My middle-west: Gatsby Day in Ann Arbor

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books of all time. I can’t even remember the first time I read it, but I think it was in eighth or ninth grade. I know I never had to read it in school. I *think* Uncle Tom told me to read it (this would be around the same time he told me to read On the Road – Uncle T. has pretty great taste in books). I’m pretty sure my first copy which has long since went missing came from Gran’s basement.

gatsby

I hadn’t read the book for a few years when we moved to Connecticut in 2007. A late-night conversation in Hanafin’s Pub with several literary-minded friends (Kevin Doyle or Amanda Lester or Scott Rottinghaus) inspired me to re-read it then. To a midwesterner living on the Long Island Sound, Nick Carraway and his musings on the east coast being a different place suddenly became a little more relatable.

Gatsby infatuation reached a frenzy in our crowd that year when Kevin started throwing his annual Gatsby parties. Held on/around the solstice (“the longest day of the year”), the Gatsby party was the opportunity we all wanted to wear (in some cases extravagant) costumes, experiment with mixing prohibition-era cocktails, and play yard games such as bocce ball and croquet – Kevin’s yard was a bit small for Tom Buchanan’s beloved polo ponies; also, we weren’t actually rich enough for polo.

Gatsby 2009. New London, CT

Gatsby 2009. New London, CT

(By the end of these nights, the boys would be wearing the sequined headbands, we’d be drinking rum and cokes or vodka tonics, and the croquet contingent would have moved on to beer pong – still, we were classy up to that point.)

When we moved back to Michigan, I made two attempts to re-imagine the Gatsby party here, but it never quite translated – simply put, a Gatsby party is an East Coast garden party, not a Midwestern bar party. Not that they weren’t fun in their own ways; they just weren’t quite right.

Gatsby 2011, Ypsilanti, MI

Gatsby 2011, Ypsilanti, MI

Despite reading the book multiple times and attending/throwing multiple themed parties, I had never watched Gatsby on film. Part of this is because Mia Farrow kind of creeps me out (I can’t explain it) and partly because Robert Redford just seemed a little bland. The movie itself seemed like it would be a little bland. I just never had any desire to watch it (though when in Newport, I did visit Rosecliff, the house where several scenes were filmed). 

Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Rosecliff, Newport, RI

Then, a year or two ago, people started talking about a new Gatsby, this time helmed by Baz “Mouling Rouge” Luhrmann. Baz + Gatsby sounded anything BUT bland.

I kept tabs on the movie for the next year and a half or so. The main cast was announced. Leo as Gatsby! (That could work, I thought.) Tobey as Nick! (That seemed weirdly perfect, actually.) Carey Mulligan for Daisy! (This one sold me; I loved her in An Education.) I got hyped up for a Christmas 2012 release date…only to have it pushed back to May. (This was ultimately a good thing; otherwise I would have spent Christmas day holed up in a movie theater watching Leo wear the heck out of his pastel suits in two movies – Django Unchained was released the same day and I’m a huge Tarantino fan – instead of with my family.) 

Gatsby day drew closer. I re-read the book (I actually hadn’t read it since 2008). I started to get nervous. Would it be TOO cartoony? Would Tom Buchanan be too much of a buffoon-y racist? Would the Gatsby/Daisy romance be treated as something much more innocent and romantic than it actually is? Reviews were not helping (they never do, though, do they?).

Ralph also re-read the book, though he fails to see what all the fuss is about.

Ralph also re-read the book, though he fails to see what all the fuss is about.

No matter how I ultimately ended up feeling about this movie, I was determined to see it. I gathered up some girls – girls, who I might add, have been very supportive of my obsession with Gatsby/Fitzgerald/cocktail-mixing/costume-wearing/theme parties/etc. – and we headed downtown to the Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor’s beautifully-restored 1920’s movie palace and the only place in town I could fathom seeing this film (sorry, Rave Motion Pictures and your stadium seating). 

The Michigan Theater marquee

The Michigan Theater marquee

While I didn’t go full costume (I would have had we gone on opening night, no doubt), I did deck myself out a feathered hair piece, several long, tasseled necklaces and an absurd amount of makeup for 4:00 p.m. (Actually, we all showed up in a lot of makeup and blingy headbands – lingering after-effects of the previous years’ parties, I guess.)

(This next portion contains plot spoilers – if you’re not familiar and want to be surprised, I’d suggest you stop here just to be safe.)

The good parts of The Great Gatsby were indeed great: it was visually stunning; I loved the stylized depictions of Long Island and New York City and the miserable valley of ashes. One of my favorite scenes from an aesthetic standpoint was when Nick walks in to the Buchanans’ house and into the room where Daisy and Jordan are languishing on the couch: the flowing white drapes, the breeze, the laziness of the women in white dresses, the bejeweled hands draped over the couch…that was Fitzgerald’s slightly magical description somehow brought perfectly to life.

