Greetings From Michigan!
The first entry in the Action Cookbook Newsletter's 50 States Project
A thing that has taken up a disproportionate amount of real estate in my brain for the better part of the last two decades is indie-folk singer Sufjan Stevens’ so-called “Fifty States Project”.
If you’re not familiar with it, the story goes like this: in 2003, Stevens released a concept album simply titled “Michigan” (or, as the stylized-to-resemble-a-tourism-brochure album cover read, “Greetings From Michigan: The Great Lakes State”). The album featured songs either loosely or directly inspired by places and things from Stevens’ home state of Michigan. It was a success, and so in 2005, he did it again, releasing “Illinois” or, “Sufjan Stevens Invites You To Come On Feel The Illinoise”.
(His song titles have always been hilariously verbose, something I lampooned in one of my favorite and smallest-target-audience posts I ever wrote in my time writing for Every Day Should Be Saturday.)
Following the critical-smash-success of that second album, Stevens indicated that he planned to continue the state-concept-album model for all fifty states, something that received a ton of coverage in the music press for its novelty and ambition. I was quite enthused about at the time, imagining twee folk songs about esoterica from my own home state of Ohio. And then…
He never did.
In fact, more than a decade after Illinois, Stevens finally admitted that he’d never had any intention of following through on a “Fifty States Project”—it had only been a marketing ploy that he’d gone along with—and admittedly, it had worked quite well.
In the spirit of that endeavor, though, I’d like to announce my own Fifty States Project, focusing a Friday newsletter specifically on one state at a time—celebrating the food, drink, media and more that make that state special. Like Stevens, I will start with Michigan—and just like Stevens, I have absolutely zero intention on following through with this for more than a couple of states.
I know a large number of readers here are either from the state or attended school there, and are likely quite suspicious of my intentions here, owing to my status both as a native Ohioan and an inveterate troll. I assure you my aim is true, though, and to prove my faith, here’s a picture of Tshimanga “Tim” Biakabutuka:
See? I come in peace.
Michigan is an interesting state; nominally Midwestern but undeniably Canadian, old-line urban and wild frontier at once, possessed of a nuance and breadth that many underestimate. Just like the titular garment in Jan Brett’s children’s book The Mitten, you can fit a lot inside the palm of its hand. Today, I’m going to celebrate a state I’ve taken a number of jabs at in the past, featuring a recipe, a drink, music, literature, television and more from That State Up North.
First, a note.
The horrifying mass murder of eight people—six of whom were Asian-American women—in Georgia this week is just the latest in a frightening yet sadly unsurprising spike in racially-motivated violence against the Asian-American and Pacific Islander community recently. Silence or apathy in this moment is unacceptable, and it’s important for white people like myself to understand our responsibility in speaking out against the climate of fear, prejudice and xenophobia that this has been happening in. From racist “China virus” memes on social media to “rise of China” cover-story fearmongering in supposedly-respectable media, there are many hands involved in allowing and encouraging this violence to happen, and there need to be even more hands involved in combating it.
I have made a donation to the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and encourage you to support them or one of the many other organizations combating racially-motivated violence if you have the resources. This is not enough, of course, but it’s a place to start.
This week’s recipe was something I had planned, written and executed several weeks in advance. I considered scrapping it in light of this week’s events, but instead I’m taking the opportunity—speaking as a white sometimes-food-writer—to acknowledge how often success in food writing is built off the hard work and creativity of non-white people. We need to support the AAPI community, and not just when it’s self-serving “save Chinatown” efforts.
Thank you for listening.
7) The ABCs of micro-regional American Chinese food
There are a lot of directions you can go with Michigan food. Coney dogs or Detroit-style pizza; Arab-American/Middle Eastern food from Dearborn, even fudge from Mackinac Island. It’s a diverse state with a complex culinary history, but I’m choosing to go with a longtime personal favorite—Wor Su Gai, or Almond Boneless Chicken.
There’s some debate about whether this dish originated in Columbus, Ohio (where it more commonly appears as Wor Su Gai) or in Michigan—just more fuel for the long-simmering rivalry between those two places, if you ask me—but disputed origins or not, it’s a staple of Chinese menus in a very specific micro-swath of the Midwest.
