Posted 4.19.16 – Detroit
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 Market.
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…
Posted 3.23.16 – Detroit
I keep trying to tell folks that we are more alike than different, and I usually have to fight when I proffer this idea, at first.
However, when I break it down to our most common daily activities, it becomes acceptable, clear and simple. We live. We eat. We breathe, and, sometimes, we do these things well. We all share these common activities, and eating is arguably the most apt to be pleasure driven among those activities. We never send back crappy air.
With that said, most of us have some common food memories, while the details may vary, I, like most, have childhood favorites, like the spicy meat patties I sold on the beaches of St. Croix. Okay, most kids don’t aspire to foodservice greatness at such a young age, but it’s my story…
Like most, I have a first recipe cooked, and the related heart-warming, failure story about getting back up to try again. I have a couple favorite places to eat, and eat, and eat… My story should be told. It’s not that different than yours, but completely different.
I, too, eat, America.
As I look to food, as a black man, who, by chance, cooks for a living, I am struck by the feeling that my food doesn’t matter. I am sure that I am not alone in this feeling, so I want to take a look at this as a part of my personal food work. My daily efforts are focused on telling a food story that rebuilds the system in an equitable, fair and sustainable manner, so I am sensitive to the fact that we have a food system that consumes rather nourishes by the many stories I am honored to have shared with me.
I work in a system that uses me and doesn’t celebrate me or people that look like me, because people of color make up much of the food system workforce, while being noticeably absent in management and ownership. I look back at the many women who headed the kitchens I worked in being relegated to lesser roles and lower pay.
We have a burgeoning food scene here in Detroit that doesn’t see that people of color and our mothers, wives, friends and daughters have voices that are important and soul satisfying, because they do and they are. We, they, you, the underrepresented and underserved are a major part of everyone’s food story, but we are hidden from this significance for far too many reasons.
That’s why these words are so important…
BY LANGSTON HUGHES
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
This brilliant and haunting poem will serve as the backdrop for an on-going discussion around the intersection of food and race as viewed through the eyes of a Black community activist, chef and foodie. I’ll be talking about where my food came from, where it is and where it’s going through an honest and probing racial lens.
My story has value, and I have an understanding about how it feels to be left out. I know what it feels like to watch media faun over the newest, hot chef and wonder why they never look like me. I know what it is to see young women with an intense passion and talent for food to be labeled and tagged from their Easy Bake ovens and beyond.
I, cook, too, America.
I know what it means to plant, nurture and grow food for the survival of my family, friends, community and world. I know what it means to create industry through the ingredients of my family and my creativity.
I, too, grow, America.
I know what it feels like to hear of great cuisines that influence the world, but never about mine. This is where this blog probably finds its first gasps of life. I am hurt, and I need to express the hurt through food, as I always have done.
I feel betrayed, because I brought the food in from the field with no pay off of conviviality or community, both of which were a part of a shared day and existence. It was a twisted, but normal part of our shared day that could easily disappear with the normalcy of a day lived. The real nature of our relationship became apparent when the fruits of our labor were to be celebrated as one, but couldn’t
My work is centered on redefining the food system narrative to be more diverse and inclusive, which are really two greatly different things. Diversity suggests the face of food, and inclusion suggests the institution of food. Both of these areas are sorely lacking adequate representation by persons of color and women, in general.
Good food suggests that this can’t be.
I, too, am America.
Biodiversity has to be at the center of all food system contributors’ values, because our very survival is dependent on that. Survival, is pretty important, in my humble opinion, so that’s why I am suggesting that we need to be assured that our human existence is secure by taking some very needed and tasty steps.
These words speak of a divide, and our food system embodies this divide. How do you celebrate a food story with only half of the cast of characters? You can’t. That makes for an incomplete story. The New York Times would never consider you for that list. Justifiable acceptance on this list is admirable, but just a start. I am emboldened by Shaka Senghor’s recent inclusion in the New York Times best seller list with his work, “Writing My Wrongs,” which examines his life from detention to redemption.
The mission for Slow Food is one of joy and justice, and this blog will examine both of these things by looking at what people eat and why. I hope that it will speak of meals enjoyed and the deeper stories of those meals with all their associated trials, tribulations and triumphs.
When faced with the decision on what I would submit as my contribution to the chapter’s blog series, I was torn as to its nature and focus. I soon came to this poem that felt like a great starting point for a conversation around food, but tackling food from a position of consciousness.
As you should know, by now, I am referring to “I, Too, Sing America,” which has come to be known as one of, poet, Langston Hughes’ most important works and a fitting poetic frame for this blog.
I look forward to future conversations…