The casting was spot-on. Gastby himself has always been a hard character for me to formulate visually in my mind; I thought Leo nailed it. Young-ish, handsome but not TOO perfect-looking, capable of the occasional crazy eyes, the ability to appear extremely vulnerable AND extremely confident…loved him. (Although having recently seen Django, I did sort of expect him to invite everyone into the parlor for WHite cake.) Jordan Baker looked exactly how I wanted her to look – she even looked a little sneaky, though the movie largely avoids those small mentions of her character. Carey Mulligan was a wonderful Daisy – she has such an interesting face and expressive eyes. However, my favorite from a casting perspective was far and away Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan. I think I gasped when he walked onscreen with that pervy little mustache and those fantastic riding boots. The looks were right and he nailed the character – he’s a bigot with a mixed-up moral code, but he doesn’t veer into cartoon territory.

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan

The bad…well, the framing device (Nick in the nuthouse; Nick writing a novel) was totally lame. The typed words appearing on the screen were beyond cheesy. I get that we want – even need – Nick’s first-person narration; this just seemed like such a cop-out way to provide it…not that I have any better suggestions. Also, some things were a bit too literal…do we really have to show Gatsby physically reaching toward the green light?

I thought Daisy’s hard edge was softened a bit. A favorite scene of mine in the novel is when Nick describes seeing Tom and Daisy sitting at the table eating cold fried chicken and talking quietly together after the big hotel blowout. To me, that scene sums up Daisy: she loves attention and she loves drama and she probably does love Gatsby a little bit, but she can walk away from anything. The scene (sort of) appears in the movie, but it doesn’t translate the same way it does for me in the book. However, the Gatsby/Daisy romance is not simplified/overplayed the way I feared it would be, so overall I was pretty happy.

There’s been a lot of discussion over the movie’s use of modern music – it’s distracting at first, but once you settle in to the style of the film, it works. You just have to go with it. (If anyone remembers that Heath Ledger monstrosity A Knight’s Tale, this is wayyyyyy less jarring than when David Bowie starts playing at the ball.)

Overall impression? I liked it. A LOT. Maybe even loved it. I’ll probably (read: will) see it again and find more things to both swoon over and pick at. It’s over the top and a little melodramatic, but hey, so is the book.

Also, if you see this movie in Ann Arbor, go to the Raven’s Club after viewing – the lack of signage, dark room and bulbous light fixtures will make you feel like you’re in a speakeasy and the cocktail menu and glassware will only enhance that feeling. You can order the “Old Pal” (if you like whiskey, that is) and refer to it as the “Old Sport”… but just so you know, your companions/waitress will think that gets old fast.

The Old Sport - I mean, Old Pal

The Old Sport – I mean, Old Pal

(Macaroni and) Cheese, please.

Sometimes my friends and I are pretty sure that we’re geniuses. We come up with truly amazing ideas. Last night’s Mac and Cheese Extravaganza was definitely a keeper.

I should be honest here and admit that this wasn’t an entirely original idea. The Cabin Girls are all on the email distribution lists for a number of wineries and wine trails, including the Old Mission Peninsula wine trail (home of our favorite Traverse City winery, 2 Lads, among others).  While we don’t tend to go to wine trail events (too crowded – plus, we enjoy simply visiting the tasting rooms) one caught our eye: the Great Macaroni and Cheese Bake-Off. The event, taking place Thanksgiving weekend, features a variety of macaroni and cheeses paired with different Old Mission wines.

Well, there was no way we were going to be able to get a Cabin Weekend together during Thanksgiving…so we adapted the idea and had our own Mac and Cheese Extravaganza last night. Four different types of mac and cheese were prepared by me and Noe; C.J. and Roz; Alison and Diane. Melissa and Matt provided a big salad, a beautiful vegetable platter, and most importantly, their home so we could have a place to hold this event.

Our evening was definitely more about the mac and cheese than pairing it with beverages. That doesn’t mean that beverages were ignored. We thought L. Mawby‘s sparklers provided an appropriate light and fizzy counterpoint to the heavy, creamy cheeses. (The Detroit, just a bit sweet, was a perfect aperitif.) We also classed it up Wisconsin-style with some Spotted Cow beer that Matt and Melissa brought back from Green Bay.

However, the real stars of the show were not the drinks but rather the various mac and cheese dishes. In the end, they were all so different and so good that we couldn’t declare a “winner’ – we could just sit there completely stuffed and watch Nebraska get massacred on national television (yikes – welcome to the Big 10, Huskers – not exactly a triumphant entrance…)

Where to begin?

Here’s an overview of what we ate:

Alison’s contribution featured smoked Gouda. Wow. The smokiness of the Gouda had “Fall” written all over it. I could have just stopped here – it was the first one I tried – and been happy. It was simple, but with a cheese like smoked Gouda, you definitely don’t need any fancy add-ins competing for flavor. It was perfect.

