America loves baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet,” declared the advertising campaign crafted by Campbell-Ewald back in the mid-1970s.
At the time, it was little more than a way to tug at the heartstrings of Americans who might otherwise shop for a Toyota or Datsun. But as a car guy, food junkie, and casual baseball fan, it also resembles something of a grand itinerary for a vacation. And, by coincidence, my Fourth of July three-day weekend already included a 2011 Chevrolet Camaro SS convertible — painted victory red, no less.
With one base covered, how could I resist the impulse to pack as much of the other three into a three-and-a-half-day span?
First Base: Start With The Motor City
My bosses sign off on the notion of a half-day on Friday — provided, of course, I forgo a traditional lunch break. No worries. I wait an extra hour, and hop over to the Grand Traverse Pie Company on the outskirts of Ann Arbor and ignore mom’s time-old warning about spoiling dinner by sampling desert first.
GTPC was originally founded in its namesake Michigan city, but has since expanded into a chain of roughly a dozen stores spread throughout both Michigan and Indiana. Though the restaurant itself follows the “bakery-café” formula popularized by Panera Bread, it’s still known for the pies. I purchase a fresh slice of crumb-top apple pie, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and shell out a little over $5 total. I’m mesmerized by the sight of the ice cream sublimating off the pie, evidenced by the small wafts of steam rising off the crust. Thankfully, it tastes just as good as it looks — quite sweet, with just a hint of cinnamon.
Next stop? Detroit, where the Tigers are hosting the San Francisco Giants for a night game at Comerica Park. That marks a roughly sixty-mile drive over some of the worst pavement Michigan has to offer, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the Camaro’s behavior. Damping and suspension rates are firm, but not to the point where I’m counting the number of fillings lost per mile. Cutting the top off any vehicle inherently compromises its structure, but I’m impressed with the Chevy. There’s some cowl shake to be found, but far less flexing than I’ve seen in other modern convertibles, including the drop-top form of its cross-town competitor, the Ford Mustang.
I wish I could say the same about the Tigers’ performance this evening. Both teams are at or near the top of their respective leagues, and for the first half of the game, things appear to be at a stalemate. Pablo Sandoval’s double in the top of the fifth helps bring in the first run of the game, which goes largely unanswered by the Tigers until the bottom of the 8th, when a single from Brennan Bosch brings Brandon Inge across home plate. The Giants take the lead with another three runs in the top of the ninth. Despite raking in another two runs in the bottom of the inning, Detroit winds up one run short of a win.
Bummer, but it’s now 10 pm, and I’ve thus far abstained from dinner in order to avoid the traditional ballpark frank for something a little more bespoke to Detroit. Smack dab in the middle of town sit two Coney Islands — American and Lafayette — which, I’m told, serve some delicious eats. Each can be traced back nearly seven decades to the Keros family, but a longstanding rift has kept the restaurants spiritually apart (but not physically, as they’re next door to one another). The rivalry, along with slightly different recipes for the same staples, has crafted two distinct leagues of adoring fans, each proclaiming their restaurant to be the best. So, how do you pick which one to sample?
Easy enough: at 10:30 at night, my stomach is growling, and customers were lining up down the street just to step foot inside Lafayette. Sign of a better product, perhaps, but American also has nearly three times the footprint and offers immediate seating. Lafayette devotees may claim I missed out, but I like what I find at American — a great-tasting Coney that’s made fresh and delivered to my table less than two minutes after I place the order. The dog is perfectly cooked, delivers a crisp snap when I bite into it, and the meat-based chili had a pleasant, mild seasoning. Delicious — although I still can’t help but wonder how good the dogs next door are…
Stealing Second: A Stop In Toledo
When not trying to crossdress his way out of both M.A.S.H. 4077 and Korea altogether, the fictional Corporal Maxwell Klinger waxed poetic about two staples of his hometown: the Toledo Mud Hens baseball team, and Tony Packo’s hot dogs. And, thanks to a Packo’s venue located right across from Fifth-Third Field, it’s easier than ever to partake in both during a single trip to downtown Toledo — at least for the time being. Despite being founded in 1932, a recent family feud surrounding finances (what else?) has spawned speculation that the Packo’s future may be in question.
None of that drama is evident when I roll up to Packo’s At The Park, although parking the Camaro right in front does spark some conversation with passersby. The Mud Hens don’t play until 7:05 pm, but I show up at roughly 1:30 in the afternoon and sit down to lunch.
Macroscopically, Packo’s menu resembles that of any other greasy spoon in the area. Chili dogs? Check. Chili mac? Check. But the family’s Hungarian roots play a part in giving each dish a unique flavor. Buried deep inside that hot dog bun isn’t your typical beef frankfurter, but a hearty Kolbász sausage. Traditional dumplings — not elbow noodles or spaghetti — serve as the foundation of the chili mac. And the pickles you see? Fair warning: thanks to a bath in paprika, they’re quite hot.
