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Restaurant reviews and food news from Ann Arbor Observer reviewers and blogger Mae Sander.


Archives for September, 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

"South of Hell"

The detective novel South of Hell takes place in Hell (that is, Hell, Michigan, the actual place on the map) and in Ann Arbor. I was looking for Ann Arbor restaurants in literature, and I really found them here! In fact, there were so many well-known Ann Arbor dining places that the net result seemed a bit of a cliche.

Private Investigator Louis Kincaid and detective Shockey, a member of the Ann Arbor police, who are main characters in the story, first meet at locally famous Ann Arbor greasy-spoon Krazy Jim's, complete with its sign "Cheaper than food." Poor Louis Kincaid is unfamiliar with Krazy's famous eccentricities and he fails to successfully order a cheeseburger and fries: he receives only a hamburger from a spatula-wielding counter-woman, because at Krazy's you had to ask for cheese last. Kincaid asks Shockey "Why do you come here?" When he bites into the burger, though, Louis finds that "It was delicious. Even without the cheese." (p. 17-19)

I've never understood, myself, why people went there, having never been much of a fan of the greasy food or the bullying counter helpers. I don't even know what you were required to do to get fries there. And of course the funny little building that housed this campus-area diner for generations of students has now been torn down, and Krazy's is now at a more remote location. But this starting point means the author has established credibility as an Ann Arbor expert, I guess.

Later, after Kincaid eats his unfortunately cheeseless burger, he reflects:

"He was thinking about the woman with the spatula back at Krazy Jim's and the look on her face when he screwed up his order, like she knew he didn't belong there.
"How did she know?
"In his four years as a student here, he had never once set foot in Krazy Jim's, had never gone to any of the student hangouts. No fried eggs at Angelo's after pulling an all-nighter, no sangria at Dominick's with a Sigma Kappa beauty, no winter-refuge pizza at the Cottage Inn, no postgame brews at the Brown Jug.
"He had never felt comfortable in those places. The only place he could remember going to more than once was the old Fleetwood Diner. There he could sit in silence with his books, watching the bums and cops just coming off shift as he sipped dark chocolate milk made to order with Hershey's syrup. No one bothered him there. He never felt out of place there." (p. 30)


Kincaid, as you might guess from this passage, has always felt himself to be an outsider, which evidently is because he is black. He had been accepted to Michigan Law school, but had decided to become a policeman, though he had lost his job and eventually in the book it's clear that he can never come back to work in Michigan. The details of his prior experiences are in books 1-8 of the series, of which this is book 9.

To make sure that no famous Ann Arbor food joint is missed, eventually Kincaid eats at the Old Town bar, and on another occasion, has a hot dog and french fries at Zingerman's deli. I think the author was in error about the fries, which I don't recall ever seeing at Zingerman's -- and which aren't on their current menu of potato-sides: they only offer knishes, latkes, and several types of potato salad. It makes me wonder if the authors just read some memoir of Ann Arbor student life, and never really experienced all these locally well-loved places.

Besides the characters' experiences and memories of all the most popular Ann Arbor diners, delis, flashbacks to the farmer's market, and a few bars and hotel dives complete with Big 10 paraphernalia, Hell also offers a brief description of the commercial establishments of Hell, MI. including the Brimstone Cafe and Devil's Lair. Readers also get quite a lot of description of the campus and the countryside, which are a welcome distraction from the gratuitous violence and repetitive personal relationships -- something like four cases of unknown fathers in one book? Puhleeze!

The Louis Kincaid books by P.J.Parrish (a pseudonym for two collaborating Detroit-born authors) are not particularly well-known as far as I can tell from googling. I wasn't very impressed by anything in Hell except the extensive research on peak dining experiences in Ann Arbor. If I explained my distaste for the novel, I'd be giving away too much of the plot, and though my opinion of it is quite low, I won't spoil it for anyone else. I definitely won't be reading the eight previous novels in the series, nor any of the subsequent ones either.

I've definitely driven from Ann Arbor to Hell and back, and I can warn you that if you want to go there, be sure to use a map because the road signs are sure as hell stolen as soon as they are replaced. For more of my posts, including this one, see:

Google Map screen shot: from Ann Arbor to Hell, MI.

posted by Mae Sander at 7:00 p.m. | 0 comments


Thursday, September 17, 2015

So much good coffee, too little time!

