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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Impulse Buy

One night recently, my husband and I are lounging in the club chairs in the Borders bookstore cafe. I hand him the May issue of Bon Appetit and say, “Look, honey, the new issue is out.”

He flips through, sees a full page shot of gooey, creamy mac and cheese, looks up and says, “Let’s go to the Union!”

So, we did. We put away our stuff and drove 45 minutes across town to Curt Catallo’s restaurant. Impulsive, much?

Southeastern Michigan types know all about the Clarkston Union Bar and Kitchen. Tucked away in the northern hamlet of Clarkston, amid stately Victorian homes, is an old wooden frame church. And inside the church is the restaurant. Vestiges of the once-abandoned chapel remain: the tall stained glass windows, the wooden pews-as-banquettes. Certainly, customers find the legendary mac and cheese and lengthy microbrew list worthy of a revelation.

Why the fuss about pasta and cheese sauce, you ask? So much, that six years ago Catallo and his coveted comfort food made the front page of the Wall St. Journal in a case of culinary espionage that involved the theft of the oh-so-secret recipe.

We arrive, and Curt, an old friend and former colleague of my husband’s, greets us in the parking lot. We enter the mass of people packed in the pews and catch up a bit.

Our menu:

Cracker Crust Coney Island pizza: The thinnest, crispiest crust, topped with original Coney Island chili, good Vienna sausage, mozzarella, a drizzle of authentic yellow mustard and finely chopped onions. I’m not really into Coneys, but this transcends the lowly hotdog and bun routine. Unexpectedly delicious.

Tomato Soup with Ricotta: Lovely. Silky, with a nice texture. Well seasoned. I need to try the ricotta thing at home.

Mac and Cheese (of course): A half order. Penne rigate, béchamel, mild Michigan Pinconning and sharp Canadian cheddar cheeses, a hint of nutmeg, topped with a crispy Panko and butter. All speculation on my part, of course, because I don’t dare ask. A tangy, creamy tangle of pure pasta goodness.

Turkey Burger with Pinconning cheese on toasted Challah with rosemary roasted potatoes. I love a good turkey burger, ’cuz that’s how I roll, and this was most satisfying.

Finally, a trio of cupcakes: chocolate, vanilla malt and carrot cake with cream cheese icing. We took these home.

The menu emphasizes fresh, natural ingredients, as well as local foods wherever possible, elevating the concept of bar food to a state of grace.

The Union’s charm extends to the quaint, cozy general store attached to the church, run by Catallo’s wife, Ann. The couple and their two kids live above the store, in a throwback to earlier, easier times.

It’s all so good, you’ll want to kneel and give thanks.

Culinary Treasures

My name is Maria and I’m addicted to cookbooks.

And I’m not alone. In case you haven’t noticed, America is embroiled in a scorching love affair with food. 

So when I learned the University of Michigan has a center devoted to collecting, documenting and archiving thousands of food-related items from the past five centuries, I had to investigate. 

The Longone Center for American Culinary Research is housed at the U-M Clements Library and curated by Jan and Daniel Longone. A museum of sorts, it aims to define and preserve America’s culinary traditions and experiences and offers a unique view into how we live, evolve and celebrate.  

The collection, much of it donated by the Longones, features more than 20,000 culinary treasures, including cookbooks, menus, magazines, manuscripts, ephemera, catalogs, diaries, letters, advertisements, graphics and reference works.  

Jan, the founder of the Wine and Food Library, the oldest culinary antiquarian bookshop in the U.S., has transformed her passion, which once was housed in her modest Ann Arbor home, into a one-of-a-kind resource for researchers, chefs and authors. 

The library holds a staggering, diverse assortment of goods, ranging from 2,800 vintage charity cookbooks, an eggbeater collection, antique cooking magazines, wartime recipe books, etiquette texts, ethnical and regional tomes, and, as one might expect, the first-ever U.S. cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, circa 1796.  

In short, there’s historical information about everything from gumbo, wine, ice, chowder, chocolate chip cookies, French fries, even Michigan’s own pasties. 

Sadly, the collection itself isn’t open to the public (Jan and her volunteer crew continue to catalogue the materials), but the library hosts regular exhibits. Its latest, 500 Years of American Grapes and Wines: The Literature of a Remarkable Journey is on display now and is open to the public from 1:00-4:45 p.m. until May 29, 2009.