Friday, September 09, 2005

What Food is Like in the Middle of Nowhere

Answer: covered in shredded cheese.

I just got back from a conference in East Lansing, Michigan. In retrospect, I should have stayed in Ann Arbor and commuted an hour each way to the conference every day for my poor stomach's sake. I was already sick from a stomach virus -- I spent my long Labor Day weekend hunched over my toilet bowl -- and the sudden consumption of three meals a day of Midwestern food didn't do much to help my situation. Here's what I had:

- Monday night I got into town late and went across the street from the conference hotel (the Kellogg Center, har har) to the Harrison Roadhouse. I wanted something light after the plane flight, so I ordered white chicken chili and a salad. The chili was the equivalent of Cheddar-flavored Cheez Whiz in a bowl with some jarred salsa and chicken chunks. The salad, though, was something to behold: a small amount of iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes topped with a mound of cold bacon, shredded white cheese, and "potato crisps" (aka CRUSHED POTATO CHIPS) the size of the chili bowl. It came with a side of "Cusabi" dressing, which was supposedly a cucumber-wasabi "vinaigrette" but was actually Hidden Valley Ranch with some green food coloring and some wasabi. When I asked what "Cusabi" was -- I actually racked my brain for about 5 minutes trying to figure out the "cu" part because I really didn't want to ask that question -- my waiter asked me if I knew what wasabi was. Sweet.

- Tuesday morning I got up late and set out to explore downtown East Lansing, which is one street's worth of campus bookstores, pizza places, and Jimmy John's, just like Ann Arbor. In fact, many things were just like Ann Arbor: Cottage Inn Pizza, the Pita Pit, Espresso Royale, Urban Outfitters. Unfortunately for me, Ann Arbor also has Zingerman's. There is no such equivalent in East Lansing. Anyway, I went to a place called Beggar's Banquet, because how could I not, for brunch. I got the "Eggs Blackstone", which was eggs Benedict made with tomato and bacon. My waiter very much encouraged me to get the potato pancakes as well, as they were his favorite favorite things ever, so I made the OUTRAGEOUSLY CREATIVE suggestion that instead of placing the Eggs Blackstone on the traditional English muffin, perhaps the cook could place it on two potato pancakes. This, he thought, was the best idea he had ever heard IN HIS LIFE. When he brought the dish out, he also brought me some sour cream to eat the potato pancakes with IN ADDITION to a gravy-boat full of Hollandaise sauce. I am never one to turn up dairy -- as you will soon read -- but sour cream + egg yolk-butter emulsion is more than I can bear at once.

For dinner on Tuesday night, we were treated to a meal at the State Archives of Michigan. This involved:
- iceberg lettuce and cherry tomatoes and croutons in Italian dressing, which was whisked away from me well before I was done and replaced with
- cold cheese lasagne a la airplane (I had requested the "meatless vegetable lasagne" when I booked the conference), boiled green beans with limp, sadly "candied" almond slivers and two naked-as-the-day-they-were-born new potatoes
- "cherry tart" of cherry pie filling (we were in MICHIGAN, for god's sake! CHERRY CAPITAL OF THE UNITED STATES! You'd think they would be swimming in fresh cherries!) spooned into a packaged mini tart shell with a side of vanilla ice cream.

It made me very sad.

- The next morning I ordered, for $2.75, a bagel and cream cheese from the coffee place in the hotel. It arrived warm but not toasted, with a foil packet of fat-free cream cheese, in a styrofoam clamshell box. This also made me very sad, until I got to the break between sessions, at which was provided

- Michigan cider doughnuts! Hooray!
- Pumpkin pie! For breakfast! Weird! With an array of toppings for make-your-own-pumpkin-pie-sundae fun, such as whipped cream, dried cranberries and, inexplicably, sunflower seeds. ???

- I had lunch at a local sushi place, which was just fine. So much food, but just fine.

Then the best thing ever happened. I was sitting in a session about processing archival backlogs and noticed something that I hadn't seen before in the "area attractions" list that the local arrangements committee had put together: Michigan State University has its own working dairy farm on campus, complete with its own ice cream and cheese factory, run by the food science students. SCORE. I knew I could not wait for this, and I was afraid they'd close, so I whispered to my boss that I was leaving. Fortunately, he is a man who understands these immediate ice cream needs. I followed a combination of map and students eating ice cream over to the dairy store, where I spent a blissful hour and a half eating local cantaloupe ice cream, touring the factory observation platform, and watching a series of videos about the ice cream and cheesemaking processes. I think I learned more there than at the entire conference.

After the dairy store, I didn't think I would need dinner. But I had about 14 hours to kill before getting up to go to the airport. I remembered looking at the Roadfood forums and checking for any food recommendations in East Lansing before I left. There were virtually none -- Beggar's Banquet was the only place in the town proper that got a mention -- but someone brought up a fast food place called Culver's that served something called a Butterburger. It was in Okemos, a neighboring town. I decided to go get one. The problem was that at that point, I didn't remember the name of the town, the name of the restaurant, or the name of the road that the restaurant was on.... I only remembered "BUTTERBURGER", and had a vague notion that it was near a mall on Marsh Road. Long story and long bus ride short, my librarian friend Stephen came to the rescue with a long and involved internet search conducted while I prompted him with keywords and other possible clues from my cell phone as I walked down Marsh Road, possibly the only pedestrian ever on that road, in the growing dark.

