As I kid I grew up in Flint, Michigan.
I know. Can you believe I totally survived that?
Michigan really wasn't all that bad of a place to grow up in the 80's because at the time the car factories were still pretty much in full swing. Most people worked there, the rest worked in restaurants and shopping centers to supply the ever-growing demand and supply the pretty darn rich factory workers with whatever their hearts desired. I remember quite a few of my friends had pretty nice houses if they had a dad who worked in one of the factories.
It was when those car factories started pulling out of Michigan and moving elsewhere that things went downhill quickly. I've seen the rapid decline from a bustling, happy, growing area into a falling down businesses closing and moving out area. In fact, only since I've been out of High School which was, gasp, 15 years ago.
But I'm going to talk about the happier times of Flint, because those are the times I remember the best. Besides, it was just some stupid little salad I was making the other day that reminded me of a buffet near my house called the "King and I" - I'm not sure if there was a "the" in the title of the restaurant or not. But it was on Miller Rd, pretty much at the edge between Flint Township and Swartz Creek in front of one of those many factories I was talking about just a minute ago.
When I was growing up, it was a pretty special occasion to go to the King and I. We went only after church usually, and that meant dressing up. I don't remember seeing anyone there wearing jeans (at least not until it moved over to it's second location later on in life). Well, there are only three things I remember about the place, and that's probably because I was young then, pre-teen at the latest before the whole thing closed down. But they had this really great fried chicken. They also had the best freezer cheesecake and coconut creme pie. And they also had grapes in whipped creme.
Ah the grapes. Nothing like a giant purple or black grape, hidden in layers of fluffy whipped creme. It was on the salad bar, so I always assumed they considered it a 'salad' rather than a dessert. You'd scoop up this big spoonful of white fluff, and then take it back to your table and commence chasing fluffy grapes around the plate with a fork until you managed to actually stab one and bring it to your mouth. And then the smooth whipped creme and the tart grape underneath it all...oooh heaven!
You don't see this on salad bars nowadays, although I'm rather surprised at that. It's actually quite a brilliant fattening thing and so extremely simple to make. Whipped creme + grapes = heaven.
I was thinking about this while making up a Waldorf salad the other day. I'm not exactly a purist, so if you ever look up a recipe for Waldorf there'll be walnuts - I don't do that, I'm strictly grapes, apples, iceburg lettuce, miracle whip and a bit of sugar. You'll probably find a recipe with walnuts, raisins maybe, perhaps mayonnaise or some other sweet dressing.
But the big ol' grapes I used for my salad reminded me of the King and I.
Later in it's life the King and I moved across town, I think closer to Grand Blanc (if not in Grand Blanc) near Dort and Hill Rds. It stayed open for a handful of years before closing and the restaurant turning into a Damon's sports bar/rib joint place. The original building turned into a place called O'Toole's which had some terrific homemade pies and my Mom's favorite club sandwich which was actually a Roast Beef Club. Can't find a club sandwich anywhere else that has roast beef, lettuce, tomato, bacon and American cheese all in one sandwich. But they had it. They also had a big ol' 1/2lb. O'Toole burger that my brother and I would get from time to time.
That restaurant closed down a few years ago as well during the "Great Recession" of the 2000's. Many small businesses took a pretty big hit from that recession. I saw a huge change in Flint after that period of time as well. There had been some re-growth going on in the Miller Rd. area where even though quite a few chains were pulling out, smaller family run businesses moved into their vacancies. But heck, when a restaurant like Sonic goes under after just a few years, it's a miracle anything survived there.
However...they were just a block away from the family-run Fuddruckers right up the street. How could Sonic compare to them? Fuddruckers is owned and operated by the Andrews family. Mr. Andrews, his wife and at least one of his sons works there. When nearly all of the Northern Fuddruckers closed down, his has remained open, still producing the fresh buns, fresh ground beef, the gooey cookies, lovely hand-make milk shakes...yum. I'm drooling just thinking about it.
Every trip back home brings me back to the restaurants and tastes of my childhood and the simple recipes that kept our bellies filled in times of happiness and times of depression. Maybe you've only heard rumors of places in Michigan, but if you happen up past I-75 through Flint, take a stop over at Miller Rd. and check out some of the small family restaurants, get a giant burger at Fuddruckers, or get a coney dog at one of the handful of Coney Islands around Flint. (I'd recommend going to Palace Coney Island inside the Genessee Valley Center, they have the best) And maybe you'll see a bit of the Flint that I knew growing up too.