Freshly roasted coffee is a luxury! Happily, it's a luxury that's available in many forms from many roasters here in the Ann Arbor area. Quite close to where I live is Roos Roast, which is where I have been buying most of my coffee for the last couple of years. Also, I've tried locally roasted coffee from Zingerman's and Whole Foods, and I plan to try Hyperion Coffee from Ypsilanti and maybe some of the others. On my recent trip to Kona, I purchased some coffee directly from a farmer at their farmers' market -- I wish there was Michigan-grown coffee!

The Roos Roast coffee roasting machine: The Loring Smart Roaster™--
for details check their websiteHERE.

Choices of coffee to be roasted are fascinating. The differing flavor of a medium roast and a dark roast both appeal to me a great deal. I finally looked up the range of coffee varieties, and learned that most coffee is of the type Arabica, which is most widely grown, including in Kona. The differences in coffee from different places is due to differing growing conditions -- a warm tropical climate is basic, but there are a lot of possibilities. A few locales, like Honduras, according to the man who showed me the Loring, do grow slightly different varietals. Robusta, the second-most grown coffee varietal, is considered inferior, and is not used for premium roasts like the ones I'm talking about.


The Roos Roast coffee bar where you can try their many choices:
different roasts and several single-origin coffees, all organic, and
all produced with fair conditions for workers.

I wish I had the nerves/stamina to go around to different roasters and different coffee specialists in town and try a cup of every type of roast, and of all the different single-origin coffees, like the Honduran or Ethiopian coffee at Roos Roast, and the various light, medium, and dark roasts of each roaster. Alas, I just can't drink that much, so I guess I'll be continuing with my French Press at breakfast, making whichever one I've bought for the week.

In my kitchen, September 17, 2015.
The Roos Roast's Loring again: it's very efficient,
and produces a minimum of smoke..

This post comes from my food blog here:

posted by Mae Sander at 8:42 a.m. | 0 comments


Saturday, September 12, 2015

Arbana, 1944


Ross MacDonald's early spy-mystery The Dark Tunnel (alternate title: I Die Slowly) is set at Midwestern University in Arbana, Michigan, near Detroit, in 1944.

--

"Although it bears a certain physical resemblance to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, Midwestern University is, like all the characters in this story, a figment of the author's imagination," reads the disclaimer right after the copyright page.
--
Yeah, right.
--
You can still follow the path of the brave narrator as he flees from both an evil cross-dressing Nazi spy and the local police who believe the frame-up job that's been done to him. Despite decades of growth and development in my town, Ann Arbor, I recognize the campus buildings, the museum just to the north, the steam tunnels, the power plant, the hospital on a hill, and the rural area to the east (no longer rural now) where the narrator tries to hide in a seedy roadhouse full of drunks.
--
I reread this obscure tale a few years ago because I had forgotten most of it. (This post is an update of one I did in 2010.) I found it very readable and suspenseful. I had always thought the seedy roadhouse in the story was identifiable as a still-existing restaurant east of Ann Arbor. I'm not so sure any more. I don't think the distance the narrator runs after going past the hospital is necessarily far enough to get to Dixboro Road. Anyway, I was hoping the narrator would describe a little more about the place and what he ate there -- all he orders is a fried-egg sandwich for thirty-five cents, served on a cracked plate along with some whiskey. And then he goes on fleeing and trying to solve the mystery of who is spying and who killed his friend and made it look like suicide.
--
The narrator eats one other egg while being held prisoner in the University hospital, and then is let go by an FBI agent who believes his story. He continues to help the FBI agent chase down the spy ring. Later he ends up in another hospital in Northern Ontario where he eats "a good dinner, roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and mashed potatoes and gravy and a quarter of a lemon pie" while waiting to finally do in the villain. Interesting menu. There are all kinds of interesting historical attitudes and details in the book, as well as the descriptions of "Arbana" which are so recognizable.
--
This book doesn't have a lot a lot about food compared to some mystery stories, especially some very recent ones that could almost double as cookbooks. When I read, I usually look for food details and how the author uses them, along with whatever else is interesting. To see all my blog posts about food in detective fiction, including this one, click HERE.
--
The Dark Tunnelwas originally published under MacDonald's real name, Kenneth Millar, under the title I Die Slowly --I located the image of an early paperback edition (right/above), as well as of two more current editions (top). Subsequently the author moved to California, writing a large number of successful books under the Ross MacDonald pseudonym. This is the only mystery I've read that takes place in Ann Arbor, and I might try to find more.


