By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1994 Gourmet Magazine
The summers of youth hold a privileged place in memory. For many of us raised along the Great Lakes in mid-century America, those bright seasons evoke images that now seem like faded snapshots from a faraway time: climbing a rickety wood ladder to retrieve the plumpest black cherries from the top of a tree in northern Michigan; savoring a coneful of frozen custard at a drive-in after a town softball game on the Wisconsin shore; skipping smooth pebbles across the cobalt blue waters of Little Bay de Noc at dusk. In a rude world cluttered with noisy dirt bikes, abrasive graffiti, and Bart Simpson impudence, it is all too easy to think of such childhood enchantments as gone with the ages. We retraced a well remembered family vacation path around Lake Michigan to see if the gentle memories could be reclaimed. Heading north from Milwaukee, around Green Bay and onto the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then across the Straits of Mackinac and down to Grand Traverse Bay, we realized that many of those images cherished from childhood belong not to a lost time but to this special place at the top and center of America.
The wild and rugged outdoors is why many people love the land around the Great Lakes, but we began our journey in utmost gentility—at the seventy-year-old Watts Tea Shop, on the second floor of the George Watts & Son china and crystal store in Milwaukee. Sip a Waterford Spritzer (lemonade, lime juice, and sparkling water) or a Cold Russian (coffee, chocolate, and whipped cream); nibble a lovely little sandwich of minced chicken or ripe olives and nuts; and indulge in a slice of filled Sunshine Cake, made from the same good recipe that Watts cooks have used for decades. Here we picked up a mimeographed flyer announcing “Etiquette Classes for Children,” which promised instruction in social skills for polite society: eye contact, “the personality of a handshake,” enunciation, telephone manners, chewing gum (not!), proper removal of a coat, and considerate theater behavior (covering such topics as “talking, humming, tapping fingers or toes, and opening cellophane-wrapped candies”).
As you stroll the sidewalks near the tea shop, breathe deeply and inhale the heady smells of an all but bygone Midwest, less courteous but every bit as nostalgic: an urban chili parlor. REAL CHILI is the kind of downtown beanery once found in big cities throughout the region but that has now vanished nearly everywhere except Cincinnati and here on Wells Street. And although heartland chili gets no respect from gastronomes who prefer the Southwestern kinds, this joint is a swell culinary adventure, with chili reminiscent of the hearty stew made famous long ago by the legendary Chili John’s of Green Bay. Sit at a counter or at one of two communal tables with backless stools. Choose your chili mild, medium, or hot; with spaghetti, beans, or both; and sour cream, cheese, or onions on the side. Uniformed waitresses dole out second helpings at half price, and the preferred beverages are beer and cherry Coke. Before you drive out of Milwaukee into the farmland beyond, you might want to equip your car with a bumper sticker sold here: REAL CHILI: IT’S NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE.
Like all the rest of this nation, the Midwest was populated by immigrants, most of whom eagerly Americanized and joined the mainstream. But in Wisconsin, known as “the new frontier” to many who left Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, the people have also maintained a strong sense of where they came from. Today the state is rich with Old World settlements, and the flavor of ethnic culture ranges from Racine’s Danish kringle (an oval coffee-cake ring with fruit in the middle that is rarely found elsewhere in the United States) to the Icelandic boiled fish dinners of Door County. One day as we traveled past the dairy farms and cornfields of Wisconsin we had lunch in the town of Poland and dessert in the town of Denmark, stopped for coffee up in Krakow, then headed west through Hamburg and Milan for supper at the Norske Nook of Osseo, purveyor of fine pies.
Nowhere is the ethnic heritage of the region more lovingly and luxuriously pre-served than at THE AMERICAN CLUB in Kohler, north of Milwaukee. Now a gracious resort, the secluded Tudor-style hotel was originally built by the plumbing-fixture company seventy-six years ago as a dormitory where immigrant employees could live cheaply while they learned English and acquired citizenship. Its corridors are decorated with evocative photos from the club’s early days, some of which show the proud new citizens celebrating at Fourth of July picnics by wrapping them-selves in American flags. Its elite restaurant, THE IMMIGRANT, has dining rooms with mother-country themes, including French, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, and English.