Packo’s food may blend cultures together, but the resulting product is uniquely American. I can’t help but think my red Camaro parked outside is a similar sort of dish. Colleagues have pointed out that it was partially engineered in Australia, built in Canada, and that 15 percent of its parts were sourced from Mexico. Perhaps so, but despite these mixed roots, the end product — a V-8-powered, rear-wheel-drive sports coupe — fits the stereotype of an American muscle car to a complete T.
I made the 68-mile trek from Howell, Michigan, to Toledo with the top down, but temperatures outside have soared to a whopping 99 degrees Fahrenheit by the time I’m down for lunch. I keep the top raised and crank the A/C while I make my way across town to Schmucker’s Restaurant. The small diner almost looks like a leftover prop from Back To The Future. Walk through the doors and you find a stereotypical American diner straight out of the ‘50s, complete with the requisite chromed counter top, neon signs, and a phone booth tucked in the corner. Schmuckers isn’t trying to be retro for retro’s sake. Things simply haven’t changed all that much since the place opened in 1949.
The menu spans six pages and runs the gamut from breakfast munchies to dinner entrees, but I skip straight to the last page. “A dessert stop, huh?” asks the waitress behind the counter.
You bet — although at this point, I’m pining more for the scoop of ice cream alone almost as much as I am for the pie. $4.75 nets me a big slice of crumb-top apple pie, which is topped with a glacier-sized scoop of vanilla ice cream. Delicious — slightly more cinnamon than the slice I sampled at Grand Traverse, and the apples beneath the crust are slightly crisper.
Soon, it’s time for a baseball game. The Mud Hens franchise dates back to the turn of the century, but became a Triple-A farm team for the nearby Tigers in 1987. It’s a little funny to see players I’ve associated primarily as Tigers — like second baseman Carlos Guillen — on the batting list, particularly when Hens mentioned in the team’s program — notably Andy Dirks — stepped up to home plate at Comerica Park the night prior.
The Hens take an early lead over the Indianapolis Indians, scoring two runs in the bottom of the first and following that with another run the next inning. Problem is, the Indians did exactly that beginning in the fifth inning. From there, the game stretched on scoreless past the ninth inning, through the tenth and eleventh. An end to the game (and the start of post-game fireworks) came in the top of the eleventh, when Indianapolis eked out another score. I start to wonder if I’m cursed. I’m root, root, rooting for the home team, but thus far, the home teams are 0-2 on my trip. It’s a shame.
‘Rounding Third: A Day In the Queen City
Perhaps the third time’s a charm. I have tickets for Sunday’s game in Cincinnati, which squares the Cleveland Indians against the hometown Reds. Since it starts at 1:05 in the afternoon, my brother offers me a place to stay at his apartment in nearby Dayton.
Problem is, he splits his two-bedroom apartment with a roommate, relegating me to the couch. I pack a sleeping bag for the trip along with a duffel bag of clothing, my laptop’s attaché, and a cooler with ice and water. The small haul easily consumes all of the Camaro’s usable trunk space, especially if I opt to keep the top down.
My brother and I do just that on the trip down to the game, although in retrospect, perhaps we should have savored the air conditioning as long as we could. In a budget-conscious move, I picked seats in the second-to-highest section of the Great American Ball Park along the first base side and although they offered a good view of the entire field, they offered precious little shade from the overbearing sun, which brought temperatures up into the high-90s once again.
Perhaps exposure to the sunlight is exactly what is needed to bring about a home victory on this trip. Despite Cleveland having a slight edge over Cincinnati in the rankings, the Reds played quite strong. The Indians bang out two runs in the top of the second, but the Reds follow up with three in the bottom of the same inning. Remarkably, another three follow in the fourth and another one in the fifth, putting the home team up by a whopping five runs. Cleveland narrowed that gap to two points by the bottom of the seventh, but strong pitching from closer Francisco Cordero in the ninth helped seal the deal, ending the Indian’s season-long sweep of the Reds.
The apparent good luck falters once we leave the stadium. I’ve yet to find a bakery in the area that produces apple pies, let alone one that’s also open on a Sunday. I give up on the pastry hunt for the day, but even our pursuit of a hot dog encounters a snag. My research uncovered a neat place that offered gourmet twists on traditional brewpub fare (a Korean hot dog with homemade kimchi? French fries cooked in duck fat? I’m sold…), but its doors were also firmly closed and locked in the early evening.
