Nothing smells as good as 15 pounds of bacon crackling in the fresh air. Nearby, Brenda Koster’s Bananas Foster sauce waits for a big stack of French toast. Michigan strawberries, blueberries and sweet cherries tumble colorfully in containers.
“When I was a girl on West Lake, we had two kinds of clothes — swimsuits and pajamas. That’s all we ever needed.”
— Gail Jelier
Everywhere along the beach, three generations of cottage owners, family and friends smile and hug — another mighty fine day to celebrate America’s birthday.
At West Lake, the Fourth of July starts with breakfast on the beach, cooked entirely outdoors. Every single person expresses happiness to be here, especially me, the girl from Kentucky who was immersed by marriage into a gregarious, lake-loving clan. Early on, my husband’s Aunt Gail Jelier charmed me with delightful stories: “When I was a girl on West Lake, we had two kinds of clothes — swimsuits and pajamas. That’s all we ever needed.”
For 25 years and running, families at West Lake have come together to celebrate the most anticipated holiday of the summer. Traverse City’s Julie Smith comments, “For my mother-in-law, the Fourth of July is bigger than Christmas. It’s her holiday!”
Gathering at the grills, griddles and electric skillets begins this ambitious Independence Day of boating, kayaking, face-painting, swimming, jumping off the high dive, fireworks and fostering life-long bonds. The afternoon features a piñata bash, rubber ducky derby races and the West Lake boat parade, which oozes with small-town charm and is often won by our band of cottage overachievers.
Order of the day:
4th of July
~ Preparing Breakfast Outdoors
~ Gathering at Flagpole
~ Raising the American Flag
~ Breakfast on the Beach
~ Boat Parade
~ Duck Derby
~ Corn Hole Tournament
~ Sky Lanterns and Fireworks
“The Shores of West Lake”
Home, home on West Lake
Where the kids and the visitors play.
Where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Now I have a hope, a wish for tonight,
That wherever you roam in this world.
That though pressed in this life,
with eminent strife,
That for you there is a West Lake.
Dr. Michael Smith, chief medical officer of St. Joseph Mercy Oakland, remarks, “For a lot of holidays, people sit around; not us. Our Fourth of July is jam-packed with activity. The kids love it because there’s so much going on and they love playing together from sun-up to sundown.”
But first the enthusiastic organizers — Smith, his wife Marijean, and cottage next-door besties Don and Doris Brandt — crunch the numbers. Besides that 15 pounds of bacon, they’ll count 150 sausage links, 126 eggs, 70 guests, five loaves of Texas Toast bread, four pineapples, two gallons of orange juice and mounds of Michigan fruit.
Marijean manages the activities: “I knew I was in deep when my son, Korie, said, ‘Well, you know, mom, you should really do T-shirts.” Done. Marijean designed and ordered six dozen T-shirts.
They divvy up the responsibilities between the cottages and then pray for sun. For the communal breakfast, guests trek from Georgia, Colorado, New York, Tennessee and throughout the Mitten State. Scott and Dacia LaRoux entertained a whole crew from Sweden. Patcharida “Opel” Smittinet, Mike and Jennifer’s former exchange student from Thailand who is studying at the Art Institute of Chicago, wouldn’t dream of missing the Fourth. Opel introduces her friend, Kittisak “Wa” Chontong, also an AIC student, who blessed everyone with a watercolor of their cottage. My husband’s first cousin Pam Jelier Tongue and her family from across the lake also join the celebration.
“Everybody who comes out to West Lake just loves it,” says Doris Brandt, whose father Rev. Harold Cox penned “The Shores of West Lake” to the tune of “Home on the Range,” sung every year around the flagpole.
Winnetka Park Blueberry Cordial
40 ounces frozen blueberries, about 6 cups
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 fifth bottle (750-milliters) vodka
In an air tight glass container, mix together blueberries, granulated sugar and vodka. Turn over every day until sugar is dissolved. Allow to sit, sealed, at room temperature for three weeks (or longer) before serving.
Before consuming, strain through fine mesh strainer, discarding the fruit. Next, strain through cheesecloth and pour into sterilized quart jars or bottles and seal.
West Lake is tucked away off U.S. 31 between Muskegon and Whitehall, in a town called Twin Lake that links the four glacier lakes of Twin, Middle, North and West.
“Back in 1990, we decided to start the day together with breakfast because we end up together anyway,” says Brandt, whose son, Darren, and family live on the bluff.
