We had very good intentions of going hiking today, but the early morning thunderstorm followed by the late morning rain made venturing out for five miles an extremely muddy and unpleasant prospect. At Shane’s suggestion, we instead hopped in the car and took a spontaneous trip to Detroit.
We both recently read this article from Vice (of all places) that decries the obsession with Detroit “ruins porn” – the exploitation of a city that has seen better days, but still contains vibrant industry and culture. I have to admit – on our first trip to Detroit a few months ago, we were pretty amazed at what we saw. It was a grey and blustery day, and it’s hard not to be struck by the Michigan Central Station or the site of buildings falling into disrepair, especially in such weather. Look at a little closer, though, and you’ll find scenes like this:
Things are growing in Detroit. Things like gardens with chickens in them in Cass Corridor. Things like vibrant little bakeries where you can grab a snack and watch the (bread) magic happen:
We’re big fans of Avalon International Bakery, as I might have mentioned. Their breads are sold at Plum Market and at the co-op – somewhat more affordable than Zingerman’s with little difference in quality. By that I mean: a great crust, a great interior, perfect for sandwiches and toast.
Even though we’d just had ridiculously good brisket at Slows, we split a peanut butter brownie and an iced coffee and watched two bakers divide, weigh, and shape an immense pile of dough into beautiful little loaves. It was a lovely interlude in a very nice afternoon – I only wish that Avalon were in our neighborhood so that this could be a regular thing.
My grandparents lived in Detroit after the war, and every time I talk to my grandma on the phone, she tells me stories about Detroit. More often than not, they’re the same stories I’ve already heard, but she’s 91 and has earned the right to repeat herself. It occurred to me this weekend that I should probably write some of this stuff down, if only so that I can remember it for future trips to Detroit:
- There used to be a buttermilk bar in Eastern Market, where you could go have a glass of cold buttermilk, just like you might go to a soda fountain for an chocolate milkshake.
- They lived on a street called Orchestra Place, which no longer seems to exist, and both worked at Harper Hospital. One of their neighbors was Hawaiian.
- I think Grandpa was doing his residency at Harper. Occasionally they would get to go to the theater or the opera because in those days, they always had to have a doctor in the house. They once sat behind the heir to one of the major auto companies. Said heir had just married the heiress to a major tire company. That was one of my grandparents’ brushes with famous people in Detroit.
- Grandma was the head nurse on the ward where famous people were treated. Said famous people would bring their own food and linens, and occasionally the nurses would catch a famous person in bed with a lover.
- There was only one washing machine in their apartment building, and each household got it for one hour per week. With two kids in cloth diapers, that one hour was precious.
- Grandma would take the trolley downtown to do her grocery shopping.
- Living in a big, diverse city was a big shock for two kids from Iowa, but no one bothered my Grandma when she walked to and from work in her white nurse’s uniform.
- One time there was a knock at the door of their apartment, and it was a big African-American guy. He had heard that my grandparents had gone to the University of Iowa and wanted to meet them, as he’d gone to school there as well.
- There was a place where you could go pick out your chicken, and they’d do all of the cleaning and other stuff for you.
These are some things I know about post-war Detroit. My grandparents lived there until around 1950, when they moved to Davenport, Iowa, where they still live.
I would tell you about tonight’s dinner, except that there really wasn’t much dinner to speak of. We made our first trip to Detroit proper today, and as is the challenge in any new city, we had about five times as many restaurants to visit as we had meals to eat. Some time ago, we realized that restaurant meals are generally just too damned big for either of us to enjoy without guilt, especially if salads, drinks, or dessert are in play. We also realized that splitting meals means we can try more things – definitely a good strategy when, as in Detroit, we had more things to eat than could be reasonably managed in one day.
Our first stop was Slows Bar-B-Q, where we split an amazing pulled pork sandwich and Shane enjoyed a remarkable pour of Bell’s Expedition Stout off the firkin cask. The meat was tender and flavorful, the flavor only enhanced by the array of sauces available for (liberal) application at your discretion. I really can’t wait to go back to Slows – Shane said that it alone was worth the trip.
Our second food stop was at Supino Pizza, located in the Eastern Market complex. We split the only slice they had on hand – a very thin piece of cheese with a crispy crust. Other diners were folding their pizza New York style – with just have a slice each, we weren’t able to enjoy the full experience – or the amazing line-up of other zas. Another must-return location!
Finally, after wandering around the Cass Corridor for a bit, we grabbed a couple of beers and a pot of crab dip at Motor City Brewing Works. The beers were unremarkable – I think Shane’s going to review his – but I enjoyed the crab dip, hot and bubbly with a bit of a bite. I continued scraping the little pot with my spoon long after all salvageable dip was gone.
Detroit, you were delicious, and I can’t wait to visit you again.