Things Michigan People Like

Submitted by Patrick Cook of Grand Rapid, MI

© 2012, Patrick Cook

(1) Bad Roads

Michigan roads are terrible. Web sites that rate America's highways usually pick out two or three routes that are particularly bad, like I-15 in California. When they come to Michigan, though, their condemnation is more general. Thirty percent of our roads are in bad shape. Our streets are potholed, our freeways cracked, our bridges crumbling. Drivers from other states tell stories of tires ripped to shreds, broken axles and bent rims.

When Michigan residents complain, however, a different tone creeps into our horror stories. It is the tone of pride. The truth is, we like having some of the worst roads in America. It distinguishes us from wussy states where the people can't drive on anything rougher than a linoleum floor. I'm talking about you, Oregon.

(2) Winter Driving

Michigan people especially like our terrible roads when they are covered in ice. The fact that we brave death every time we get behind the wheel gives us a feeling of invincibility. My self-esteem rises every time I arrive safely from a drive in winter. This past winter I was sliding toward a telephone pole on a slick street when one of my tires caught a pothole just right and the car corrected its course. Booyah! Even better than ice is the phenomenon of a "whiteout." Whiteout occurs when large storms deposit fluffy light snow on fields next to our highways. Coupled with high winds, the snow is so thick that visibility is cut to two inches from the windshield. The driver cannot see the signs, the road, or other cars. The feeling can't be completely described, but it's like being a fly trapped inside a Ping-Pong ball-if the Ping-Pong ball is in play, and the fly is capable of feeling its imminent doom.

(3) Detroit Cars

Like everyone else in America, Michiganders have a wide choice of automobiles. People drive cars from all over Asia and Europe. Most of the time, we don't even vandalize them very badly. Still, we are heavily prejudiced in favor of Ford, Chevy and Chrysler. This is true even if our cars are made of parts and sub-assemblies from Brazil or Korea and are designed in Germany. If it says General Motors on the pink slip, it's OK.

Among these shining examples of Detroit iron, we are especially fond of SUVs. Not just any SUVs. We want great big growling El Dorados and Grand Cherokees designed to intimidate other drivers and frighten small children. Anything that gets more than seven miles per gallon is considered underpowered. How are you going to make it through a muddy two-track with some gas-sipping four-banger?

(4) Fried Perch

The ultimate Michigan food is fried lake perch. Restaurants make their reputations on the quality of their perch dinners, and fish fries are common in church basements and VFW halls. Thousands of people line our piers, fishing for perch with minnows (hint: baby crawfish work better). Other fish have advocates, of course. Brook trout, smoked Coho salmon, and poached walleye in parchment are all very good. But if you want to make Michiganders happy, serve them fried perch, cole slaw and French fries. That the perch is most likely a product of a fish farm in Canada is generally overlooked.

(5) The Detroit Lions

Detroit is home to the Tigers, the Pistons, the Red Wings and the Lions. Like any other teams, they have good seasons and bad. The Tigers have won the World Series twice in my lifetime, and the Pistons had a pretty good run in the nineties. The Red Wings have won several Stanley Cups, and they are almost always in the playoffs.

The Lions were champions in the fifties. Since then, they have never advanced as far as the final round of the playoffs. They have never been in a Super Bowl, much less won the trophy. In 2011, they made the playoffs and actually won a game. Our sports pages treated this accomplishment like the Second Coming of Bobby Layne. Unaccountably, we love the Lions more than the successful teams. If someone announces loyalty to another football team by putting, say, a Viking sticker on a rear bumper, the car will be vandalized worse than a Toyota.

(6) Ice Fishing

Nothing pleases us more than going out in sub-zero weather to the middle of a frozen lake, setting up a fishing shack, and then staring at a hole in the ice for the rest of the day. On Houghton Lake, in the northern part of the Lower Peninsula, an entire village of fishing shacks springs up every winter. This is known as Tip-up Town. It is named after a contraption that alerts the angler to a fish on the line, which works pretty well in the morning. By afternoon, the fishermen have tipped up several bottles of blackberry brandy and the contraptions are frequently ignored. Still, a lot of fish get caught. Some of them are even perch.

When the season is over, fishermen are supposed to remove the shacks before the ice melts. Every year though, some of the shacks sink. Future archeologists, puzzling over the waterlogged boards and liquor bottles at the bottom of the lake will conclude that they are part of a sacred hut-sacrifice with deep religious significance.

(7) The Upper Peninsula

Michigan is divided into two peninsulas, upper and lower, which are separated by the Straits of Mackinac, just north of Mackinaw City. Notice the difference in spelling. Everyone always does. But remember: they are both pronounced "MACK-i-naw." No one knows why that is. Once you drive over the straits on the Mackinac Bridge, you are in the Upper Peninsula, which we call the UP. We never call the Lower Peninsula the LP. No one knows why that is, either. In an example of sparkling Upper Peninsula humor, they call people from the Lower Peninsula "Trolls." We live under the bridge, get it? We charitably refrain from returning the insult, and just call them "Yoopers."

Non-Yoopers consider the UP a kind of Eden. There is actually a town in the UP named Paradise. (There's a town named Hell in the Lower Peninsula, which should tell you something.*) The UP is the land of quiet forests, purling trout streams and long summer afternoons. People mention the slower pace of "Up North," the deliberate, calm ways of the Yoopers. If the area is so great, why don't more of us live there? That's because the Upper Peninsula is not just a paradise for people. It is a paradise for black flies and mosquitoes. Swarms of the tiny nippers emerge from the pupa state with one thing on their minds: Blood. They don't care whose blood. Any mammal will do. The only way to escape them is to immerse yourself in an icy lake. Good luck picking off the leeches.

