I, too, remember, America…
Slow Food Detroit Central City
Submitted by Chef Phil Jones
April 19, 2016
I, too, remember, America…
As a chef, you tell stories, but your expressive medium is your food. By taking raw ingredients and
transforming them by fire, knife and spirit, you seize their very souls and spin a tale that says who you
are and how you got to this magical moment.
You translate emotions, memories and thoughts into culinary delights that amaze and nurture, and we
have so many of these stories here in Detroit that need to be told.
Since I am a culinary mutt, I don’t have a traditional food story to tell, but that allows me the freedom to
tell stories of place with confidence and a sense of legacy. I want to leave something from my food
story, but I’m not bound to any family standards. I’m here to paint the picture of Detroit with my tools
of the trade and my training, and I take this responsibility seriously.
Michigan and Detroit has held the largest and still growing Muslim population in the United States and the
second largest Arab population outside of the Middle East, which is similar to the Hispanic and Latino
communities with strong enclaves on the Southwest side of Detroit and near SW suburbs.
In terms of the recipes for this episode of the show, most are familiar with our large and well-documented
Black population, and a great number of folks know about Greektown and our symbiotic little, friend
Hamtramck, with large numbers of people with their Polish ancestory. These are the communities that lent
their flavors to our palate of ingredients for these recipes.
While working as the chef and general manager of a local eatery, I created a series of dinners called,
Storyteller, which became a partnership with a group, Detroit Harmonie, called, Taste the World.
This dynamic offering of dinners told the history of Detroit from the eyes of its immigrant populations
and helped to challenge and inform.
We explored many ethnic cuisines and various regions from around the world. Guests would be
provided a selection of appetizers that encouraged mingling, and they had a choice of three (3) entrees.
This was followed by a representative dessert. The audience ranged in age from early twenties to
retirement age folks, who turned out to be among our most loyal attendees, and the mix included
artists, professionals and, even, nuns!
Fast forward to 2015, and I was honored to be asked to appear on the Cooking Channel’s show, Extra
Virgin Americana, which is a food-based travelogue with actress, Debi Mazar, of Goodfellows and
Entourage fame, her husband, Gabriele Corcos, and their family as they cross this wonderful nation.
They made their way here to the Motor City, where we spent the day filming in our fabulous Eastern
The recipes featured tell a tale of community, loss, love, immigration and urban planning.
The Motor City Shrimp & Grits recipe was born from my time as the Executive Sous Chef at Fishbone’s in
Greektown and my freewheeling and fun-loving youth, as we, Black teens, saved a historic
neighborhood, which became imbedded in the foundation for a world–wide musical movement. As
kids, we would invade Greektown on weekend nights grabbing slices from Niki’s and strolling past the
Greek coffee houses with their card-playing, night-crawling regulars.
Our presence in the area lead to its viability, which spawned an urban mall, Trapper’s Alley, a multi-unit
success story in Fishbone’s and, most recently, a casino. The area known as Greektown has been also
known as, German Town and Black Bottom, which brings to mind the days of Hasting Street and the
words of Donald Goines.
It speaks to a majority population that migrated from the South, including locales near coastal waters
offering up their wondrous bounty, and then gently lays us down in Greece with whispers of Feta, olives
and sweet kiss of tomatoes. It is a recipe of travelers coming together in a faraway place.
We, too, can come together, America…
The Sweet Potato Pierogis & Braised Greens has many layers, too. The Poletown plant was supposed to
be an economic boon for the city that lead to the loss of community and the laid the seeds for blight and
flight. The back cover of Poletown: Community Betrayed, a 1990 book documenting the plight of the
people in this neighborhood written by Jeanie Wylie speaks to this best:
“If a foreign government obliterated 465 acres in the middle of a major
American city, causing the destruction of 144 local businesses, sixteen
churches, two schools, and a hospital, it would mean war. Poletown
tells what happened when these same actions were carried out by the
City of Detroit and General Motors. Poletown is the story of the only
group in Detroit to oppose the construction plan: the Poles and blacks
who fought side by side to save their neighborhood, one of the city's
oldest integrated communities.”
We, too, have lives, America…
The ingredients have their own stories, too. The true recipe for Motor City Shrimp & Grits calls for
Michigan shrimp. Yes, Michigan shrimp! We have a wonderful producer of shrimp who we get a
delightful white shrimp with a subtle briny flavor and distinct sweetness. All of the vegetables were
sourced locally, and purchased right there in the market.
Did you know that Michigan is second only to California in agricultural diversity? FRFR
(For the uninitiated, FRFR means For Real For Real, which just doubles down on the realness!)
We, too, grow food, America…
Our local chapter of Slow Food has a saying, “a meal shared is a story told,” and we lift that up with a
special dinner we call, “You Say…” dinners, which features a single ingredient to be interpreted by the
guests in the style of their particular familial origins. It is a diversity tool with delicious benefits. Our
“You Say…” series for 2016 begins tentatively in August or September.
(Check back after growing season gets going! We have to see how the summer goes!)
I have to admit that when the gardening part of their (The Cooking Channel) expectations wasn’t as
developed as they had hoped, they were not 100% with all of this, plus I was not in a restaurant setting.
It wasn’t until I told the story about the genesis of the recipes with the related background that they
came on board. I have to thank them for understanding the importance of our stories.
Which brings us back to our original theme, I have stories. You have stories. We all have stories.
Let’s celebrate them all.
I, too, remember, America…