What I’ve Learned So Far

29 August 2007
So it’s 3:54 AM and I’m compelled to write. I woke up at two with all this stuff in my head. The only way I’ll get some sleep is to reel it out of my mind and onto “paper”. Driving around the country endlessly is a serious education. Most of what I’ve learned I don’t like much. We have a wonderful country and we’re doing a lousy job with it.

I’m going to excuse one group from this rant: Farmers. Great job guys. Not only are most farms beautiful, but they also appear to be run with pride, not only in the product but also for the land. Remarkable, I’m honored to have seen your work.

The rest of you I’m not so impressed with. The level of mediocrity in most of the US and Canada is simply stunning. Mackinac Island. where we took our grandsons for a little vacation, is a fine microcosm of it. Here the bar is set so low it’s a tripping hazard. And yet the usual whipping boys–chain stores and strip malls–are completely absent. Instead, there’s a wonderful environment going to waste with hideous food, lousy accommodations, silly practices, pathetic marketing, and copycat merchandising.

The hotel we stayed at has food that would embarrass a prison. I don’t know who is cooking the scrambled eggs, but they manage to make them taste like overdone dehydrated eggs–and I had better-tasting examples of those sitting in Tonkin Bay on the aircraft carrier Enterprise. Here we are in the land of Dairy, and the cheese is the cheapest, nastiest pre-shredded plastic looking crap I’ve ever seen.

Is the assumption that these are just tourists we’ll never see again? A performance like this guarantees it. We haven’t had a single meal here that honored its basic ingredients in any way. But it’s not just the food. They’re silly about everything, and no one appears to think or take initiative. In ninety degree weather, the heater in the pool was on full blast. Bicycles are the basic mode of transportation, and somehow they’ve fixed the price so high that people only rent them for short periods (clearly a manipulated price–anyone that broke ranks would own the market). The horse taxi system is impenetrable–I never did figure out how to rent one. I tried to hire an idle taxi to take us back to our hotel and he could only take us half way. Then he parked and sat. He was still there fifteen minutes later. And the price to take us halfway was the same as taking us all the way. Hello–I’d pay more to go where I wanted to go.

The streets are full and the stores are empty of customers. Nothing to buy. The most dispirited, copycat crap I’ve ever seen. How many fudge shops does a half-mile commercial area need? Five? Ten? Did anyone answer 14? I gave the boys twenty bucks apiece to buy something to remember the trip. Took us hours and they wound up with stuff they could have gotten anywhere. Not because they are so fussy, but because even a ten-year-old kid can tell when he’s looking at crap.

I’ll bet the average length of stay on the island is declining. There’s not much to do and the food sucks everywhere. I don’t mean that it’s the usual mediocre mid-America crap–it’s a lot worse. I’m a guy that likes a bratwurst as much as anything. I had one at the hotel. Eight bucks for a petrified little dried-up thing cracked down the middle, that must have sat on the back of the grill for an hour and then got nuked. Stuck in a stale bun and hidden with sauerkraut. You can’t complain when you’re presented with such a bad level of performance, you just leave. They have to be in the ballpark to justify a complaint, otherwise, you’re just wasting breath. We cut our stay short by a day, should have left sooner and looked for something better.

I’m not sure how it happens, but performance only seems to go in two directions: Spiraling up or spiraling down. When people settle for “good enough” the downward spiral starts. I remember when food on the Oregon coast was about as bad as you can find anywhere. Then one day I found the Blue Sky Cafe in Manzanita. Spectacular food, prepared with love, genius, and unstinting effort. We ate there every time we could, and so did everyone else. The town seemed to blossom around this single restaurant. Of course, the talented lady that ran it burned out, and it’s a shadow of its former glory, but the bar went up and up.

Without that example to follow and seek to improve on, the food quality everywhere on the coast has started to decline again. It’s hard to get a good meal there now. Maybe there’s more to it than the Blue Sky Cafe, but I know for a while the Oregon Coast seemed very special, and now it’s not so much.

Portland and Seattle are examples of an upward spiral. As the bar rises, the consumers get more educated. They require more effort, more talent, more quality to serve. The expanding market attracts talent, but even more important, chefs and waiters and even fry cooks learn to be better, to respect their ingredients, to balance, to try harder. You can get a better meal in a greasy spoon like “Stepping Stones” in Portland than you can in most of the “upscale” restaurants I’ve found in all of the Midwest.

Here’s the exception: Marie Catrib’s in Grand Rapids. Diane and I went there for breakfast one morning and wound up driving fifty miles back to the restaurant TWICE from the racetrack. Not because it was fancy, or fussy. It was simply excellent. Fresh ingredients, prepared with care and attention. We finally met the owner and congratulated her on a spectacularly good restaurant. She said “we don’t make a lot of money from this place, but we love it. We make the food we like to eat, that we want our grandchildren to have”.

See–it’s a simple thing.

By the way, when we went the first time the restaurant was nearly empty–it was a late breakfast mid-week. But we thought “my god, don’t the people around here know how good this is”? On subsequent visits, we waited in line for a table. People aren’t stupid. Lazy maybe, but not dumb.

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