Happy birthday, Detroit

Today was Detroit’s 313th birthday, which is significant for the arbitrary reason that 313 is the city’s area code and one of its nicknames. Arbitrary, yes; but significant enough to warrant month-long $3.13 meals at McDonalds and week-long celebrations Downtown and in the Cultural Center. And significant enough to guilt me into a blog post…about Detroit, of course. (Well, it was that, or poetry, or God, right?)

This didn't happen today, but it seemed like an appropriate photo. (From 23 June 2014 International Fireworks)

This didn’t happen today, but it seemed like an appropriate photo. (From 23 June 2014 International Fireworks)

I had a strange dream last night that centered around the street in Detroit where my dad grew up. In real life, I’d visited that house when his parents still lived there when I was so little I vaguely remember it at all. I have no idea where on the street my dad’s family lived, and it’s a long street. My dream last night is irrelevant, except that it got me thinking today about my family history in Detroit.

I didn’t grow up in the city. My mother’s family had relocated to Farmington Hills when she was a kid, and we lived in that city until I was 4, when we moved out to the boondocks (now exurbs) I lovingly refer to as “the woods I crawled out of.”

Said woods.

Said woods.

But I moved to the city as an adult, landing first in Palmer Park, which is at the northwest corner of 6 Mile (McNichols) and Woodward. Unknowingly, I had arrived in an area full of my family’s history.

Not far away was the hospital where I was born, where my older sisters were born, and I think where my mother also was born. The house where my grandmother grew up, where my mom also lived till she was a year old, is gone now, but was off 7 Mile between Woodward and John R, the area now known as Chaldeantown. When my grandmother was growing up, her aunt and uncle also lived next door, and her aunt played the organ in Detroit’s famous movie houses in Grand Circus Park. (Her brother, my great-grandfather, was a church musician. Such a musical family. Alas, I didn’t get those genes.)

One great story, from that ancestral house I never saw, involved my grandfather. After my grandparents married, they lived for a little while in a trailer in my great-grandparents’ backyard. My great-grandparents’ house didn’t have a basement, but they wanted one. My grandfather helped his father-in-law dig out a basement under the existing house. In true Detroit fashion (see how long this sort of thing’s been going on?), they didn’t bother getting permits. Instead, they worked at night, digging from behind the house, and dumping the dirt around the city to hide the evidence. And this was when there were fewer places to dump dirt, or other things, without being noticed. But I don’t know whether they were working so stealthily out of paranoia, or if the city was on top of such things more than it is now.

My mother has said that when she was little, after her father’s job was transferred out of the city, they used to come visit her grandparents at that house. She and her sister would be taken to play in nearby Palmer Park, or they would ride the streetcars downtown to shop. One time she was visiting me, and at the corner of Woodward and 6, she looked around and said, “I have dreams about this intersection.” It looked completely different, of course, but was apparently still recognizable enough—but not a little disorienting, either.

While we were living in Palmer Park, some friends and I bought an abandoned house in the area around 6 and Livernois. Later, I learned that my great aunt (my grandmother’s sister) and her husband had lived on a street just several blocks down.

On the other side of the family, I learned from my dad’s mother that she had him baptized at All Saints Episcopal Church on 7 Mile near Woodward. She was Catholic, and my grandfather, an agnostic who had been raised Christian Scientist, wouldn’t let her have their baby baptized in a Catholic church. My grandmother was always a good, pragmatic ecumenist. She told me the Episcopal Church is “like the Catholic Church.” Now, I had just become Episcopalian, and telling her about it was the occasion for her sharing this story with me. Naturally, I teased my dad (who is Evangelical) that he was really Episcopalian. Although we don’t actually think about baptism in sectarian terms. But still.

Now, at this point, I could venture off into the suburbs and tell you about how I grew up attending a church on 6 Mile in Northville, or how, when I was 14, my femur was broken by a drunk driver on 6 Mile in Livonia. So much of my life has happened on or around 6 Mile…and I live just off 6 Mile now. That’s where I’d rather take you, dear reader: to a place called home.

Our house came with a basement.

