The Delicate Bones of a Girl and a City
I’ve been a busy girl the last couple of weeks. I didn’t get up to near enough kitchen hijinks, though I’ve managed a fair bit of fun. But it’s not all mischievous merriment in the life of Salty Seattle. You see that picture up there that opens this post? Well that, my friends, is the game of skee-ball, except I’m playing it wrong. Instead of dancing on the skee-ball court, you are supposed to calmly roll small, wooden balls up the lane you see me standing on. You are NOT meant to climb up there, but we were having such fun at the video arcade, how could I help myself? Well let that be a lesson to y’all. This is what happens when you swan dive off a skee-ball lane in 60mm heels:
But I’m a trooper. Despite what I thought was a sprained foot (which come to find out is actually a broken foot that must be surgically repaired this coming Monday), I boar-headedly maintained my social calendar. This included such things as an afternoon oyster date with Michael Ruhlman and Shauna Ahern, as well as a trip to Detroit.
My husband makes an annual pilgrimage to The D, and this year I tagged along. We hopped on the shuttle to the S Gates at Seatac Airport, one step farther from medical attention for my in-denial ankle, but one step closer to the Motor City.
Once on-board, I met a witty flight attendant who mercilessly made fun of me for having two compromised limbs. She insisted I get a wheelchair upon landing, as well as tsked me for continuing to wear heels, even though I explained to her that I don’t actually own a pair of non-heels that aren’t flip flops or gym shoes, neither of which I’d be caught dead in publicly. She radioed Detroit and ordered the wheelchair, then handed me a brownbag that contained a 750ml bottle of wine. She instructed me to drink it whilst being pushed through the airport, all nonchalant-like, as though the reason I was in the chair was because of my excessive fondness for the sauce (which it was was not!).
When we hit the tarmac, I set off to accomplish the arduous task of sightseeing. I came upon this arresting vacant building in Clinton Township:
Detroit is chock-full of glamorous but derelict edifices. The city is frigid and stunning at the same time, like the kind of woman I admire, but could never become. One of the main problems with Detroit is that it is a city of suburbs. For many years, no one wanted to live downtown, so countless neighborhoods were constructed outside the center, along with an impressive freeway infrastructure with which to connect them. Here’s a scene I witnessed on one of the many Motor City freeways:
Suburban sprawl enables citizens of Birmingham or Gross Pointe to avoid saying they are from “Detroit”. How convenient. This was fine when Detroit boasted a thriving population of over two million people in the mid-1950’s. Unfortunately that number has dwindled considerably over the last half century to the current population of just 714,000. Considering that Detroit is spread over 140 square miles- enough to hold Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco with room to spare- it doesn’t take a genius to spot the problem.
During troubled times, people often turn to art as a means of renewing hope and health for impoverished communities. For over 25 years near downtown Detroit, the Heidelberg Project has successfully done just that. It spans several city blocks on Heidelberg Street and consists of found objects turned into art that often makes political and cultural statements. Here is a vignette from one of the newer installations:
In the year since I last visited, one building lingered in my mind as a physical manifestation of all Detroit’s experienced. In its heyday, the train depot saw massive volume and was the tallest station in the world for quite some time. Constructed in the beaux-arts classical style in 1912, it is now on the national registry of historic places. Despite that, its future remains in limbo, with many wishing to demolish the gem. It appears the movement toward restoration is gaining traction- I noticed new windows since my last visit, but it will undoubtedly take an angel with deep pockets to return the depot to a thriving state.
Across from the station sits a historic site of another sort, Slow’s BBQ. I’m told serious barbecue enthusiasts travel thousands of miles for Slow’s. The atmosphere is buoyant and the staff competent, but my brisket wasn’t touched by the hand of god(s), as some may suggest. I had better luck at Astro Coffee next door. It’s haute espresso with all the accoutrements to make it a coffee shop de rigeur- pour-over coffee, askinosie chocolate bars at 75% cocoa, etc- but behind the hipster façade, the macchiato is one of the best I’ve had in the US. The baristas sampled constantly and tossed out bad shots, which is an indicator that serious espressionista magic is at hand.
