Saturday, 7 April 2012

The American Midwest


I don't know any other part of the States as well as I do Michigan. Bordered by three of the Great Lakes, Michigan, Superior and Huron, it has a special beauty. For someone who has been brought up in cluttered Britain, the space and openness is an absolute joy. Even the little houses seem to be built on plots that would be regarded as suitable for mansions back home; factory units and shopping centres have vast landscaped areas around them with equally vast spreads of concrete oozing in every direction, temples to the greatest of American Gods, the automobile.
I mention this because I have been out on the bike. My host bought it when I was on a visit quite a few years ago, but it seems that it is rarely put through its paces when I am not in residence.
I am, admittedly and unashamedly, a gadget freak, but even I do not have a rechargeable pump to blow up my bike tires! It really does make that job a lot easier.
It's a gorgeous day, with clear blue skies. But there's also an icy blast which appears to be coming from somewhere akin to Alaska.


Some of the local properties are enormous with beautifully landscaped gardens. It appears that the impending Easter weekend has spurred everyone, without exception, into staging a clear up. The whole area is pristine.

I seem to be the only person out on a bike, which is strange as East Lansing is a University town, with a student population approaching 70,000. I have noticed on previous visits that cars seem to have a great respect for cycles, a lot more than they do at home. They wait respectfully at junctions and cross walks, with no obvious sign of impatience; they give you a wide berth when they pass; despite the dominance of the automobile, they seem to recognise your right to be out and about.

I do a bit of shopping at the local Rite Aid, more like a supermarket than a pharmacy, as is the American wont. I marvel at the packs of chocolate treats, many times bigger than anything I have ever seen in Europe.

Coral Gables (www.coralgablesrestaurant.com) is a long-established East Lansing restaurant not far from the Michigan State University Campus, to which I have been many times. Years ago, it was a popular student haunt. Nowadays, it seems that it's the students of the fifties who largely form the clientele, many of whom have reached -and retired from – positions of some authority in the local community. 

As an example, when we arrive for breakfast, several staff members are admiring an enormous luxury car parked right beside the entrance. The Packard was originally produced in Detroit, but hasn't been made since 1958. This eye-turner is owned by the former State Attorney-General, Frank Kelley. Serving for 37 years, Frank has the honour of having been the youngest AND the oldest holder of the post.
The slight twist to the presence of Frank's luxury car is that our server is called Royce.
Apostrophic errors in the menu leap out at me, Martini's being one. But Alex, the owner for over 40 years, promises to remedy the matter at the next reprint. By the time we leave, he has already discussed the nuances of grammar with his front desk manager.

My US bank manager, Kristina, rings me personally with details of how I transfer cash from the UK into my US current account. I can't think of the last time I even had any contact with a bank manager in Great Britain. Our banks have become soulless, call-centre led institutions. I used to know and trust my bank and would always invest where the manager recommended. I am much saddened that this is nowadays, most certainly, not the case. Having explained the simple, online, process, Kristina is astonished to learn that our British banks are not working for five days over a holiday weekend. The transfer is being done by a system called SWIFT.
A misnomer if ever there was.



Interested and involved as I am in theatre, I have, much to my own surprise, not managed to catch what is widely regarded as the best musical ever, Les Miserables. A new, widely-acclaimed, Cameron Mackintosh production, is currently touring the United States and is being staged at Michigan State University's Great Hall. My host was, for many years, executive director for the facility and presented this and many other major shows.
It's rather nice, therefore, to be whisked in through the stage door and taken through the backstage areas before emerging straight into the hospitality area, neatly avoiding people with clipboards and official-looking badges who would have, in any case, 'had our name on the list.'

The show is every bit as wonderful as the hype. The staging, the scenery, the music and the costumes is truly magnificent. It takes several hours after the show to come down from the high and go to bed. Three days later, I am still humming 'Bring him home' and many other tunes.
A very special evening and a bargain at just $80 (£50) for a top-price seat.

My host is out for the evening, so I am left to my own devices to find something to eat. I Google 'East Lansing home-delivery' and order online from a recommended source. Jimmy John's, which impressively lays claim to producing 'The World's Greatest Gourmet Sandwiches'. 

The business has a very user friendly web site, which automatically selects the nearest franchise, sorts out my order online as well as giving me a choice of bread, dressings and extras. It even gives me a choice over how many pieces into which they should cut my giant pickle!
Only ten minutes after my online order is accepted, a package arrives at the door. And very tasty the sandwich turns out to be.

Tom Fredericks, a local attorney, has kindly offered to take me out to his delightful home in Williamston for the afternoon and evening.


I am never sure which of his cars he will be driving; today is is his lovely Cadillac. We stop off for a tasty home-cooked lunch in Ellie's Country Kitchen (www.facebook.com/elliescountrykitchen) before setting off an a tour of the local area by bike. Tom's much-loved Corvette is in a local body shop having had a respray. 

Mechanic Larry is clearly passionate about restoring old vehicles and, as we arrive, is busy hand polishing some of the car's silver trim. Didier, my beloved Citroen 2CV, doesn't quite come out of the same box!
Tom has promised me 'the best steak dinner' and we cycle out of town to Merindorf Meats (www.merindorfmeats.com) where we buy half a cow just for the pair of us, which is then vacuum packed in our choice of yummy-looking marinade.
On the way home, we park our bikes at Gracie's Place, just to quench our thirst with a very tasty (and somewhat heady) pint of locally-produced ale.
After an hour playing lumberjacks in the eight-acre field behind his house, Tom flashes up the outdoor gas barbecue and does indeed produce the most marvellous dinner. The meat is of the absolute highest quality and my knife effortlessly glides through the steak.

I spend the day at the house of my host's brother and his wife in Grand Rapids. I have been charged with sourcing, supplying and installing a new laptop and wireless router in their home. Apart from the purchase costs, no money will change hands for my services. Instead, the lure is devilled eggs, followed by one of Ruth Beachler's delicious home-cooked dinners.


Everybody is a winner. Fred and Ruth can now surf the net from anywhere in their house, while Ken and I are treated to pork chops in a lovely gravy, cheesy potatoes and corn, with jello pudding for afters.
Is this blog all about food?
Well, not totally!