Our house came with a basement. Sorry, Grandpa.

No, not that place called home. This place:

f88157682…or, more accurately, this sense of belonging. Not just “you are here,” but “you belong here.”

I never felt such a sense of belonging anywhere like I did when, in my 20s, I arrived (back) in Detroit. And now I’ve been away for almost nine years, and am back yet again, and that sense of home has remained—so much that I’ve got the city’s logo tattooed on my wrist, where you find my pulse.

"If found, return to Detroit" seemed too wordy.

“If found, please return to Detroit” seemed too wordy.

There’s a part of me—probably the part that’s a poet—that wants to think the same place to which my ancestors gravitated had somehow called me too. But if that’s too mystical-sounding, I think it’s still a perfectly good metaphor for the spirit a place can have. A place, a home, isn’t just a map imposed onto a blank canvas (even if it’s drawn up on a blank piece of paper). Place, say all the scholars who work on the subject—Casey, Sheldrake, Gorringe, and others—precedes space; we’ve gotten so used to the geometric abstraction of place that we forget it’s an abstraction. Place is storied: it has a history, a name, memories, even legends. Many would say it has a sort of personality—a “spirit”—as well.

Without anthropomorphizing the city, however, it’s not hard to notice that some themes do recur in Detroit’s history. From the founder of the city on, it’s a place where people have come to forget the past and reinvent themselves. People have often flocked here for opportunity: first, French settlers, who heard of the “paradise” of fruit trees and good vegetation; then English-speaking Americans from the East Coast, who came for opportunities in the city’s early industries and in the distribution of Michigan lumber and farm products; and later, people from the US South and all over the world, who came looking for work in the automobile industry. Now people are coming for cheap real estate and the opportunity to start their own businesses; others are coming here specifically to be in a place where they can make a noticeable difference.

It’s been a contested place. Detroit’s location was chosen by the French for strategic reasons—strategic, primarily, for controlling the fur trade along the Great Lakes. But first, it was populated by native tribes such as the Hurons and Wyandots. Later, it was valued as a strategic military site, and changed hands several times (the French, British, and US flags have all flown here; and under the French and British, Detroit was part of Canada). The original French settlers were pushed to the margins by English-speaking settlers from the US East Coast. Various immigrant groups would coexist with mixed success, as in all US cities. Race riots occurred from time to time—1833, 1943, and 1967. Racist policies in government, housing, and business—not least of which involved the destruction of Black Bottom and Paradise Valley—along with “white flight” to the suburbs changed Detroit to the largest majority Black city in the US. It’s also a city where you can find a Polish or (historically) French church with Masses in English and Spanish.

Early French settlers were known for what the later English settlers thought was an inordinate love of music and dancing—and, more recently, Detroit has given the world the musical genres of Motown, punk, and techno, and many talented artists in hip hop, rap, jazz, blues, folk, gospel, and rock’n’roll. Not to mention the world-famous DSO.

We’re an industrial center. Before cars, we made stoves, ships, train cars, and just about anything you could make by bending and stamping metal. Industry is an obvious part of our civic character. Currently, we’re making clothing, watches, bikes, food, and lots of arts and crafts.

Farming may be another theme. Detroit’s earliest settlers grew their food here, and, once they had enough to satisfy their needs (the land was generous, it seems), they enjoyed the good life. (The later English settlers called that “lazy.”) During an economic recession in the 1890s, mayor Hazen Pingree launched a program of urban gardening whereby Detroit’s poor could farm vacant lots. It earned him the nickname “Potato Patch Pingree,” but it worked (eventually). And now, as everyone knows, urban farming has returned to Detroit. Local farmers (in and around the city) provide produce for local restaurants and stores.

Remember the recent bad mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick, who was driven out of office in disgrace? So was the city’s first leader, its founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (though not for quite the same reasons).

And, if you followed the above link about Pingree’s potato patches, you might have noticed words like “insolvency” and the city’s treasury being “almost empty.” I really don’t have to say more about that.