posted by Mae Sander at 3:14 p.m. | 0 comments


Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ann Arbor Pastry Chef

A dessert-tasting menu where you eat 5 or more pastries and no entree at all ... a culinary school dedicated to sweets ... a "naked" wedding cake decorated with berries but not a bit of frosting ... and many more experiences and ideas that were entirely new to me were topics of a conversation I had with Marybeth King, head pastry chef at Weber's Restaurant and catering in Ann Arbor.

Marybeth makes sure to find out what people want, sometimes by long conversations, sometimes when they bring in a picture. One popular trend this summer and fall, she told me, is to have a wedding cake that's traditional on one side, but when you check the other side, it has a surprise theme. The Batman cake in the photo above is a recent example of this type of cake. I don't know much about cakes and cake decorating, so I was totally fascinated to learn about all the different cakes made by Marybeth and her assistants in Weber's pastry kitchen.
"Chalkboard" cakes, iced black with white "chalk" writing on them, are also currently popular. The cake above is one of several demo cakes she baked during the summer to help customers at Weber's figure out just what type of cake they'd like to order. She gets ideas from visiting pastry shops in various cities, looking at ads, and exploring Pinterest, as well as from the photos and descriptions that her customers bring in. And when she can, she learns by ordering the dessert-and-pastry tasting menus I mentioned earlier, which she has found at restaurants in Chicago, Las Vegas, and elsewhere.

Marybeth has a life-long dedication to her profession. Before working at Weber's she worked briefly at the Gandy Dancer, worked at Moveable Feast, and other restaurant jobs. Even in high school she managed to get jobs in the school cafeteria and at a local pastry shop. She constantly improves her skills -- at a class at a specialized culinary school in Chicago this spring, she made the cake in the photo above. These were her first figurines made from fondant and gum paste, two ingredients in the tool box of professional cake bakers.

A couple planning a wedding recently asked her for a "naked cake" -- another current trend. "I had never heard the term," says Marybeth, "but I knew what they meant immediately, and the cake in the picture turned out to be exactly what they wanted."
Marybeth's cakes come in a wide variety of flavors, as well as being decorated to satisfy her customers. She has a huge number of recipes, many of which she knows by heart, she says. She makes her own fondant from marshmallows, which makes it taste better than ready-made fondant.
Customers can order Marybeth's cakes for events at Weber's, for events that Weber's caters, or just for their own event independent of Weber's. She's proud of Weber's anniversary program, which offers a six-inch "top layer" to any couple having dinner to celebrate the anniversary of their Weber's wedding. She usually bakes a duplicate of their original wedding-cake top for their first anniversary, but says that some couples who come back year after year sample many of her newer creations too. In addition, she's happy that the cakes she bakes are available at a wide price range, offering good choices to the customers, whatever their celebration is about.

Owls are very popular currently, says Marybeth. The cake on the left was for a baby shower, and the cake on the right was the product of a professional class she took in Chicago. The interior structure of this cake is particularly intricate, and the class included instructions on how to do it right. For simpler cakes, like the "naked" cake, layers are held together with straws, Marybeth explained to me. "Black straws," she says, "so they aren't accidentally served in a piece of cake."

"Retro Barbie" -- a wedding shower cake.
"Alice" for a customer who asked for red-white-and-black.
"My pride and joy" says Marybeth -- another cake from a Chicago class, taught byMarina Sousa,
a pastry chef who has been on TV. "I don't watch much food TV,"
says Mary Beth. "Too much of a busman's holiday."

Baking and cooking are Marybeth's lifelong passions, but recently she discovered an activity she loves almost as much: writing fiction. Participating in NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month) she's written six novels, and also completed some children's stories and short stories. I met Marybeth in a writers' Meetup Group, and loved finding out about her delicious profession! And I'm grateful to her for sharing all these cake photos!
This post originally appeared on my food blog --here:http://maefood.blogspot.com/2015/09/ann-arbor-pastry-chef.html

posted by Mae Sander at 8:04 p.m. | 0 comments


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