The Great Michigan Food Experiment

The Great Michigan Food Experiment
Awesome-Mitten-Michigan-Food-Experiment
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowman

I’ve lived in Michigan for about a year and a half now, but I’d hardly consider myself an expert on local customs and specialties. In particular, I’m awestruck by the variety of foods that are unique to Michigan and the Midwest, and have wondered on several occasions what makes local snacks and dishes so appealing to the mitten residents who love them. That’s why, after careful deliberation, I decided to conduct a highly-scientific plan: Buy a bunch of Michigan-made food that I’ve never tried before and have a feast.

To complete my mission in a reasonable amount of time, I limited myself to Michigan foods that could easily be found at the grocery store. This translated into mostly snack foods, sodas (sorry, I know you all call it “pop” up here, but I can’t break the habit), and a few other sugar- and salt-filled goodies that won’t win any points in the “healthy” department. But what’s a life without ice cream and potato chips? That’s right—no life at all.

And now, let the Hungry Games begin.

Awesome-Mitten-Michigan-Food-Experiment
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowman

Round 1: The Boston Cooler

I’ve heard only good things about the Boston Cooler for as long as I’ve known about Vernor’s itself, and this treat definitely did not disappoint. Initially, I chickened out of buying the six-dollar box of Hudsonville ice cream, but when my husband found out that I had come home with a cheap box of off-brand, non-Michigan vanilla, he personally escorted me back to the store to right my wrong.

Thankfully, the trip was worth it. I’ve enjoyed Hudsonville ice cream before (during summer events in Detroit), but I had no idea a flavor as ordinary as vanilla could rock on so many levels. Sure, the Vernor’s aspect was essential in adding some fizz and extra zing to the drink, but truth be told—I would have been just as happy eating that ice cream straight out of the carton. And that’s saying something, since I’m usually more of a chocolate fan.

Awesome-Mitten-Michigan-Food-Experiment
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowman

Round 2: Koeze’s Cream-Nut Peanut Butter and Better Made Chips

The next day for lunch, I was excited to try the next item on my list—Koeze’s Cream-Nut Peanut Butter. Having seen this Grand Rapids treasure during several outings to Bagger Dave’s, I decided it was time to discover the mystery under that little, red lid. Now, I cheated just a little bit and bought this one straight from my local Bagger Dave’s restaurant since it wasn’t available at the grocery store, but the detour was slight and saved me from searching every Kroger and Meijer in town.

The first thing I noticed when I opened the jar? Lots of yellow oil, settled on top as is usually the case with natural peanut butter. Knowing the drill, I got out a butter knife and started to stir.

Well, there must have been five more pockets of oil hiding in that jar, because as I stirred, the peanut butter turned into a huge mess. Oil bubbling up, swirling around, running down the sides of the jar . . . it was everywhere. Finally, a few minutes and one achy arm later, I had it combined into a respectably-smooth paste that no longer had me wondering what I had gotten myself into. I tasted a bite straight out of the jar, and noting the mild, no-sugar-added flavor (apparently, it’s possible to make edible food out of just peanuts and salt!), decided to add the Bagger Dave’s twist of honey, cinnamon, and bananas to capitalize on the product’s full potential. Next, I grilled that little sandwich right up, popped open a bag of original Better Made potato chips, and immersed myself in lunchtime Heaven.

In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve ever had a sandwich with so many ingredients that tasted as fresh and natural. I guess that’s just it, though—when your peanut butter is made up of just two components, you’re not eating that many ingredients after all. Now, if I could have only closed that bag of chips a little sooner. Curse you, delicious Better-Mades. You are my new weakness.

Awesome-Mitten-Michigan-Food-Experiment
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowman

Round 3: A Junk Foodie’s Delight

Finally, dinner time on the second night of testing arrived, and I had more than enough food left to sample. That meant only one thing: Smorgasbord! I was particularly excited about the Koegel’s chili dogs, mainly because: A.) Chili dogs are one of my favorite foods, and B.) I couldn’t wait to try a Michigan hot dog that wasn’t a coney dog. I’ve had authentic coneys on two or three occasions now, but I just can’t get past that initial “snap” that occurs when biting the outer skin. Not to ruin your day, but I’ve seen a hot dog documentary or two in my time—and I know what that extra layer is made of.

But yes, the Koegel’s dogs and Koegel’s chili (which I may or may not have eaten an extra serving of on its own), were perfect. It was like summertime at my dining room table that night, and I was taken back to every little hot dog stand I’ve ever been to.

I chased the main course with some barbecue-flavored Better Mades (a great vehicle for scooping leftover chili) and samples from my “Faygo bar.” Typically, I’m not much of a soda drinker, and I’ve tried a few Faygo flavors without successful results (can anyone tell me what exactly “Rock & Rye” is and why it tastes like bubble gum?). I decided, though, that out of a zillion Faygo flavors, there had to be one that didn’t make me feel as though I was stuck in a Candy Land coma. So, this time around, I went with the Root Beer, Diet Root Beer, Creme Soda, Diet Chocolate Cream Pie, and Red Pop. The verdict? Both Root Beers weren’t bad, I was pleasantly surprised by the vanilla-ness of the Creme Soda, Diet Chocolate Cream Pie took me back to fourth grade when I loved my chocolate Lip Smackers, and Red Pop—I guess it’s all right if you like drinking cough medicine. To be fair, I tried that last one right after nibbling on a strawberry paczki, but maybe I need to stick with more “normal” flavors when it comes to carbonated beverages. Can somebody please just find me a nice lemon-lime?

Awesome-Mitten-Michigan-Food-Experiment
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowman

As much as it seems like I had completed a full meal, I still had pasties to sample. I’m not sure what pasties from the UP are like, but down here in the “LP,” pasties come in two varieties: beef and chicken. To me, the beef pasty was okay, but kind of tasted like a sausage biscuit, which made me wonder what kind of beef I was actually eating. The chicken was exactly like a chicken pot pie, which was good, but not overly surprising in terms of content. All in all, I think I need some authentic pasty selections in my life. UP, look out—I’m coming for you.

So, two days, a couple grocery bills, and a very full stomach later, I can now say that I’ve delved a little deeper into Michigan’s food culture. Tonight, I suppose I’ll go back to cooking a somewhat-balanced meal like I should, but for now, I think it might be time to pop a couple of antacid tablets and eat a leftover chili dog. You know, just so it doesn’t go to waste.

Jennifer Bowman, Contributing Writer