DETROIT INSPIRED, PART I: THE FOOD

I just returned from Detroit. I don’t travel very often (this goddess’s budget doesn’t always allow for it), but I try to take one meaningful trip per year. This year, the meaning behind this voyage was to visit my friend who has recently relocated there. We met and became friends in PA, and have been staying in contact via Skype over the last year and a half. This friend has lived all over, and several months ago, after bouncing around the city from one temporary living situation to another, she and her husband finally purchased a home in Core City. They are truly committed to wholeheartedly settling down in this Midwestern pocket of unexpected contradictions, and I was their first official house guest!

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My friend’s house, located in Core City (one of the many pockets of Detroit), is on the far right, with an abandoned factory across the road, and an urban farm run by two long-time friends on the far left. This farm is called ACRE. © Libby Saylor

Detroit is honestly the last place that I would ever expect to unearth inspiration. At this stage of my life, I am pretty over urban landscapes. I lived in Philadelphia and New York City for years, and was born and raised in the city of Reading, PA proper. Coming from Reading, I’ve witnessed first-hand what happens when an industry-dominated town loses its industry (Reading’s industry was railroad transit, steel, and textiles). The city experiences devastation for decades and it takes a LOT of well-meaning people, intentions, and actions to bring it back. I have yet to see Reading bounce back from this loss, and Detroit has a similarly (but far worse) devastated, post-apocalyptic character (obviously, Detroit’s industry was automobile manufacturing, and is no longer).

I don’t really care for history in general. I especially don’t care to know much about the history of a city, city planning issues, the politics of a city, or anything related to what happened to a city, what is currently happening to a city, and what will eventually happen to a city. This topic inspires many people, but not I. This aspect of Detroit, its history, its plight, and its future, really inspires my friend and her husband, which is one of the many reasons why they are so committed to living there, and for that I applaud them. Unfortunately, I was less inspired by the historic factoids and knowledge-based neighborhood tours that my friend consistently and earnestly presented me with over the course of my visit—although I definitely appreciated her sincere attempts. Still, these short-term, fact-filled, mini road trips through town were entertaining and facilitated the forging of a deeper bond between friends, and I would not have wanted the trip to be any other way.

However, there were other things about this trip that inspired me greatly, and they really did not have much at all to do with Detroit.

FOOD

My friend has a true gift for food preparation. I think you can start off as an absolutely horrible cook, learn and develop skills as you go, and really improve your cooking over time. But there are also people who just have an intuitive sense about food, as well as an utter absence of anxiety about what to do with it. The key to being a truly gifted food preparator (this term is mostly used in the art world to describe the delicate handling of artworks on display, but I’m using it here incorrectly on purpose), is that you need both of these components in order to really wow others with your creations. My friend possesses both of these dynamically dualistic gifts.

Luckily, all three of us (I, my friend, and her husband) absolutely LOVE the experience of food. We share an understanding about the spirituality behind food. We like to talk about food, and think about food, and savor the goodness of our food. We appreciate where food comes from, how the ingredients achieve their quality, and we all understand the importance of what kinds of food we put into our bodies. We understand that food prepared with love and thoughtfulness is truly an expression of the soul, and that time devoted to making an incredibly thoughtful meal, is not time wasted. We love eating food, while talking about food, with food in our mouths, as we continuously scoop more food onto our plates full of food.

A large portion of this visit really centered around all things food, and it truly flavored my beautiful time in Detroit. This couple is also vegan, which throws another interesting kink into the mix. I really do love meat and dairy products, and at the same time, I am in touch with my body enough to recognize that I process those kinds of foods much more laboriously than I do with non-animal products. I tend towards vegetarian for the most part, but would never deny myself a hot dog, a few pieces of bacon, or a hunk of mouth-watering cheese; and sometimes seek these items out deliberately when I’m in a rather saucy mood. But to find ways to craft dishes lacking in animal-based flavor, that still nourish my body (meaning, I’m not hungry in an hour), and taste delicious, takes such mind-boggling skill in the kitchen.

Behold…

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Freshly picked vegetables from their garden © Libby Saylor

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An incredible pasta dish that my friend whipped up for me on the fly. It was flavored with garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, fresh tomatoes from the garden, fresh basil from the garden, and fresh thyme from the garden © Libby Saylor

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A curry noodle dish that I am literally still salivating over. I don’t even like curry dishes, or so I thought, yet I could not stop raving about this meal. This was made with fresh curry leaves from the garden, others spices from the pantry, wilted kale, squash from the garden, basil from the garden, and coconut milk. This stole the show for me. © Libby Saylor

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This was delicious and nutritious tabbouleh made with fresh herbs and veggies from the garden (we had to buy some ingredients for this one because the garden wasn’t able to fully keep up with our ravenous cravings) © Libby Saylor

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Homemade hummus that we slopped up (like little piggies) with freshly toasted farmer’s bread © Libby Saylor

FARMS AND GARDENS

I love farms and I love gardens. I know very little about either, and this lack of knowledge pains me in a very taunting and haunting kind of way. I live in an apartment and grew up in cities, and I do not have a naturally green thumb. Perhaps one day. But for now, it’s a way of life that I am very drawn to and deeply believe in, and yet feels so far out of reach in terms of my everyday lifestyle.

My friend has a garden across the street from her Core City home, and I had the pleasure of briefly participating with her in the harvesting of fresh vegetables and herbs, in preparation for our glorious meals. I felt so strangely awkward in the garden, and asked that she assign me tasks to perform, as I had absolutely no confidence in taking any initiative whatsoever. I even welcomed the task of trekking back and forth across the street with water-filled jugs, because it made me feel more useful than my clueless probings of plants in the dirt. Gardening is a mysteriously unique combination of extreme physical exertion and impeccably delicate discernment. How does one know what to water, what to snip, when to snip it, where to snip it, and so forth? And how does one endure the heat, the bugs, and the bent over back-straining stance that is required of all gardeners? It’s all a bit too much for me to wrap myself around, and yet, oh to live that life. I understand what it means. I just don’t know how to live that way.

And so, for my four-day visit to this tangibly upheaved metropolitan landscape in the middle of America, I was unexpectedly graced with the miracle of actually witnessing and experiencing a way of living that means so much to me, bestowed to me by a dear friend with heartfelt love and care. She understands this way of living and takes the time to cultivate it daily. She milks inspiration from her miniature plot across the way, and brings that dream into her pantry-stocked kitchen with a light and fearless ambition. It was amazing to become briefly swept into this incredible cycle of life that I so deeply believe in, that I experienced a sadness returning home, back to my own cycle, the one that works well for my current lifestyle, but lacks the inspiration. But oh to live forever in that medieval-wisdom-garden kind of way.

Inspiration, cultivation, execution, digestion…

Although this post, and my reflections about my visit, really have nothing to do with Detroit itself, I still honor the landscape of this town, for no other reason perhaps, then the fact that my friend lives there, and she is loyal to and in love with this town. Because of this, Detroit now will forever hold a special place in my heart.

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My favorite public mural in Detroit © Libby Saylor

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