Our motto is all about things burning down, which they’ve tended to do rather frequently here. I hope that’s not part of the spirit of this place. Speramus Meliora—Resurgit Cineribus: “We hope for better; it will rise from the ashes.” We’ve rebuilt this city before.

Official city seal. Photo by the author.

Official city seal. The woman on the left is mourning after the 1805 fire that destroyed the city; the woman on the right is trying to console her with a vision of the city’s future. We haven’t added a third woman yet. It just seems cruel.

I hope if you’ve noticed other themes in this city’s history, you will share them in the comments. So far, it seems to me we can characterize this city as  a place whose people, whatever their ethnicity, whatever language they speak, work hard, enjoy the good life, make music, suffer hardships, reinvent themselves, and keep hoping and rebuilding.

Does that sound like Detroit to you?

It sounds like home to me.

313 years is still young in the grand scheme of things. Happy birthday, Detroit, and many returns.

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Tasty treats from Michigan

This blog has been quiet for a while. I’m  a bit overwhelmed with a number of things right now—one of which is preparing to move back to Detroit in May!!!

I’m looking forward to being able to show you all more of Detroit—my Detroit, that is; everyone experiences it differently—once I’m living there again. And it will look different to me for having lived in a very different place the last eight years.

It’s an interesting thing, living away from home. You see your home in a new perspective—and often, you see quite sharply some things you had missed. For example, I lived for a year in Virginia Park (a neighborhood in Detroit off Rosa Parks and Virginia Park Street, just north of Grand Boulevard). In all my years in Michigan, in Detroit, and even within walking distance, I never visited the Motown Museum. I always liked the Motown sound enough, but it wasn’t the music of my own subculture. And besides, the museum was always there; I could visit it any time. So I never did…until one year while visiting home from California. Now I want to recommend it to everybody!

The same is true of most of these goodies. In recent years, there has been a resurgence of pride in Detroit and Michigan, and stores catering to Michigan-made items have flourished. In addition, locally based stores like Meijers (headquartered near Grand Rapids) have createdor expanded sections devoted to locally made goods. Eastern Market has long been a great source for food and other items from Michigan (and Ontario, Ohio, and Indiana). Here’s a sampling of the deliciousness I’ve discovered, during my annual trips home:

Berry Wines

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Click on the image for a Google search of “Michigan Water Blues.” True to the blues, there are a million different versions. Jelly Roll Morton’s version says that “Mississippi water tastes like turpentine, but Michigan water tastes like cherry wine!” I rather like Jeff Daniels’ version on his album, Keep It Right Here. (He has another version as well.)

 While I lived in Michigan, I never tried cherry wine. I’m not much of a wine drinker. But now that I live near Napa Valley, my Michigan pride made me want to find a wine that Northern California does not offer.

Turns out there’s raspberry wine, too!

The wines pictured above—two cherry and one raspberry—still represent the sum total of Michigan wines I’ve tried.

The Traverse Bay Winery cherry wine is my favorite so far. I’ve brought extra bottles back here to California and shared them with the natives—much to their delight! It’s a little stronger than your average grape wine, apparently (17% alcohol by volume). Not too sweet, but still suitable for a dessert wine. And, much like cherries, it tastes nothing like that fake cherry candy flavor. It has the flavor of Michigan tart cherries, exactly the flavor you want it to have. Plus alcohol.

The Leelanau Cellars raspberry wine, on the other hand, is really sweet. While it’s not cloying, it does taste just like candy, or like perfectly sweet raspberries.

The St. Julian Wine Co. cherry wine is disappointing. It’s OK, but not one to share with wine snobs Northern Californians. I ended up using it in baking (like brownies and homemade apple sauce).

As far as I know, these wines aren’t available outside of Michigan—unless some of them can be ordered online, I don’t know. (I do know that ordering wine online involves some complicated process to prove you’re of legal drinking age and all that.) You can get them, and others I have yet to try, at Meijer, or at Detroit’s new Whole Foods; I was impressed with the Michigan wines selection at both stores.

Preserves

And another way to get your daily servings of fruit, particularly if you don’t drink alcohol, is jam.

