On Day 3 of my return to suburbia, my best friend Mark and I embarked on an eating tour of Southeastern Michigan. Before you start laughing haughtily, let me assure you that neither McDonald’s nor Krispy Kreme were stops on our tour. In fact, despite what I tell the general public and my therapist, the Metro-Detroit area is rather diverse and we were able to sample quite a number of ethnic cuisines. (Forgive me, but don’t you hate it when people use the phrase “ethnic cuisine”? What cuisine is not “ethnic”?)
We were going to kick off the day at the Sahara Festival at The Antiochian Orthodox Basilica of St. Mary in Livonia, a church with a predominately Middle-Eastern congregation. Mark read about the festival in a local newspaper and we were ready to enjoy some Arabic culture and food until we got to the church and noticed the parking lot was empty. We jumped the gun a little in our excitement for falafel, shwarma, kafta and live Arabic music and traditional Dabke dances and had come a week early.
Slightly disappointed but undeterred in our quest for some good, authentic Middle-Eastern eats, we decided to have lunch at New Yasmeen Bakery in Dearborn, a city whose population is nearly 30% Arab. On the way there, I spotted some colorful flags (the kind you might see enticing you into a car wash) and a giant sign proclaiming “Czech and Slovak American Festival.”
Our curiosity was piqued, so Mark made an illegal u-turn and we pulled into the Sokol Detroit Cultural Center. Sokol (from the Czech word for Falcon) is a Czech and Slavic youth movement and gymnastics organization that was founded in Prague in 1862 with the credo “a sound mind in a sound body.”
After standing in line behind three elderly women who all complained about how difficult standing was for them (one assured her companions she was okay so long as she was stooped over her walker), we finally paid the $7 admission price. We weren’t exactly sure what this entitled us to and we were disappointed to discover the festivities didn’t start for another two hours.
We half-heartedly walked around the booths and bought some poppy seed pastries. We sat down in the empty gymnasium where all the tables were set up. Mark thought the pastries were disgusting (they were little more than discs of bread with some poppy seeds spread in the center) and I was just glad that we had said yes when the woman asked us if we wanted powdered sugar on top of them.
After leafing through the festival’s program, we decided to go have lunch at New Yasmeen Bakery and come back in time for the accordion sing along. New Yasmeen is equal parts bakery, store and deli.
We had some excellent baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli and freshly baked zatar bread. Zatar is Arabic for wild thyme and is usually sold as a mixture with other herbs common to the region. Iranian and Lebanese grocery stores often sell zatar in a mix. Other mixtures might contain paprika, hyssop, olive wood, marjoram, or oregano. It is the Middle Eastern equivalent of herbes de Provence.
We enjoyed zatar the traditional way, spread with olive oil on pita bread. The lemony thyme and bitter, woody sumac were lovely on the soft, warm bread and even yummier dipped into the cool, creamy baba ghanoush. The only downside to the zatar bread is that I got a lot of spices stuck under my fingernails, but it was worth it. For dessert, we shared a honey swirl (something like a cruller but denser and drenched in honey) and a pistachio confection.
After lunch, Mark wanted to stop by Alcamo’s, an Italian market, to see if they had any fresh baby artichokes. After the cashier screamed across the store to the deli counter and the deli counter woman screamed back at the cashier, we discovered that they were out of season and that Mark would have to wait for Fall. It wasn’t a total loss, however, as Mark picked up some Stella D’oro cookies for his mother and I got to peruse what was a fairly decent collection of Italian goods.
We made a quick stop across the street to look into the abandoned Montgomery Ward department store and toured the adjacent Arab American National Museum before returning to the Czech and Slovak American Festival, which was, by then, quite packed (with mostly octogenarians, some septugenarians and a few families with children.) Excluding the children, we were the youngest people by about sixty years.
We tried the three varieties of perogi offered by the Czech (and Slovak) kitchen. The cheddar cheese was a bit strange, probably because the cheese tasted like Velveeta. A sharper cheddar (though probably not very authentic… though any kind of cheddar probably isn’t) might have been better. The farmer cheese was better, but the star of the trio was definitely the sour kraut.
We had a few remaining tickets (the festival booths didn’t accept cash) and decided to use them to buy drinks. I was hoping for a Czech pilsner, but the only beer they had was Labatt Blue. Labatt’s, like Canadian pennies, is a scourge from the north that commonly afflicts Michigan residents.
We watched the Moravian Cultural Society Dancers from Chicago, IL perform a few dances (which seemed taxing on some of the less fit ones who were quite winded after a few twirls) and went back to Mark’s house to go swimming, our bellies full of the world.
The evening ended even more gloriously than I could have imagined. When I came home, my parents were beside themselves because their nightblooming cereus plant, whose flower they had waited three years to bloom, finally did. Also called “Queen of the Night,” the exqusitely scented flower opens for one midsummer night then closes forever with the first rays of the morning sun. Apparently, in Taiwan, people invite all their neighbors to come over and enjoy the flower in its fleeting moments of glory, offering them cigarettes and candy.
As my parents and I crowded around the flower (I was videotaping and my dad was taking pictures while my mother was exclaiming how beautiful it was), their neighbor’s teenage son came home. As he exited his SUV, my mother called over to him and asked, “Do you want to see our flower?” After a brief pause he said, “What?” which, to be fair, was probably an appropriate response if you saw your neighbors crouched around a plant at midnight on a Saturday night and they invited you to come look at it. Unless it’s marijuana, I’m pretty sure that teenage boys have no interest in looking at plants.
I, however, thought it was beautiful. I went to sleep that night, bloated from all the food and riddled with mosquito bites but happy as a clam. Mmm… clams.