Oh well. When in Cincinnati, do what the Cincinnatians do: hit Skyline. Much as I loathe the idea of hitting such a large chain on this trip, there’s no denying the restaurant — and more specifically, its unique blend of chili — is a regional institution. The mixture of seasoning used is considered a trade secret, but purportedly includes cinnamon and cocoa. All I know is how it tastes varies from person to person, and even over time. My first dish years ago tasted quite sweet; today, the chili seems to have a little more bite. The recipe hasn’t changed, just my perception.
It’s roughly a four-hour long trip back to Howell, but since it’s still reasonably warm outside, I opt to drop the roof. As I wind my way north on I-75 and US-23, I encounter several fireworks shows, all displayed in IMAX fashion thanks to the panoramic view of the skies above. I loathe the cluttered center stack arrangement in the daylight, but its lighting — particularly the four-gauge cluster ahead of the shifter — brings back fond memories of the vintage Marantz audio equipment I collected as a teenager. It’s funky, but somehow endearing — which is more than I can say for the clutch, which flummoxes my left foot with a vague feel and non-linear take-up.
Sliding Home: A Return to Lansing
By Monday, I’m starting to have second thoughts about this whole plan. I’m not sick of hot dogs, nor has my blood sugar rocketed to new highs, but I’m tired, I’m weary, and my sunburned skin is beginning to match the paint on the Camaro. I’m half tempted to just pick up a pie, cook a hot dog at home, and try to find a baseball game on the tube.
But I don’t. Michigan’s capital is only a thirty-minute jaunt from my house, and it also happens to be home to the Lansing Lugnuts, a single-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. That team also happens to have an evening game scheduled for the Fourth, and tickets run $10 for the lower box. Better yet, post-game fireworks are paired with a city-sponsored display, further satisfying my inner child’s appetite for colorful pyrotechnic affairs.
Lansing used to have a horribly named (“The Downtown Dog House”) yet wonderful restaurant that dished out a number of different kinds of hot dogs, but odd hours along with prolonged construction on the street in front seem to have driven the place to its demise. So, I focus on pies. Grand Traverse has yet another store front in East Lansing, but I want a different taste of Michigan — and one that’s open on the Fourth.
Luckily, I find such a store in the northern Detroit. Achatz Pies (rhymes with “jackets and ties”) is a relatively small, family-owned business with several locations (and another slated to open near our Ann Arbor office in the near future). I hardly consider this a chain. The company, which is still family-run, was literally born in a kitchen in rural Armada and the pies themselves are largely hand made.
I pick up a couple to bring home to sample — another crumb-topped pie, along with a normal, crust-topped pie I was told was “fruit juice sweetened.” It sounded good, and indeed it was, although the pie filling — which, fittingly, is sweetened only with the apple’s juices — didn’t exactly blow me away. The crumb-top pie, however, bowled me over. By far, this had the most cinnamon I’d tasted yet (although it wasn’t overpowering), and the entire concoction — crust, filling, and crumbs — remained discrete entities until they literally melted in my mouth. Amazing.
Time for the game. A late start forces me to arrive in the top of the fourth inning, and a long line at the so-called sausage shack means I don’t grab an Italian sausage and take a seat until the top of the fifth. Things don’t look all that well for the Lugnuts. They’re down to the Lake County Captains by a run after fighting back from a 4-0 deficit in the second. Maybe I should have stayed home after all; my curse continues once more, as a run for the Captains in the fifth and two in the sixth push the team past the ‘Nuts, despite Lansing logging an extra run in the sixth inning.
That’s The End Of The Game, Folks
Despite my friends’ predictions to the contrary, I didn’t gorge myself into a critical-care bed at the local emergency room. But it’s safe to say I don’t think I can live on hot dogs and pie on a daily basis. I’m certain my wallet can’t exactly sustain repeated (and regular) trips to a major league ball park, and I can hardly bear to eye the leftover pie slices lurking my fridge — delicious though they may be.
But — finicky clutch, cramped trunk, and eight-cylinder fuel consumption aside — I could potentially live with this Camaro day-in, day-out. Is it perfect? No. Like many Americans (including myself), weight is a hurdle, as is consumption. The EPA estimates I’d shell out roughly $2817 in fuel annually, and that isn’t accounting for the propensity for my right foot to touch the floorboard. But it oozes charisma, packs a unique personality, and is quite a comfortable cruiser — so long as you’re not packed into the narrow rear seat.
The Camaro won’t be everything to everyone, but for those looking to recapture some of the magic that made the Camaro a hit in its heyday, the new car is undoubtedly a home run — at least with me.
ROAD TRIP BOX SCORE
Total driving distance: 735 miles
Number of games attended: Four
Number of hometeam victories: One
Slices of pies consumed: Four
Number of hot dogs consumed: Five
Gallons of gasoline consumed: 37.6 gallons (est.)
Calories consumed per mile driven: Ugh. Please don’t ask…