I eventually found the Butterburger. And a side of fried cheese curds! Sadly, the cheese curds were disappointing, despite the promises of gustatory delight by the cashier, Laura. They were very heavily breaded, not very melty, and had too much oregano on them so that I could barely recognize any actual cheese-curd flavor. I have no use for oregano. Ever. But the Butterburger itself was very good. I ordered the deluxe, which came with cheese and grilled onions and mayo and pickles. I picked up some literature explaining that the Butterburger contains no actual butter, nor is it grilled in butter, but that the top of the bun is lightly buttered, ergo "butterburger". I think that's pretty lame, but the burger was still tasty and much juicier and charcoaley than regular fast-food places.

The last meal of note was lunch at the Cincinnati airport. All I have to say is this: never believe anyone from Ohio when it comes to chili, shredded cheese, and spaghetti in any combination. In fact, never believe anyone from the midwest when it comes to chili, period. That shit Is. Not. Chili. The final blow came when, after having eaten two bites of my five-way chili from Gold Star Chili and throwing it away, I decided to get a real lunch at the Wolfgang Puck airport cafe. It is not even worth going into here, but when a pizza is described as having ingredients like leeks, chicken, roasted peppers, and cilantro, I expect to get a pizza that has those things on it, not a pizza with tomatoes, raw peppers, and no leeks or cilantro. And I do not like being asked if I am "still enjoying my meal" when I point out to my waitress that my pizza does not have anything on it that is listed on the menu as being part of the pizza. No, I was not still enjoying my meal. Fuck you, Wolfgang, for entrusting your name to heathens, for misleading passengers hoping that their potentially-last meal might be decent.

All is well now, though. I don't care if you call me a New York Snob who doesn't even live in New York anymore and goes to restaurants that are ten years old. I AM a New York snob. And I cannot adequately convey my relief when, on Sunday, I sank my teeth into a perfect bagel with baked salmon and whitefish salad from Russ and Daughters, and then dove into a bowl of ricotta cheese with fresh peaches and honey and pinenuts, accompanied by a Champagne cocktail with pear brandy, at Prune. So nice to be home away from home.


At 2:57 PM, Blogger cindym said...

i have long wondered about the Culver's butterburger. i liked to entertain fantasies that the burger contained a gemlike pat of butter nestled inside its depths that would ooze out when you bit into it. i guess not.

i heard their frozen custard is okay.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Mrs. Delicious said...

That is exactly what I thought! Lik the foie gras burger at DB Bistro, but with butter instead. Feh. Give me the burgers that are actually gtileld in butter at the Yankee Doodle any day.

I would have tried their frozen custard, but having just had ice cream, I was slightly dairyed out.

At 5:55 PM, Anonymous Randy said...

cindym sent me this link because I am from East Lansing, and while I'd like defend my home town...well, the Harrison Roadhouse is a good example of how wrong things can go there. Being stranded at the Kellogg Center didn't help one bit! The idea of someone strolling down Marsh Road is hilarious, as is bussing it to Okemos for Culver's (which must be relatively new, actually.. I've never seen it).

There ARE little oases of good taste, but hopefully you won't be stranded there again.

I would like to say, though, that once you've sought out the pork sandwiches at the Amoco in Gnaw Bone, Indiana, East Lansing doesn't seem like the "middle of nowhere."

At 12:57 PM, Blogger Mark Messing said...

As a Lansing resident, I am sorry for you, because It just so happens that you went to some of the worst places in the entire city (aside from the dairy store). Most of the places in the heart of the city aren't that great, because they will get drunk customers pouring into their establishments without having a lick of good food. I will concede that we don't have a solid Chinese or Pizza place, but here are some of the places you should have gone:

Menna's: Any east lansing resident will be able to direct you to the nearest Menna's. If you like Hawaiin pizza, try the Waui dub. If you like potatoes, try the loaded dub. What's a dub? You'll see.

Los Tres Amigos- Great Mexican, just opened up a new location on Grand River in the heart of East Lansing.

Sansu- The best place in the city for Sushi, the ambience is great, and the price is reasonable. Located in Hannah Plaza.

Clara's- Just down Michigan Ave. in Lansing, it is an old train station renovated into a restaurant that serves a great sandwich.

Emils- On Michigan Ave. in Lansing. The food is only average, but the ambience here is really good too, and they have a different all you can eat special every night (perfect for the hungry college student like I was).

Hannah's Coney Island: Their Food is great, and so much more than you would expect from a Coney Island. This is where you should have gone instead of Harrison Roadhouse. Again, located in Hannah's Plaza.

Lou and Harry's: the Restaurant, not the bar. They have a great Gyro deal on Saturdays I believe, the food for the price can't be beat.

Wings Over East Lansing: This is a small chain I think, but they sell the best wing I have ever had.

The Golden Harvest- This is where you should have gone instead of Beggars Banquet (although, you are not alone in going to BB as a new comer, Ben Folds did the same thing). The Golden Harvest is hands down my favorite restaurant in the world. It is a hole in the wall with maybe 10 tables that are always full. The food is always awesome, and there is this crazy mix of factory workers, business people, and students who go there. Try the Rueben or the Turkey BLT here. I will not tell you where they are located though. If you want the Harvest, you have to find it yourself, it's getting too popular as it is.

Also, next time you visit the Dairy Store, try sesquicentennial swirl. That's good stuff.

Places to avoid:

Villa Pizza, Troppos, Harrison Road House, Beggars Banquet, Big Ten Burrito, Iggy's Deli, The Jukebox Cafe, Champps, Panda Express,Trippers, Wing Zone, Johnny's Lunch, Spartan Sports Cafe, Sir Pizza, and of course, any of the chain restaurants that plague our city.

At 1:09 PM, Blogger Mrs. Delicious said...

Thank you, Mark! Next time I am in East Lansing, I will try to figure out what this mysterious "dub" is. I didn't have a car when I was there, so I was pretty much stuck with the near-campus places.


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