What is it? Well, it’s a battered, deep-fried chicken breast, served sliced over a bed of shredded lettuce and topped with toasted almonds, scallions, and a flavorful chicken gravy. It was a frequent takeout order in high school for my brother and I, and it was only much later that we discovered its Midwestern origins. It had probably been fifteen years since I’d had it when it occurred to me to attempt making it—it doesn’t make it as far south as Louisville, at least not to my knowledge—but inquiries with several Michigan friends were met with instant recognition.
I can’t claim that what I’ve created here is a perfectly accurate rendition of the dish, but it sure tasted like what I remembered, and it was absolutely worth the effort involved. (Unless you’re in Michigan, and then you can just order it, and tip well.)
Wor Su Gai / Almond Boneless Chicken
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2-3 cups buttermilk
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 tsp cayenne pepper
Pound the chicken breasts with a mallet or rolling pin—not thin, like a Kentuckiana Hot Loin, but just flat and even, about 1/2” thick at most; enough that they’ll cook through evenly. Add the garlic and cayenne to the buttermilk, and marinate the chicken in the mixture for 4-8 hours.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp garlic powder
2 tsp onion powder
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tsp black pepper
1 Tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 egg, beaten
12-16 ounces light pilsner-style beer (I used Narragansett Lager)
Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl, then incorporate the egg, and whisk in the beer, slowly—how well-packed your flour is determines how much you’ll need, but you’ll want to reach a loose consistency resembling pancake batter.
4 tablespoons cornstarch
4 tablespoons cold water
2 tablespoons butter
1 cup low-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon Better Than Bouillon chicken base (or 1 bouillon cube)
1 cup water
1 tablespoon rice wine
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons turmeric (this is strictly for color; my ideal version of this dish has a more yellow gravy than some versions I’ve seen elsewhere.)
Whisk the cornstarch and 4 tablespoons water together to make a slurry. Heat in small saucepan with the butter, then add the chicken broth, chicken base and water; bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Stir in the rice wine, soy sauce and turmeric, and simmer until it thickens to a proper gravy. This gravy will be intensely salty, as a matter of caution; again, that’s how I recall it. Proceed with that knowledge and adjust as you see fit.
1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted
1/2 cup scallions, chopped
1/2 head iceberg lettuce, shredded
Making It Happen
Heat 2” of cooking oil in a Dutch oven or large, deep, heavy pan to 350F. Remove the chicken from the buttermilk bath, and dip in the beer batter, covering thoroughly. Carefully add it to the oil, and fry for 12-15 minutes, flipping midway through. You’ll want to carefully maintain the oil temperature so the batter doesn’t burn, but the chicken cooks through. Remove to a wire rack or paper towels to drain; salt lightly.
Lay a bed of shredded lettuce on the plate. Slice the chicken, being careful not to lose the shatteringly-crisp breading in the process, then place gently on the lettuce. Drizzle gravy over the chicken, then scatter with almonds and scallions.
Folks? This rocked. It was exactly what I hoped it would be, and it was delicious. The chicken was juicy, the breading crackling and delicious, the gravy adding just the right note to it all. This is a Michigan dish through and through, and if you can’t go to Michigan right now, it’s the next best thing.
(The debate rages on.)
6) That old time rock and rye
We’re going regionally-specific here, right? I mean, we’re really going to do this, aren’t we?
Alright, let’s do this.
2 ounces Hennessy
6 ounces Faygo Rock & Rye creme cola
I’m not sorry. I had to order the Faygo online and make a special request at the liquor store for them to get the “small flask of Hennessy” out of the locked case. I’m 38 years old, and I felt like a degenerate college student doing it. Still, this was the right drink for Michigan, a go-to for fans of the Michigan-based Insane Clown Posse.
Also? It was really tasty. If you haven’t had the pleasure of living in the Faygo Region, Rock & Rye is halfway between a cola and a cream soda, a classic flavor combination that would be great in a number of cocktails.
