Eating Chez Katy in Michigan
From the "Ravenous" column for Ulster Publishing
Like moths to her flame, people gather around her campfire for a taste of the dolce vita. Katy Harington of Three Oaks, Michigan, is a thirty-something Renaissance woman--gorgeous, smart and funny--who cooks like the devil and makes sure that anyone who crosses her threshold has a great time. She’s also my little sister.
For years she was the Webmaster for the City of Chicago, but then a few years ago she fled the rat race for France, to study cheese making and live the good life for a while. Since she returned stateside she’s gone to live on a lovely old farm an hour and a half out of the City. Although she’s been in the Chicago area for more than a decade, I’m ashamed to say that I finally went to visit her only a couple of weeks ago. With our two kids, ages three and four, my husband and I ploughed our fresh red minivan through western New York State, Ohio, Indiana and finally into southwest Michigan, a peaceful-looking, flat, endless land of mature cornfields with some soft hills covered with grapevines full of fat purple bunches of grapes that scented the air pleasingly of grape jelly.
There the locals call Chicagoans FIPs, or “F***ing Illinois People” and Katy buys her eggs for a dollar a dozen from a woman down the road a little. When Katy stopped there recently for some eggs, the woman seemed barely flustered that there was a cluster of cop cars and an ambulance parked in her yard. She told Katy calmly that her son-in-law was being arrested for trying to poison her daughter, apologizing that there were only a few eggs that day. Stressed hens, I guess.
At the farm where Katy lives there are great outbuildings to explore; one barn has three big doors all painted by three different talented artists. The farm owners are Katy’s dear friends, Sheila and Bob, former restaurateur and a bar owner respectively, fine folks and as nice as can be. Sheila and Katy transformed the house where Katy lives from a dump to something cozy and beautiful, walls painted in deep jewel tones, warm wood floors, everything else full of character and comfort from the creatively tiled bath to the deep sofa that sucks you in.
If roaming through the fields or forest tires you, there is a hammock waiting among the trees in the back yard and beer or good wine or frizzy Perrier or Diet Dr. Pepper (my favorite soda). There is a duney soft-sanded beach nearby on Lake Michigan that reminds me of calm Cape Cod Bay. When night falls at Katy’s there’s a hypnotic campfire fueled by fine carpenters’ scraps.
Although Katy had lots of work to do, she took the time to feed and entertain us in grand style. She made it look easy, appearing to merely wrap things in foil and throw them on the gas grill. But what emerged was expertly seasoned and cooked to a turn. The first night, when we arrived exhausted from two days of driving, we enjoyed freshly made margaritas and an assortment of authentic-tasting Italian sausages. The next night at a dinner with Sheila and Bob and friend John, Katy made some divine bruschetta topped with diced heirloom tomatoes from the garden, fresh mozzarella, shredded basil and a hint of white balsamic vinegar.
With dinner was another highlight from the garden. Katy stuffed a mess of banana peppers with Chihuahua cheese, put a cube of bread on top to keep the cheese in, and then grilled them. I couldn’t get enough.
For breakfast we got to eat our eggs with toast topped with Katy’s own luscious ginger peach jam. She took us to a huge farm stand where we bought juicy sweet peaches, big blue plums, raspberries and tiny yams, everything half the price of Hudson Valley produce.
Drier’s Meat Market in Three Oaks was a step into the sawdust-strewn past. We bought something called ring baloney, a sumptuous salami-like sausage unlike any baloney I’ve ever had. It was excellent dipped into the Drier’s own horseradish mustard. We also got some pepper stick with a hint of sweet spice, a hit with the kids, and a juicy, chewy, sweet barbecue beef jerky. The best part was their liverwurst, which they call liver sausage or “liverbest.” I’m not generally a liverwurst fan, but this was coarser and milder than any liverwurst I’ve ever had, less livery and with more body and fine flavor.
At our request, Katy took us into Chicago on our last day. Although we didn’t have time to try the City’s classic dishes, Chicken Vesuvio (baked with potato wedges) or Shrimp de Jonghe (topped with herbed garlic butter crumbs), I couldn’t go to Chicago without trying one of those crazy Chicago hot dogs. So at Wiener’s Circle we had a good beefy dog called a Vienna red hot, available steamed or charred (we chose charred), served in a poppy seed bun and "dragged through the garden." That meant it was smothered with sport peppers, unnaturally bright green relish, two big pickle spears, several tomato slices, chopped onion and celery salt. The extravagant toppings made it tricky to eat, but it tasted great, the toppings even better on the cheddar burger with bright orange oozy sauce that we tried next.
We visited a mostly uninhabited but beautiful zoo, a majestic fountain on the lakefront that rivaled any I’ve seen in Europe, and we hung out at the Hideout, my sister’s best haunt, that reminded me sadly of the extinct Rhinecliff Hotel.
We tried a taco at El Milagro, a great intro to Chicago. I’m used to New York tacos that come with choices of carnitas (crispy fried pork chunks), cabeza (head), chicken or many other fillings, topped with just chopped onion, lime juice, and lots of cilantro, but these tacos were only available with beef, the only choice being whether you wanted a flour or corn tortilla (I picked corn). Tasty and sloppy, they were like mini burritos, stuffed with seasoned rice and refried beans, with a fiery salsa on the side.
At the Polish supermarket extravaganza Bobak’s, the kiddies were almost as happy with their new quirky Pez dispensers as Mom and Dad and Auntie were picking up kielbasa, black currant jam and juice, tiny pickled chanterelles and gooier honey mushrooms, lean thin slices of Canadian bacon, a six-pack of a sweet hoppy polish beer called Zywiec, beautifully rolled herring in a tidy packet, fat good barley blood sausage and two kinds of beer sausage (not clear if made with beer or for eating with beer). We got Bobak’s own jarred Spam-like golonka konserwowa, “shank ham water added with pork skin” and bryndza, a really good tangy creamy sheep cheese spread. A big jar of pickled “pattison” (baby patty pan squash) and a couple of lollypops for the kids were gratis.
You can’t taste a whole city in just a few hours, but some of Chicago’s culinary claims to fame include that it’s the birthplace of Twinkies, that billions of Oreos emerge from a factory there, and that one Mr. Dwight Kalb made a statue of Madonna there out of 180 pounds of ham.
After considering a huge variety of Chicago dinner possibilities, we ended up stopping on the way back to Michigan at Phil Smidt’s in Hammond, Indiana for perch and frog legs. The cavernous halls of this Gourmet-recommended historic place were only scattered with patrons, but the teeny frog legs were delicate and the lake perch buttery and tasty but pricey enough to call lake lobster.
But munching in Michigan was a treat. Besides lots of meat products, we brought home a generous box that Katy packed for us, full of the bounty of her garden: sweet heirloom tomatoes, crispy cukes and lots of sweet little yellow banana peppers for stuffing.