While this could be a blog about the Lake Michigan Shore AVA, it is not. Nor is it really about food, though food – and wine – figure prominently. One could say it is about Culture, but that would be a misnomer for what is, essentially, an account of foods I like to eat, activities I enjoy, and some of the ephemera and peculiarity found in the rather-odd town in which I grew up: Michigan City, Indiana.
This visit was founded on a great need for a vacation. But my partner and I figured that as long as we were to be going on a trip, we may as well get married first. So, after 20 years together we invited a few neighbors, picked up stunning flowers from Pure Design, and met with Charlie from Humbleman Weddings in the Anne d’Harancourt Sculpture Garden at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Fittingly, but quite inadvertently, we resembled the Royal Tenenbaums.
Once we were safely in Indiana with our cats, we got down to business. At the beach. The beach in Michigan City is absolutely beautiful and… melodic. Have you ever heard of Singing Sands? They “sing” (squeak!) when you walk on them. Hearing that noise always makes me feel at home – even when the damn sand is so hot you have to run to the water to avoid being burnt on the soles of your feet.
Visiting one’s home is a bit like re-creating childhood (and teenhood) and revisiting old routines. In my mind, Indiana corn will always be the sweetest, Albano’s is the place to go for pizza, and Redamak’s burgers just can’t be beat.
Is any of that really true? Who knows. But, on this visit, this corn was certainly the best I’d had all year and much better than the New Jersey crop – mind it was not a great year for corn from New Jersey. The pizza from Albano’s – where my family stopped for pizza before going to Baskin Robbins nearly every Friday night until I started dating, after which it was the site of many of my first dates – was extra-cheesy with breakfast-style sausage and fresh tomato slices. It is the place where I first heard “Queen” on the jukebox and ate a “Taco” Pizza; it will always be the “best” pizza to me. Redamak’s is a veritable institution just up the road in New Buffalo, Michigan. Only open in the summer, they have a $5 “working person’s special” with a big, juicy burger and fries served in a basket. I will always associate it with summer, beaches, and cheap, happy eating.
Of course, whether any of these is “the best” is completely irrelevant and moot – is there really an objective “best” for such things? Of course not. Like most food bigotry, preferences for these foods exist in the framework of the place in which they were consumed; they form a part of one’s personal, food-culture. It is not coincidental that each of my “favorites” has a narrative. There is a history that strengthens the bond of food, memory, and preference. I firmly believe that hot dogs taste best at a drive-in, brought out by a car hop. Carlson’s Drive-In has very satisfying meals of hot dogs and polish sausages with yellow mustard and sauerkraut, greasy fries, and mugs of rootbeer brought to your car, and is where my mother car-hopped as a teenager, where my older sister was car-hopping when she met her first husband, and where people could buy Christmas trees in the winter.
So it isn’t just the food or restaurant, it is also the wonderful peculiarities of Michigan City, itself, that make these places memorable and endearing to me.
Have you ever driven down a road alongside a train? In Michigan City, you can! The South Shore Line runs between South Bend and Chicago. In Michigan City, it runs right down the middle of 11th St. Want to pretend you are in a “Simpson’s” episode? NIPSCO’s “nuclear” cooling tower will let you! It also has idiosyncratic time-zone issues, that seem to be better now that the entire state observes Daylight Savings, instead of only a small portion. Nonetheless, the time of my birth (in 1971) remains in dispute. Was it 1am, or 2am? It is, officially, unclear.
These associations and traits that give the town its character also make difficult judging foods (and wine!) that surfaced after my departure from Indiana. This trip, we ordered takeout from El Cajete, a fairly new Mexican restaurant. Our tacos had ample, tender, well-marinated meat (one chicken, one carne asada, one al pastor) with cilantro, onions, and lime on fresh corn-tortillas. The taco salad was full of refried beans, ground beef, guacamole, and a bit of lettuce, all in a greasy, tasty shell. The food was tasty, but what made it great? We ate it on the beach in a picnic at sunset. We washed it down with a bottle of Indiana wine – appropriately called Beach Glass. Beach Glass is from a winery called Shady Creek – whose wines I’ve written about before. This blend of is slightly sweeter than I normally enjoy, but it was excellent with the bit of spice in the food, and its colored bottle was a great choice for the sand. Overall, I will remember it as a perfect meal.
Finally, we had Lebanese food from Cedars – also a new spot. There was nothing unusual about our meal, nothing spectacular about the setting. But, it was really, really good food! The chicken shawarma didn’t seem so much like “shawarma” to me, but the (not-pressed) chicken was super-tender and the sandwich had a bunch of different herbs and vinegary pickles that made the pita simply excellent. We weren’t as lucky with the kebab, which were rather dry. Fortunately the tabbouleh and hummos added needed fat and moisture – and a beer didn’t hurt.
If you ever make to this neck of the woods, make sure you give these places a try. I’m not sure if you will enjoy them as much as I do, but you’ve already got a story to accompany the food.
Carlson’s photo from reviewer Tony B. at http://www.roadfood.com/photos/15451.jpg