River Wildlife, at the edge of the village of Kohler, is The American Club’s gateway to paradise. Here guests of the club may buy passes to enjoy five hundred acres of verdant woodlands and meadows with thirty miles of well-kept trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, and horseback riding. Except for the fish in the Sheboygan River and the pheasants, which are fair game, the animals native to River Wildlife are protected, and as we loped on horse-back through the woods one sunny afternoon we came across groups of deer so young they still had spots. The fawns didn’t run, and our mounts weren’t spooked: At River Wildlife, animals are accustomed to one another.
In Manitowoc, a small settlement on the Lake Michigan shore, we fell incurably in love with the Midwest as a great park in which good old ways are preserved and nurtured. The first glimmer of infatuation came at Schuettes (pronounced shootees), the nation’s oldest family-owned department store, where pneumatic brass tubes can still send cash to the office. Then, when our camera battery seemed weak, we found an unprepossessing store called Glen’s Camera Shop, but before the salesman would accept our $2.49 for a new set, he regaled us with a lecture about battery hygiene so elaborate and heartfelt that we promised him never to let our amperage drop so low again. Shaken by our camera’s brush with the Grim Reaper, we refreshed ourselves with Rouladen (beef rolled around potato, carrot, onion, and bacon), pork schnitzel, and wide wedges of stupendously crisp-crusted Old World apple pie at a café named Bob’s. Manitowoc, Wisconsin, doesn’t have a reputation as a gourmand’s mecca, but BOB’S CAFÉ, with its glass-brick front and its simple Middle-European meals, is the kind of good little place by the side of the road that makes roaming the heartland’s byways a delight. After Bob’s, we took a breather at the PENQUIN DRIVE-IN south of town, where, underneath a starry summer sky, the car-hop brought bowls of freshly made frozen custard—eggy, off-white, smooth as ivory, and richer than top cream—the perfect ending to a full day.
Before leaving town the following afternoon we had every intention to stop by Manitowoc’s Maritime Museum, which has a World War II submarine you can tour. But if truth be told we were so entranced by the BEERNTSEN CONFECTIONARY, one block west, that we forgot to look at the sub. The business opened in 1932, and not much has changed in the years since it passed first from Joe Beerntsen to his son, Dick, and then to Dick’s son, Tom. Tom loves this old sweetshop. He’ll point to the original black walnut woodwork and boast, “There isn’t a knot in the place.” In the back, past a carved archway, handsome wooden booths are occupied by customers who come for such ice-cream fancies as a Sweetheart Sundae (vanilla ice cream topped with caramel, marshmallow, and crushed nuts) and a Sunset Sundae (strawberry and vanilla ice creams crowned with pineapple, marshmallow, and crushed nuts).
There is no dramatic natural boundary between northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but soon after we got to Gladstone, in the early evening, we knew we were somewhere else. After watching a harborside game of women’s softball (a favorite local pastime, along with bowling), we cruised along the shoreline hunting for a suitable supper club. Supper clubs are places where solid citizens of the north country go for highballs and a square meal. Most have a backwoods feel about them and offer such freshwater favorites as whitefish, walleye, and trout, and probably a mess of perch (“mess” is the proper term here for multiple perch fillets). Many have amusing names: Duck Inn, Yank-Em-Inn, the Crow Bar, Y-Go-By. THE LOO CABIN, a cozy supper club with a small family of lawn deer permanently grazing out front, was where we realized for sure we were in the U.P. It happened when we ordered drinks, Whiskey Sours, to start.
“Would you like whiskey with sour or with mix?” the bartender asked, explaining that in these parts “Whiskey Sour” generally means whiskey with a splash of Squirt. If you want a traditional Whiskey Sour, you must say “whiskey with mix.” Fine.
Next we availed ourselves of the Log Cabin salad bar—an opulent array of composed salads that would give a modern foodie conniption fits: Waldorf salad with strawberries, bean-and-ham salad, long-noodle-with-mayonnaise salad, short-noodle-with-even-more-mayo salad, and macaroni salad, with mayo too. When our moist, perfectly broiled whitefish arrived, we were on another round of drinks and the sound system was playing a muted-horn instrumental version of “My Way.” We gazed out across the plaster deer to the tall grass waving in the sapphire shallows of Little Bay de Noc and experienced a U.P. epiphany. Later we strolled to the water, where the cares and concerns of city life seemed a universe away. The clear evening sky enveloped the whole world as we watched the waves gently lap the shore.