Michael Smith begins the flag ceremony with a few words at the home of year-round residents Mike and Jennifer Jura. He recognizes the oldest — my mother-in-law Donna Jelier — and the youngest — Malini Ahmed Stoepker — and any exceptional milestones during the year, including my husband Rich Jelier’s recent Fulbright trip to Moscow.
“There isn’t anything we couldn’t ask of any neighbor, and any neighbor couldn’t ask us,” Michael continues.
July 4th Spangled Cookies
Makes 24 cookies
1 (1 lb. 1.5-ounce) pouch Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix (pouch sizes may vary slightly)
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ cup unsalted butter, melted
Confectioners sugar for rolling out dough
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 8-ounce tub Cool Whip
Toppings: ½ cup each blueberries, raspberries and chopped strawberries
Heat oven to 350°F. In large bowl, stir cookie mix, flour, melted butter and egg until soft dough forms. Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon confectioners sugar onto work surface; coat all sides of dough with confectioners sugar. With rolling pin, roll out dough ¼ inch thick, adding additional confectioners sugar as needed to prevent sticking.
With 2-, 2½- or 3-inch round (or star-shaped) cookie cutter, cut out circles. Gently brush excess confectioners sugar from dough; place 2 inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
Bake 7 to 9 minutes or until light golden brown. Cool 1 minute; remove from cookie sheets to cooling racks. Cool completely, about 15 minutes.
Frosting: In a medium mixing bowl, with an electric mixer on medium, beat cream cheese, granulated sugar and vanilla until smooth and frothy. With a spatula, fold in Cool Whip until incorporated but still fluffy. Spread frosting over the cookies. Sprinkle with berries.
“We look out for each other, and it extends beyond neighborliness because Don and Doris anchor all of us here. They’ve created a community of togetherness — that village that people talk about. It takes a village to come together for the good of strong families and happy kids. When I was kid on this lake, Dick Jelier and Joe Tanis watched out for me and vice versa. Decades later, we’re watching out for our grandkids.”
The lake holds memories for everyone who ever swam, waterskied, played cards, fished, built a bonfire on the beach, or picked blueberries at a nearby orchard. We all hugged a little tighter after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when one of West Lake’s own, Dave Pruim, died in the Twin Towers.
“The whole world saw how much we grieved as a nation, but here at West Lake we hurt deeply, so that next Fourth, 2002, we gave a moment of silence around the flagpole because we’d had a happy boyhood playing together on this beach with Dave Pruim.”
With our three children (the fourth generation at the cottage), we adore summering at our rustic pine-paneled cottage on a sparkly lake where everyone knows our name. Toward twilight on July 4th, we launch sky lanterns, fireworks and an optimism that’s red, white and blue.
My father-in-law, retired Mona Shores junior high principal Rich Jelier Sr., likes to say: “When my dad bought this place in 1952 for $500, it was the best $500 anybody ever spent. I think he knew this little cottage would give us many years of happiness.”
Pineapple Palm Tree Fruit Platter
2 quarts strawberries, hulled
2 pints blueberries
2 pints raspberries
2 pints blackberries
1 cantaloupe, halved, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 small seedless watermelon, halved and cut into 1-inch cubes
To prepare the palm’s trunk, select the prettiest top from the four pineapples for the palm tree fronds. Slice the top off about a quarter-way down so there’s a bit of extra support; set aside.
Next, slice the top and bottom from each pineapple, making sure the ends are level and flat. Cut out the center of each pineapple, leaving ½-inch of pineapple meat attached to the inside of the skins. Remove the hard core inside and cube remaining pineapple fruit; set aside.
Stack the pineapples (see below). Make sure your stand is sturdy enough to support 4 stacked pineapples. Stab three wooden skewers into the first pineapple, leaving about 6 inches poking up to thread on the second pineapple. This helps to secure each pineapple. Repeat threading the remaining pineapples onto the stack. Add the reserved pineapple top and additional ferns to make the palm tree’s fronds with wooden skewers.
Surround the centerpiece with fruit that has been cut in chunks. Place serving spoons near each fruit variety so guests get the idea they’re supposed to eat them.
Equipment: Pineapple palm tree stand – for directions: ehow.com/how_4530007_make-pineapple-palm-tree-serving.html
Extra: Ferns for the tree’s top foliage.
Jaye Beeler is an award-winning journalist and author of “Tasting and Touring Michigan’s Homegrown Food: A Culinary Roadtrip.”