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Click on the image to visit Slow Jams’ facebook page.

I don’t know whether this brand, Slow Jams, existed when I moved in 2005, but I just discovered it this past summer (2013) at Eastern Market. You can purchase it in the market proper or at Rocky’s. The flavor I tried is rhubarb ginger—OMGOMGOMG it’s so delicious. “Homemade in small batches,” this jam hails from Grosse Pointe. There are plenty of other flavors to try, and if you find the booth on market day, you can sample them!

Their facebook page lists the following flavors:  Spiced Apple, Blueberry Lavender, Blueberry Peppercorn Sage, Blueberry Cardamom, Cran-Cherry, Cranberry Red Onion, Tart Cherry, Cherry Thyme, Peach, Peach Rosemary, Peach Cilantro, Peach Basil, Raspberry, Raspberry Jalapeno, Raspberry Lemon Verbena, Raspberry Basil, Strawberry, Strawberry Bomb, Strawberry Balsamic Peppercorn, Strawberry Vanilla, Rhubarb Ginger, Sweet Pepper, Blackberry, Blackberry Ginger, Tomato, Green Tomato.

Peach basil sounds interesting! I’ll try that when I get back home.

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Click on the image to link to their website, which includes all their products, recipes, and more.

Here’s another that’s become a staple for me in recent years, a treat to pick up whenever I’m back home: Food for Thought’s Organic Michigan Tart Cherry Preserves.

There are whole and half cherries in there (sans pits, of course), with just enough jelly as well. Spread it on a Belgian waffle, and every nook will have a cherry in it. I find it also makes a nice pairing with Nutella for a new spin on PB&J. (I use whole wheat bread, ‘cause something has to be healthy in there.) Meijer sells this one, as do various stores specializing in Michigan products, such as Heart of Michigan in Howell.

Mustards

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Click on the image to go directly to their online store, where you can buy all sorts of blueberry products—stuff you’d never imagined, like this mustard, or the basics, like preserves and syrup.

Here’s a strange taste sensation: blueberry mustard. I still can’t decide whether or not I actually like it. It’s not repulsive, though. More adventurous eaters than myself will probably know what to do with it. I bought it from Heart of Michigan’s website. The Blueberry Store makes all kinds of blueberry products, though. I feel like I’ve had their preserves, but I don’t have any on hand.

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This time clicking on the image will take you directly to their online store. They really have an interesting array of products!

Food for Thought’s Organic Cherry Honey Mustard sounds like such a wonderful idea. It’s good, but you can’t really taste the cherry much, so that was disappointing. Maybe I got an off batch. Use it anywhere you’d use honey mustard. When you do taste the cherry, it does harmonize; they use tart cherries.

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Click on the image for the website of Sansonetti Sauces, a family-owned business that makes mustards, vinaigrettes, barbeque sauces, and more. I’ve only tried this one, so far.

Sansonetti’s Roasted Red Pepper Mustard is quite good—and not too hot, which I can promise you, because I (a “supertaster” very sensitive to heat) can enjoy it. Also, roasted red peppers are never all that hot. Just delicious! It is indeed a Michigan product, despite the “Napa Valley Gold Medal” on the label (which means it won the Gold Medal at the 2010 Napa Valley World Wide Mustard Festival, their website explains). If you want heat, layer it with other hot ingredients in your sandwich, and spread it on thick. I find it quite delicious on a veggie burger or on a sandwich with crisp veggies (like spinach and onions).

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Click on the image for their website, offering “artisanal fruit preserves and condiments.”

Once you get past the strange disconnect of your mustard looking like some kind of berry jam (well, not exactly; it looks like you mixed mustard into your jam), this cranberry mustard will delight you. It’s the perfect blend of tangy and sweet – but not too sweet. Both the mustard and the cranberry flavors come through nicely. I’m a vegetarian, so I would use this on a sandwich with lots of fresh, crisp veggies;  but I imagine it would be perfection on a turkey sandwich—especially, next November, on those Thanksgiving leftovers.