I tried a riff using it in place of the cream soda in the Golden Lion Tamarin, one of my personal favorite cocktails from Maggie Hoffman’s One Bottle Cocktail. It was good!
But, no, the Hennessy and pop is the move today. That’s what we’re going with.
5) Music of the Mitten
Where do you start with Michigan music? Occasionally, one of those tweets will go around asking people to name states with a best “top five” list of musicians, and I feel like those only exist because people are capable of forgetting that Michigan means Detroit and thus Motown. There are only a handful of states that could even hope to go toe-to-toe with the mitten musically. Add in other Michigan favorites like Bob Seger, Alice Cooper, MC5, Grand Funk Railroad, lovable one-hit wonders like The Verve Pipe, more modern additions like The White Stripes or Eminem, or even problematic idiots with a few good songs like Ted Nugent or Kid Rock—it’s a deep roster.
Anyways, I’m choosing to support nominative literalism today, and going with Kalamazoo native Jason Singer—aka Michigander.
He’s got several albums of dreamy, synth-driven pop, all of which I’d like to listen to while sitting on the deck of a Lake Michigan beach house, drinking a Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale.
X) Action CookBox Back!?
Last month, I debuted a new promotion here on The Action Cookbook Newsletter, something that I hinted might continue if the first round was successful: The ActionCookBox. Since I spend so much of my time with making recommendations for food, drink, books, and other entertainment, I figured: why not just send you some?
In the first round, I did three boxes, each containing a cookbook, a book, some culinary ingredients and kitchen tools, and other fun stuff. Each worked out to roughly $100 retail, which is my benchmark for future boxes. I drew names, and Neil B., David G., and Kevin M. were the first-round winners.
Well, the response was positive enough, so I’m making a regular thing!
Today’s ActionCookBox includes:
One of my favorite cookbooks, Tony Gemignani’s The Pizza Bible
An excellent book by my good friend Matt Brown of Extra Points, What If?: A Closer Look at College Football’s Great Questions
A set of (3) Kitzini silicone baking mats, something I use extremely often in my kitchen
A set of TekXYZ Boxing Balls, the very silly piece of exercise equipment that I featured in this newsletter
A delicious sambal-style hot sauce from Edward Lee, one of Louisville’s top restaurateurs
Bourbon smoked sea salt from Louisville’s Bourbon Barrel Foods
Action Cookbook Newsletter stickers
An Action Cookbook Newsletter keychain
The drawing is open to all paying subscribers; those who have subscribed at the higher “Booster” level will get two chances. (I’ll do that on my end.)
Hey, are you reading this, but not yet a paying subscriber? Well, sign up by Wednesday 3/24, and I’ll include you in the drawing, too!
This month’s winner will be announced next Friday.
4) A rich literary history and also I’m cheating slightly here
Michigan has a deep history of notable authors, from Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall, Brown Dog) to Elmore Leonard (dozens of novels adapted for film or TV including the works behind Get Shorty, Out of Sight, 3:10 to Yuma, Jackie Brown, and Justified), Terry McMillan (Waiting To Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back), and many more.
I’m going to play a little loose with my theme here, though, and rope in a terrific book I’ve read just recently, on the recommendation of longtime ACBN reader Kristen M.: Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots. The author was born in Windsor, Ontario, which is not Michigan or even the United States but if you grew up in northern Ohio as I did you consider Windsor an essential part of the Michigan experience. I’m counting it.
This clever, funny, and deeply dark novel imagines supervillains’ henchmen as temps, contracting out from agencies just like office workers. It’s a rough business, working for villains (or for heroes)—one with a great deal of workplace trauma, but taken in the same mundane, soul-crushing light as any dull office job.
It’s really a terrific book—Kristen recommended it after I’d shared the Amazon Prime series The Boys, and it hits many of the same notes as that show while avoiding some of its most nihilistic tendencies.
3) The Michigan answer to Mad Men
If you’re like me and seemingly everyone else on the internet, Tim Robinson’s oddball Netflix sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave has become an essential part of your humor lexicon since it landed in our lives two years ago.