C.J. and Roz brought a pesto and goat cheese version topped with bread crumbs. It was by far the creamiest offering, the pesto and goat cheeses combining to form almost a sort of sauce. The bread crumbs were crispy and a nice contrast to the creamy interior. This was the richest dish – very decadent.

Noe and I put together a variation on the Wine Spectator mac and cheese recipe that I use as a stand-by. We used half sharp Grafton cheddar and half fresh mozzarella and then added in chicken and bacon. I didn’t think the chicken added much, flavor-wise, but Noe liked it in there. The bacon added a subtle smoky meatiness, and the mozzarella balanced out the cheddar and bacon flavors to keep it all from being too much. This baked up to be a little more solid texture-wise than Alison’s or Roz’s and C.J.’s – more of a casserole.

Our offering, ready to go in the oven.

Diane took the prize for most creative. Playing on the idea of apple pie served with a slice of good cheddar (a must-try combo if you’ve never had it), she dreamed up a white cheddar/Gruyere/apple/sausage combination that knocked it out of the park. Using honey crisp apples from the Produce Station and homemade apple bratwursts from our new favorite store Biercamp (more on them in a future post – wonderful place!) she managed to infuse her mac and cheese with a slight sweetness from the apples that wasn’t at all cloying. Texturally this one was interesting too, with just a little bit of crunchiness throughout.

I am pretty sure this is a little plate of heaven.

Dessert was simple – an assortment of Godiva chocolate truffles from Roz and C.J. and some divine Oregon Pinot Noir from the M’s recent wine-tasting trip.

I can’t imagine a better way to spend the first real “Fall” evening of the year. The temperatures dropped rapidly, but we were holed up with a great assortment of the best comfort food on the planet, good drinks, great company, and of course, college football. How does it get any better than that? Thanks again Matt and Melissa for hosting, and I can’t wait for our next dinner adventure!

Great Gatsby Night 2011

One of the first friends Noe and I made in Connecticut was Kevin Doyle: history buff, book nerd, and possessor of a number of other fantastic qualities.

Kevin Doyle

In June of 2008, Doyle threw the first of his annual Great Gatsby parties to celebrate the summer solstice. In 2009, he threw an even bigger and better version.

The inspiration

I love parties, I love dressing up, and I LOVE F. Scott Fitzgerald. Doyle’s parties were a highlight of summer for me; in fact, they really were what sort of kicked off summer in New London. Last year when we moved back to Michigan shortly before solstice time, I missed the Gatsby party terribly.

Doyle indicated that there was actually a very simple solution to this problem: throw the Michigan version of the Gastby party. So…I did.

With the help of my friend Jen – who also enjoys dressing up – the plans were made. We decided to hold the party at Frenchie’s (the event space belonging to Sidetrack) and do a cash bar. There were several advantages to this, the first being that Sidetrack/Frenchie’s is an an old building with a great speakeasy look. They also had an ipod hookup for our streamed 1920’s music and a bartender that was willing to spend the evening mixing up fantastic vintage cocktails.

Christian mixes up Mary Pickfords

(We also had to hold the party the week prior to the solstice because Frenchie’s was already booked for the following weekend…we decided not too many people would notice.)

Put simply, the party was an overwhelming success. Everyone dressed up and the costumes were amazing. Thank you Doyle for the great idea. I can’t wait for next year’s Gatsby night!

Alison, me, Sophie

Jen and Brandy

Noe and Edmond

Mom, Kris, Brock, Noe

Kristen and Lindsay

Sarah and Bayne

Riki, Melissa, Diane

 

Summer in a bottle

Well, summer seems to have kicked in with a vengeance this week. For those readers not in southeastern Michigan, we’ve been having one of the rainiest – and not particularly warm – springs on record. It has been wet, wet, wet. Non-stop rain. A bit depressing, no?

Luckily the end of May brought not only the long Memorial Day weekend (I like my job, but hey, who can’t use an extra day off?) but with it warmer temperatures and – more importantly – sunshine. And with that, lower Michigan (or at least me and Noe) finally came out of our non-spring funks and went in to June swinging.

The Produce Station planned the perfect wine tasting to kick off June and the subsequent hot weather – Sauvignon Blanc. I have been known to say that if I could only drink ONE varietal for the rest of my life, I would pick Sauvignon Blanc…however, over the years, I’ve developed a few conditions.

New Zealand used to really sing to me, with its sharp acidity and over-the-top citrus. Yet lately many New Zealand SBs have been TOO sharp and citrusy for my liking. I’ve never really learned to love California SBs – although Jon Edward’s peachy number and last year’s Simi started to sell me on the fact that maybe CA wasn’t a lost cause.  South Africa has been more and more on my radar, with light fruit and herbacious, grassy flavors to counteract the natural acidity (and thanks to Amanda Lester and her wine tasting party, South Africa is on my list of wine regions I dream of visiting). More and more, though, I gravitate toward France, particularly Sancerre – they’re the ones that seem to really have that chalky, stony, mineral thing going on that I just LOVE.