Sweets

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That’s olive oil in the background on the right. Bad photography. Oh well. Still, you can click on the image to link to the Sanders website, where their famous dessert toppings are just a fraction of what you can break your diet (or Lenten fast in a month or so) with.

OK, I’m bending my own rules a bit. You know this is one I had tried while in Michigan! I grew up with the stuff. I’m just including it here because Sanders.

You can buy this in many places—Meijer, your local grocery store (in Michigan, anyway), and many sweets shops and specialty stores, such as Heart of Michigan, Rocky’s, and RJ Hirt DeVries and Co.  You can also order it, and any of their products, from their website.

What I’d never tried before, because it’s so expensive, is Sanders’ candy. A coworker ordered me some for Christmas the year before last, knowing how much I love Sanders. He bought me the peppermint bark, which I can honestly say is the best peppermint bark I’ve ever had, and the salted caramels. The salted caramels were also the best of any I’ve ever tried. They were so good, even this chocolate addict could eat just one piece per day and be satisfied with it. I’d never experienced that in a chocolate before!

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Click the image to visit their website!

A friend sent this to me along with other goodies this past Christmas. She probably got it at Rocky’s or somewhere in Eastern Market.

You can’t see the actual honey very well in this photograph, but it’s honey, and you know what that looks like. This honey is a rich amber color. The flavor is bolder than most honey you might buy at the grocery store, so if you prefer mild honey, it might take some getting used to. But it’s perfect for spreading on bread with butter (which is my main use for honey). I’m not a tea drinker, but I imagine it might be better in some teas than in others, given its strong flavor.

The label you see here is the only labeling on the jar. However, their website indicates that their honey is raw. Even cooler: “We take care of 100 beehives in the backyards, schools and community gardens of Detroit and suburbs. We provide you with raw honey and pure beeswax candles.” They also say you can buy their honey at Avalon Bakery, where (if you’re in Detroit) you can pick up some great bread to enjoy with the honey!

Sources, and other stuff I haven’t personally tried:

I didn’t include any products by Cherry Republic above, but as you would expect from the name, they make various cherry products. I’ve tried their cherry salsa, and at first I liked it, but then got sick of it pretty quickly. I think it was too sweet for my taste in salsa.

Traverse Bay Winery‘s home page, should you wish to browse their products. Theirs is the cherry wine I highly recommend, and which met the enthusiastic approval of the NorCal folks who sampled it.

Leelanau Cellars, who make the raspberry wine above, make a wide variety of wines, which you can check out at this link.

And, should you not trust my judgment, you can check out St. Julian’s cherry wine here, or look at their other selections, which might be tasty for all I know. Maybe the label design should’ve been a giveaway.

To purchase these products and more: In addition to all the links from images above, you can visit the following stores in person or online.

Heart of Michigan, located in Howell.

Rocky Peanut Co., located in the Eastern Market Historic District in Detroit.

DeVries and Co., formerly R.J. Hirt (but still in the family), is located at Eastern Market. They don’t appear to have a website/online store, but are on facebook.

Eastern Market, where Detroiters have been getting good local food since 1891.

Meijer, Michigan’s answer to Walmart. Located throughout the state, and a few places in some adjoining states.

Some Michigan/Detroit based foods can also be found at other shops like Pure Detroit (which seems to always have Sanders sauces, and blends from the Detroit Spice Company), even though they’re primarily a clothing/attire brand.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Detroit Bold coffee, although I’m not a coffee drinker (and have never tried Detroit Bold. I don’t like coffee, so the fact that I wouldn’t like it shouldn’t reflect on them.) It’s a great story, though, and founder A.J. O’Neil is a great guy, very supportive of his hometown, Highland Park. Check it out on facebook, too.

Detroit’s new Meijer

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Meijer has dipped half of a pinky toe into the city. This is big news. Old news, yes, but I finally got to see it for myself.

I’m not normally a fan of big-box stores, but I do love Meijer. Maybe it’s just from growing up with it (I’m old enough to remember it as “Meijer Thrifty Acres“)—although I also grew up with K-Mart (a Detroit original, based in Troy) and could take it or leave it. Meijer did have its full one-stop shopping long before Wal-Mart and Kmart ever introduced grocery departments.