Well, it can be frustrating to track down Comedy Central shows on streaming if you’re a cord-cutter like me, but it’s worth a Paramount+ free trial month just to watch Detroiters, the comedy series starring Robinson and ITYSL co-star Sam Richardson—both Detroit natives—as hapless ad-men running a struggling commercial agency. It’s the kind of show that had me scream-laughing multiple times in the first ten minutes.
I respect the hell out of any show that throws in touches like a hockey fan saying “hey remind me we gotta stop at Meijers on the way home for crackers and pop”. This show gets its region.
Also, I’m including two clips here, because: Harbaugh!
This man has given me so much humor over the years.
2) Hey, speaking of pizza (this segue only works if you watch that second clip)
I must credit longtime reader and friend Craig B—a Michigan Man to his core, and a student and teacher of history—to alerting me to an essential watch for understanding his home state’s critical contributions to the American culinary landscape:
Despite living in Papa John’s/Yum! Brands country, I have become a devotee of Domino’s Pizza—primarily because it’s a mile from my house, they have a drive-through, and my kids like it. Their contribution, along with Kansas-based Pizza Hut—introducing an unfamiliar food to the American public and helped it become ubiquitous—is laid out in “Pizza Wars”, an episode from the second season of the History Channel’s “The Foods That Built America”.
It’s a nice mix of accurate history of an iconic American food with delightfully corny music-biopic-level dramatizations of moments like “we’ll call it… Pizza Hut!”.
(See? I made it through the whole thing without mentioning Dave Brandon once!)
2B) Looking ahead at the 50 States Project
Let’s pretend that I’m not going to do exactly what Sufjan Stevens did—do two states and then completely forget about it—what would you suggest I profile from your state?
Okay, let’s wrap things up with some animals, who aren’t from Michigan. Or if they are, it’s only a coincidence. I can only theme so far.
1) The true heart of this operation
First up this week, Amy D. shares a dog after my own heart:
His name is Winston. He belongs to my next door neighbors, and I petsit him in October. He is extremely photogenic and snuggly and made me really want a corgi of my own BUT I think it would be a touch awkward if I just rolled up with a corgi one day (we live in Chicago and our next door neighbors are in extremely close proximity).
I started reading your newsletter sometime in quarantine and it has been a beacon of sunshine. I almost always forward the Friday ones to my husband because of the food, drink, or music recommendations (but usually it's ALL THREE) so thank you for doing what you're doing.
AHHHH LOOK AT THIS LITTLE GUY. He just wants to see what’s in that store window! Is it food? Toys? Attention? He’ll take it all! Great dog.
Next up, Abby C. shares a cat who knows you just wish you could be as fluffy as her:
Toaster's been featured before, but she either got her paws on some biotin or has grown her winter coat because she is officially the Fluffiest Cat in the World™ these days (see photo 1). Which of course means that I live in fear/anticipation of the day she decides it's time for her summer look and sheds EVERYWHERE (more than usual). We call photo 2 her hottub pose for obvious reasons, and get a kick out of it every time we catch her lounging so aggressively. I'm extremely jealous of her life and am definitely not trying to work out how to Freaky-Friday switch with her. Thanks, as always, for the newsletter, and please tell Holly hi from me!
My goodness, just look at this splendor. Like some kind of royalty. We’re all just flopping around here in skin and clothes like idiots and Toaster’s out here living in absolute luxury. Great cat.
Finally this week, Briek P. shares a memory of a friend any of us would have been lucky to have:
I figure if there's ever a time, it's now.
This is Arno, our family's wonderful old man as photographed by my sister. We picked him up at 2 months old and we got a great 16 years together before he passed this week. Can't ask for much more than that.
What a beautiful dog. I recall someone once quoting their child to say that our pets leave when they’ve given us all the love they have to give. I’m sure Arno did that, and I’m sure you gave it back. Thank you for sharing his memory with us.
And thank you for making The Action Cookbook Newsletter a part of your week. This community means the world to me, and I’m truly grateful for your support.
Have a safe, happy and restful weekend.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)