Jorge - photo: producestation.com

Jorge at the Produce Station put together a really great variety showcasing different regions – two French (Bordeaux and Sancerre); California, South Africa, and New Zealand. I loved getting to taste my favorite grape not only in so many distinct styles, but side-by-side with the other styles for true comparison. SB is generally a wine that people don’t manipulate too much – you don’t see it oaked (generally), you drink it young and the real work is done in the vineyard, making it an excellent example of “terrior” – the snobby wine way of saying “you can taste where it came from.” I think people who are nervous about tasting because they think they can’t taste these things would have been really pleasantly surprised by this event.

Jorge did a great write-up of the wines we tasted on his blog. The Hippolyte was my favorite, with the Groot Constantina coming in second. I should also mention that the Produce Station has picked up a fabulous chef who made an AMAZING ceviche to pair with the Groot. I could have eaten a giant bowl of it.

Summer is finally here – thank you Jorge and Andy for finding me some great wines to ring in the season!

The favorite

Artini

My friends and I always seem to be looking for things to do, and lately those things have taken the form of events, specifically fundraisers. I’m not sure if it’s because we now have money to spend on charitable causes or because we feel like we need an excuse to consume alcoholic beverages (“I didn’t want to drink five martinis, but it was for a good cause”), but this is how it’s been playing out.

Luckily, in Ann Arbor, a lot of good causes seem to team up with good food and beverages, so it’s kind of a win-win situation. I spend money on food and booze – which I would do anyway – and someone or something (rather than just me and my tastebuds) benefits.

Last Friday night, the Ann Arbor Art Center hosted their third annual Artini Martini Crawl.  Eight bars and restaurants created a signature martini for the event. Your admission to the event got you six tickets, which could be “spent” on these martinis at the participating establishments. Attendees were also given a voting card. The idea was to try six different martinis and vote on the best, although I’m sure some participants used multiple tickets on one or two favorites. The bars were all located in the general Main Street area, so you could “crawl” easily from one to another.

Rose, Diane, and I – and Diane’s friend Erik, to whom we accidentally communicated that there would be other men attending with us – thought this sounded intriguing, so we happily contributed our tax-deductible ticket price to the Art Center and hit the town for some martinis.

Our first stop was the Black Pearl, which was featuring a hot chocolate martini. I’m not a fan of chocolate drinks, but I tried to put personal preferences aside for judgment purposes. I suppose it was a tasty beverage; however, the hot drink in the martini glass just seemed off somehow. It was also very rich, and, our group agreed, probably not the best martini to start a crawl with.

The Black Pearl thoughtfully provided glow sticks.

Stop number two was Melange, where they were serving up something blue. It was generally refreshing, but maybe a tad too sweet. Melange’s loungey, basement atmosphere was fun, though, and it felt very appropriate to be drinking a martini there.

Hard to get the martinis in the pic at Melange

We hit the Jolly Pumpkin third. By this time, Artini was starting to hit full-steam, so it was a little more crowded than our previous destinations. Jolly Pumpkin was a bit disappointing right off the bat because their martinis were being served in plastic cups rather than martini glasses. We definitely understood from a practicality standpoint, but it did take some of the fun out of things. (They were garnished, however, with amazingly cut and curled carrots.) The martini itself was a mixture of mango, pepper vodka, curry, and probably several other things. We were put off by it – the texture was too thick, and the curry made it seem like something that should be on a plate rather than in a glass.

Fourth stop was Cafe Felix, where we were treated to a truly delightful concoction of cucumber and mint flavors. It was clean, crisp, cool…basically, any “breezy” adjective you can think of. We considered having two of the Felix martini, but a swarm of incoming attendees took over the bar and it became too difficult to get a second drink.

In the words of Neil Diamond, "so good, so good."

Last stop for us before dinner was Cafe Habana, a Cuban-themed restaurant. We were actually able to snag some seats at the bar, which was great after walking around for the past couple hours. The martini looked like a cosmopolitan – pale pink in color with a lime garnish – but actually gained its color from pomegranate juice. Other flavors were ginger and mint. We considered it a high note and worthy of being the last martini of the night.

Not a cosmo

All in all, the event was fairly well-run. We didn’t hit huge clusters of people until our third stop. Most of the bars had a designated area set up to deal with the crowds. Cafe Felix was the only place where we had any kind of wait to get our beverages. We had a great time, and probably spent less on tickets than we would normally spend for a night on the town, and got more variety to boot.

Cheers!

Perhaps being part of the old, lame fundraiser crowd isn’t so bad.