Understand, communion with the U.P. does not come naturally to the likes of us. The region is a sportsman’s paradise, where Hemingway’s Nick Adams went fishing. Men and women in big rubber boots and flap-eared caps come here to make camp in cabins or, worse, bed down under the stars in sleeping bags, rising early in the morning to hook trout and to shoot game. Not being sportsmen, we cannot tell you how the muskellunge are running. We don’t know where (let alone why) a fellow might bag a twelve-point buck. But we can say this: There is something hypnotic — otherworldly—about being in a place where pine trees sigh in the evening wind and rivers rush through cedar forests that shelter bears and moose and bald eagles. It was just across the narrow peninsula, west of Paradise near the north shore of Lake Superior, that Longfellow immortalized the area now called Tahquamenon Falls State Park in The Song of Hiawatha. On the bluffs above the falls it is easy to be enchanted with “The odors of the forest/With the dew and damp of meadows/With the curling smoke of wigwams/With the rushing of great rivers.”
Route 2, which hugs the shore of Lake Michigan, is more mundane. Here every motel offers freezers to guests who have fresh-caught fish to keep until they get home. For more immediate gratification, stop off in Brevort at a store called GUSTAFSON’S SMOKED FISH, where the sugar maple haze from four smoldering smokers perfumes the air outside with the luscious smell of whitefish, menominee, chub, trout, and coho and chinook salmon turing gorgeous shades of gold. Inside, coolers are arrayed with the firm-fleshed beauties, which make a great picnic lunch with a fifty-cent stack of saltine crackers, a bag of cheese curds (a favorite local snack), and a beer. Other than fish, the best U.P. specialty is a pasty, a pocket meal originally favored by Cornish miners in the area who could carry it down to work and heat it on the edge of a shovel. LEHTO’S of Saint Ignace—open since 1947—claims to be America’s first pasty drive-in, and this family-run stand is a delight for any fan of roadside regional cookery. The mighty Lehto’s pasty, loaded with a mélange of beef, rutabaga, onions, and potatoes, is fragile-crusted and deeply satisfying.
More than any other place around Lake Michigan, or for that matter in America, Mackinac Island (pronounced Mackinaw) lives resolutely in the past. Automobiles are banned, and all transportation is by horse and buggy or bicycle; the main industries are fudge and fun. At the Fort Mackinac museum, the smell of black powder hangs in the air, the residue of cannons and muskets fired regularly by modern Michiganders dressed in eighteenth-century British infantry uniforms. The GRAND HOTEL, an immense white pine edifice on a grassy bluff that crowns the island, aims to give guests a sense of the prodigious luxury enjoyed by America’s wealthiest vacationers circa 1887 (when the resort was built). Surrounded by tens of thousands of tulips, outfitted with wicker and antiques, and staffed in summer by more people (including alfresco musicians) than populate the entire island in winter, the hotel is a Greek Revival palace mobbed with T-shirted sight-seers by day. But after six, guests dress for dinner, and the spacious front porch (more than three football fields long) provides a magical view of the Straits of Mackinac.
After the boggling bustle of Mackinac Island, it was a comfort to head south along M-119, a quiet, winding two-lane that was once a Chippewa footpath and is now known as the Tunnel of Trees. Oak, maple, and pine grew thick above a forest floor of spring trillium, forming a canopy over the road through which light sprinkled down like pixie dust. The boulevard twisted on through the woods, and to the west Lake Michigan came into view, the precise blue, on this sunny day, of the 1956 Chevrolet Delray coupe used for that recollected family vacation nearly forty years past. A little farther south was cherry country, so we bought a bag of washed black cherries at a roadside stand. We ate the fruit the way it had been eaten a lifetime ago—greedily, sloppily, with juice dribbling from our lips. Then we rolled the windows down and exulted in the breezes blowing in off Grand Traverse Bay. As we barreled south along the shore we knew that even if childhood is long gone, a trip around this Great Lake can take you home again.
The American Club
Bob’s Cafe (permanently closed)
1306 Washington Street
The American Club (see Hotels)
The Log Cabin Supper Club (permanently closed)
Route 2 at Highway 41
Penguin Drive-In (permanently closed)
3900 Calumet Avenue
Watts Tea Shop (permanently closed)
761 North Jefferson Street