Meijer is a Michigan-based store, headquartered in Western Michigan just outside of Grand Rapids. They claim to be the original “one-stop shopping,” and many stores host smaller shops (independently run), or “services” inside, from banks to shoe repair to barber shops to dentistry. Most, if not all, of their stores are in rural or suburban locations. The Detroit store breaks that pattern, but, more importantly, it could be a show of faith in the city: that a Michigan-based company like Meijer is willing to open in Detroit is, to my mind, as big a deal as Whole Foods opening in Midtown.

I say Meijer dipped half a pinky toe into Detroit, though, because the new store is located on 8 Mile—on the Detroit side—at Woodward, and it faces 8 Mile, thus facing the northern suburbs. So it’s just barely in Detroit, and it seemingly can’t bear to look.

To be fair, though, it is the anchor for a strip mall (also not the norm for Meijer).

The layout is completely different from the old Meijer stores I grew up with, or even the slightly newer or remodeled stores. Happily, they offer pamphlet store directories when you enter:

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(Temporary note: I’ll add a picture of the inside of that pamphlet later.)

The look of the store is somewhat stark and cold, if clean—mostly white, letting the products be the color. (This is reminiscent of Farmer Jack’s “Future Store” built in Canton in 1988-89. I guess they were right about the future.) We were only there for a brief time, with a few items to pick up, so I don’t know how it would feel to shop for a long time surrounded by so much white paint (my least favorite color).

I wanted some Michigan cherry wine and some Faygo. In the wine section, there was a spot dedicated to Michigan wines of all varieties:

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Since I currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is near Napa Valley, I thought the wine section overall was a bit small, but it was bigger than your average grocery store, even in California. Pictured here is just the Michigan wines. (And the bottles missing on the bottom shelf are the ones I purchased.)

I couldn’t fit all the Faygo in one photo, so here’s a side shot of the Faygo section:

FaygoI picked up some diet Rock ‘n’ Rye, Red Pop, and Creme Soda, 20-oz. bottles 2/$1.

One difference from most Meijer stores is that this location is only open from 6am-11pm, whereas most are 24 hours. This location offers a gas station, a pharmacy (with a drive-through pick-up window), a bakery, and deli, along with all the usual departments. In addition to the store’s own services, Huntington National Bank has a branch inside the store. Meijer’s one-stop shopping means you can buy motor oil, a bed pillow, fresh produce, and a digital camera all in one place—or whatever other odd combination of stuff you might need. And speaking of produce, Meijer usually has some of the best produce compared with local grocery stores. Meijer also normally has a great selection of products, especially in grocery, including locally made products, ethnic foods, vegetarian/vegan selections, and more. The store brand (meijer) is almost always of excellent quality. (We also picked up some store-brand Mackinac Island Fudge ice cream—theirs is, in my opinion, the best brand of that flavor.) The prices are quite good, as well.

Even though I sing the praises of this chain (and, living in California, actually dream about it from time to time), I hated working there back in the early 90s while I was in college. It wasn’t as bad as some places, and in fact can offer excellent advancement opportunities within the company, but there were definite issues you would expect to find for workers in a big-box store. We were unionized, though, which helped.

It will be interesting to see how things go with this new Detroit location. Will the store maintain its clean appearance? Will it expand or contract its hours? Will its customer base be from the city, or from Ferndale and other nearby northern suburbs? (There is a Royal Oak store which will probably continue to draw most of those northern suburbanites.)

I hope things go well for the store, and for all the stores in this (choke, gasp) strip mall. As much as I hate strip malls, it’s good to see businesses investing in Detroit, and they provide much-needed jobs as well as options for shoppers in the city.

Checkouts at Detroit MeijerThis photo, taken from just inside the main entrance, shows an overview of the 30 checkout aisles (including self-checkout).

I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention that the store’s employees were unusually friendly; even when just passing us in an aisle, they’d greet us, ask how we were doing, and wish us a good night.

So far, it seems to be a very pleasant place to shop.