there.

*UPDATE: Brewery is currently set to open in June!*

“Celebrate Earth Day” festival in Jackson

Earth Day came and went, but there’s no reason that we can’t honor the principles of this occasion all year long. On Sunday, April 25, Cascades Park in Jackson will be the site of the fourth annual “Celebrate Earth Day” outdoor festival. There will be activities and educational displays, and the Cascades Humane Society will have adoptable dogs on-site, along with information on how to be a more eco-friendly pet owner. I know, because I’ll be working the event. It’s a family-friendly event that should appeal to both tree-huggers and those just looking to spend a few enjoyable hours outdoors.

At the Drive-In: Rudy’s in Jackson

Have you ever been to a drive-in fast food joint? I’m not sure I’d even seen a functional example of one before Rudy’s opened, just south of downtown Jackson. One chilly, rainy Sunday afternoon, my husband and I decided to check the place out. First, reign in your expectations: the waitstaff is not on rollerskates. However, the menu was just what you’d expect from a local fast food operation. Olive burgers, chili dogs, onion rings and malted milk shakes are a few of the attractions listed on the board posted outside the building.

While sitting in the comfort of our car, Steve and I placed our orders with a smiling waitress. Then, I infiltrated the establishment to locate the restroom. Rudy’s has no restaurant or real public space inside, but I got a good view of the clean kitchen on my way to the tidy bathroom.

Our food came on a plastic tray that mounted to the car window, just as you might expect. The sandwiches (wrapped in paper) were hot and tasty, and the malted milk shakes (in large paper cups) really hit the spot. I did see “real” glasses going to some cars, but I suppose these are for the root beer floats; by the way, you can by the root beer here buy the half-gallon or gallon, so perhaps it’s good stuff.

Soon after we were finished, our server returned to our car to collect the waste. As we drove away, I noticed picnic tables that could be topped with umbrellas for balmy-weather dining.

I eat fast food only a couple of times a year, so I don’t have much to compare Rudy’s Drive-In to, but I’d certainly go there again before I entered a chain restaurant’s drive-through line. There’s no personal nostaglia factor here for me, but it was a different and unique experience which I’d certainly repeat, even if only for a milkshake!