Looking North Through the Cherry Festival Main GateBy MIKE NORTON What a great opening weekend for the National Cherry Festival! Perfect weather, wondferful events, and great fun! People were out enjoying the air shows and the Fourth of July fireworks, swimming in the Bay - which is now warm enough for swimming after a long, long warm-up - and wandering around eating the junk food of their choice. (Hey, what harm is an order of chili fries gonna do you if you don’t eat them every day?) We wandered back into town from Old Mission after mass on Sunday to check out the arts and crafts fair on North Union Street and roam around the various pavilions at the Cherry Festival where farm markets and food makers were displaying and selling various local eats. (I was enjoying the samples of beef jerkey from Deering’s Market - they actually have to spell it with an extra “e” because it’s so moist that it can’t legally be called jerky. Go figure.)
Selling Sweet Cherries to a Visitor from HoosierlandAfter getting our weekend helping of Cherry Festival, we drove a few minutes west of town to the little village of Cedar, tucked away in the interior of the Leelanau Peninsula. This area was largely settled in the late 19th century by farmers from Poland, and their national pride is still evident in the many Polish flags flying from local flagpoles, some excellent smoked sausages (this is the birthplace of the now ubiquitous cherry/pecan bratwurst invented by Cedar butcher Ray Pleva) and a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose image is displayed in front yards, side yards and back yards throughout the village and its environs. But Cedar really displays its Polish-ness in early July, when hundreds of people gather under an enormous white tent for their annual three-day Polka Fest, a celebration of beloved music, food and folkways combined with some extremely aerobic dancing and a lot of multigenerational fun. My daughter Liz got me out on the dance floor a couple of times, and think we worked off our day’s ration of beer, kielbasa and pierogies in the first 15 minutes.
Two Dizzyingly Energetic Polka FansBut how can you not dance when the band starts playing polka music? I’m not even Polish, but I attended a lot of wedding receptions for my mom’s side of the family in northern Wisconsin, and those Germans can throw down a good polka, too. It’s just happy music - a sort of Eastern European cousin to Mexican mariachi music — and nobody cares if you’re a terrible dancer. Which I am. But what I found really interesting was the number of young people - even some fairly hipsterish types - who were getting intro it. When I was a teen, polka bands were about the least cool things imaginable, but there seems to be a real polka underground going on. Maybe it’s something to do with Weird Al Yankovic. Anyway, it was huge fun - and we still have a whole week of Cherry Festival stuff to look forward to. We’re coming into town Wednesday to hear Kansas. And there’s two parades up ahead, the Cherry Idol talent contest, those great Ultimate Air Dogs, lots of music, MORE fireworks, and some excellent food events. Me, I love strolling the midway after dark, surrounded by all the colored lights and blaring music, and imagining that I’m a character in a Ray Bradbury story. It’s going to be a splendid week. And I think I need to sign up for polka lessons.