Because I enjoy tempting fate, I went on an oyster-slurping mission throughout Detroit. The first place I tried was called Roast in the Book Cadillac hotel downtown. The Book Cadillac is yet another historical building that was recently restored by Westin. Walking inside, I felt a little like a pimp in 1982. Don’t ask me to explain why, just go there and you’ll want a cane and a swagger too. Roast is Chef Michael Symon’s homage to meat. There is a rotisserie spit inside that I would cut off my own boob to possess. Then I’d roast the boob and feature it as a revolving special just like they do with suckling pigs and other small beasts at Roast. The place can’t be beat for happy hour. My girlfriend and I each had a glass of wine and shared four generously-portioned menu items- including a fuck-me burger topped with a slutty (loose) egg- for $24 with tip.
Roast does not excel at oysters. They came from BC, which should have been a red flag since they traveled as far as I did to get there, and I was certainly no fresh Freesia when I got off the plane. They were anemic-looking and poorly shucked. I had a similar experience at an oyster bar in Rochester the next day. The ominous signage would indicate not to order the oysters- it may as well have crept out of The Shining:
A platter of oysters should look like this one my friend Jon Rowley helped shuck at Taylor Shellfish, which is the best oyster bar and shellfish retail outlet in the Pacific Northwest:
NOT like this, which was at the oyster bar in Rochester:
I texted Jon a picture of the Rochester oysters and he informed me they were underfed. I informed him that they were also full of cobblestone-sized pebbles, but that’s probably just part of the Detroit “street” vibe.
After my second brush with bad oyster fate, I got gussied up for a party. I told the girls in the salon to channel Kill Bill meets Stepford Wives meets The Help. This is what they came up with:
You do not get to see the pretty dress I put on for the fete because I’m hoping to get at least two more holiday parties’ worth of mileage out of it. Suffice to say when I donned it I resembled a washed-up Floridian mafia wife, which is just the look I coveted. And I acted accordingly, so the next morning required White Castle burgers to soften the hungover blow. My heart lies with In-N-Out, but I would not kick White Castle’s jalapeno cheese slider out of bed.
My mission that day was to gain entrance to a strip club on 8 Mile so that I could make a great daytime stripper picture for you all, but the closest I got was this Hooters conveniently located on Big Beaver Road:
That scarred my eyes plenty, so I went in search of food to stare at because it always cleanses my retinas. I found it at the Detroit Eastern Market. It’s a farmer’s market which boasts a few items a left coast girl such as myself finds interesting, such as fresh sassafrass root, black walnuts and Mountain Dew Jelly. If sustainable, grass-fed and local are the buzzwords out west, in Detroit it’s Amish. It seems Amish has come to mean lovingly-cultivated, hand-crafted and all sorts of other hippie dippie-isms that transcend the original cultish religious connotation. At the market I hobbled past a decommissioned payphone. My husband slipped his iPhone inside the carcass and we took a moment to ponder the confluence of the past with the future.
Ruhlman recommended that I check out Forest Grill in Birmingham while I was in Detroit. It’s owned by Brian Polcyn with whom he co-authored Charcuterie, but I chose to ignore Michael’s blatant nepotism and go anyway :)
I tickled the bivalves of the oyster goddesses yet again at Forest Grill and ate the first good oyster I’ve had in the Midwest. They were from Prince Edward Island, plenty fat and briny like my bicep after a freezing run in the rain. I also, naturally, ordered the house-cured charcuterie platter which featured lomo, sopressata and belly prosciutto. Aside from the fact that whoever was slicing that night got a bit lazy on thinness, it was everything I could have hoped for. But the real story at Forest Grill was the skate wing. The way skates swim is mesmerizing- I’ve admired their serpentine moves from the time I first saw one as a child. I suppose it’s freakish to say I’ve often wondered about their taste and texture. I figured they’d be tough like octopus, but in fact the wing is delicate, flaky and mucous- like beef cheeks of the sea.
Fat-bellied, hobble-footed and warm-hearted, I boarded the plane back to Seattle. While I was sipping my club soda and catching up on work mid-flight, I happened to get a glimpse of the computer screen through my glass.
Some may have seen blurry words and melting ice, destined to ebb away in time like a Tibetan sand mandala. I saw rare jewels, rough-hewn, but dear. Conjuring beauty in that plastic airplane cup of ice required a certain kind of vision; the same kind it takes to grasp the visceral allure of Detroit.