(*Editor's note: There's also a town in Michigan called Climax. As the joke goes, "Only in Michigan can you go from Hell to Paradise, and then Climax all in the same day.")

(8) Butter and Sandwiches

Everyone knows that bread and butter go together. A job is a person's bread and butter. A written thank you is a bread-and-butter note. Here in Michigan, we take the association a lot farther. We put butter on almost all of our sandwiches. This habit is not confined to the privacy of our own homes. Consenting adults and even children eat these sandwiches right out in public.

School lunch bags are full of peanut butter, butter and jelly sandwiches. Wait staff in our restaurants are instructed not to betray their revulsion when we order butter on hamburgers. Even bologna sandwiches are not safe from its greasy kiss. Outside of the Midwest, people think all that butter sounds awful. The truth is, it keeps other condiments, like mustard, from turning the bread into a soggy mess. Not only that, it tastes wonderful.

(9) Mustard and Mayonnaise

When we eat hot dogs or hamburgers, we often slather them with both mustard and mayonnaise. My East Coast relatives think this is the height of overindulgence. They consider that we have gone from the barbarism of butter to the decadence of mayo without passing through the state of civilization-where, I guess, sandwich spreads are virtuously fat free. I believe my relatives' views are just the usual coastal arrogance.

Picture a New England lobster feast. Whole families sit around a table consuming corn on the cob and lobster, while butter runs down their chins and covers their hands. They are all wearing cute little plastic bibs. Nothing could look more ridiculous, but at least the bibs keep all that butter from ruining their shirts. This is civilization?

(10) Deer Hunting

Deer are plentiful in Michigan. Wildlife managers say there are more deer now than when Michigan was a forest primeval. That's because a cornfield is better deer habitat than a forest primeval.

Copying our sturdy pioneer forefathers, we hunt deer every fall. There are different seasons, depending on whether hunters are using modern rifles, muzzleloaders, bows and arrows or atlatls*. I'm only kidding about the atlatls. We don't really have a season for them. Yet. All of these weapons are supplemented by technology of various kinds. We build blinds, both on the ground and up in the trees. Often, we have automatic infrared cameras set up to determine when the deer are most likely to approach the salt blocks.

That's not to mention the illegal attractants we spread around, like fallen apples, field corn, doe urine, and salt blocks. Besides all that, we hunt during rutting season, when the stags are distracted by thoughts of love.

Unfortunately, even a distracted whitetail is still pretty wary. Despite all of the technology involved, less than half of the hunters actually take home any venison. I suspect the main reason for these failures is blackberry brandy.

(* An atlatl is a hunting aid which consists of a stick with a handle and a socket. The hunter places a spear in the socket, grasps the handle, and propels the spear with more leverage than could be generated by the arm alone. An atlatl can be an effective primitive hunting tool, especially if you put a tracking computer chip in the spear. See

(11) Friendly Illinois People

"FIPs," as we call them, travel from their dull flatlands to revel in our quaint lake towns and farm stands. They're not so different from us. They put butter on all their sandwiches, enunciate their Rs and broaden their As, just as we do. They buy a lot of fudge and spend good money at our country inns.

Still, they are irritating. They clog the streets of resort towns with their hybrid cars, drink and holler around beach bonfires and condescend to us because Chicago is a more successful city than Detroit.

A "FOP" of course, is a "Friendly Ohio Person." They are about the same as Illinois people, with two big differences. On the plus side, they don't dare tease us about Detroit. We have only to mention Cleveland and they shut up. On the negative side, they are often rabid fans of the Ohio State University football team.

Friendly Indiana People, squeezed between Ohio and Illinois like poor relatives at Thanksgiving, combine all of the virtues and vices of both states, with the important distinction that Hoosiers don't spend enough money in Michigan. They just barrel up here in their giant RVs, where they eat, sleep and who knows what else. That's why we whisper that the F in both FIP and FOP does not always stand for "Friendly."

(12) Vernor's Ginger Ale

A little known secret among bartenders is that they rarely have ginger ale on tap. When a customer orders ginger ale, they just draw a Sprite and add a splash of Coke. The color is right, and almost no one notices. That's because there is so little ginger flavor in most ginger ale. This deception would never fool a Vernor's drinker. Vernor's ginger ale is a potent, hearty brew full of dissolved ginger. We get used to it at an early age, and drink it without changing expression. When a visitor takes that first sip, it's a different story. We watch in glee as the poor fellow coughs and chokes, pushing the biting taste up into his nose, and then sneezing violently.

Once you get used to it, Vernor's is pretty good. Elmore Leonard, a native Detroiter who wrote such gems as Get Shorty and Tishomingo Blues, suggests hot Vernor's and gin for the flu. You can try that if you like, but I can't go along with it. I do recommend basting a baked ham with a half-cup of Vernor's. Tres piquant.

(13) Obesity

Remember all that butter and mayonnaise? Coupled with the Vernor's and fried fish, they contribute to Michigan's obesity. And we are obese. In any gathering of Michigan people, there will be a large group of the overweight, a smaller group of the very overweight, and a smattering of folks whose enormous bulk hangs over the seats of their motorized wheelchairs.

We are fatter than Illinois, fatter even than Wisconsin, awash though it is with butter and cheese. Michigan is the fattest state north of the Mason-Dixon Line. I'm not sure why that's significant, but it doesn't seem right to me.

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Updated in May 2012