My summer vacation in Detroit

“I’m taking a long weekend in Detroit,” is not a phrase I ever thought I’d say. It’s also not a phrase people expected to hear. But some of my Beijing friends were going to be back in the states for a few weeks, visiting their families in Michigan, and as it turns out, airfare from Baltimore to Detroit is crazy cheap. Go figure.

To be fair, I didn’t spend the entire weekend in Detroit. I flew in on Saturday morning, spent the day in Detroit, then drove about 40 minutes from downtown to stay with Kiki’s family for another two days. But the city did make a distinct impression on me, especially considering I had absolutely no clue what to expect.

For starters, Detroit is eerily quiet. There were barely any cars on the highway driving in from the airport, and still remarkably few once we hit the downtown core. Block after block of buildings stood vacant like a ghost town, feeling not so much empty as they were relinquished. I’ve honestly never seen so few people walking around a major city. It was a beautiful, breezy, sunny weekend day, and yet there was nobody around.

detroit-empty-signs

According to Wikipedia, 25% of the city’s population left between 2000 and 2010, and the numbers have fallen even further since then. The most recent census (2013) indicates a population around 681,000, which equals something like 38% of what the population was at the city’s peak. Flipped around the other way, that means there are currently 62% fewer people living in Detroit than there were in 1950. Considering the rate of exodus, the current numbers are probably even lower than that 2013 census.

It certainly isn’t a mystery as to why people are leaving. The recession sucker-punched the auto industry, and it took a hard fall. Subsequent automotive recall scandals have done little to drum up sales for domestic car companies. Where there is widespread unemployment, there is bound to be a population in flux.

A decrease in jobs leads to an increase in desperation, and in turn an uptick in crime. Among the largest cities in America, Detroit has the highest per capita rate of violent crime. What makes it stand out even more is that fact that Windsor, Ontario, just over the river (and the Canadian border), has an exceptionally low violent crime rate. In fact, 4 of the 5 safest communities in Canada are located in the Windsor Metro Area.

belle-isle-looking-at-canada

All this being said, my overwhelming takeaway from my time in Detroit is this – The people of Detroit are some of the most genuine, welcoming human beings I have ever met.

Driving into Corktown, we parked the car in a guarded community lot and ended up having a boisterous (very colorful) conversation with the lone guard. He let forth a rousing belly laugh when discussing the abandoned commercial property adjacent to the lot, which had recently been fitted with a handful of new windows randomly scattered throughout the building. Pointing to an empty shell of a skyscraper across the field, he directed our eye to a lone, shimmering piece of glass near the top of the structure.

Around the corner, we found the coffee shop we had driven in for, and the line stretched out the door onto the sidewalk. The crowd was eclectic – bearded hipsters in unseasonal sweaters clutching mugs for refills; a group of cyclists in matching neon spandex jumpsuits stopping in for water; a mother with her young child sitting on the floor at her feet, wheeling a toy car in circles; a couple tattooed from head to toe eating quiche at a sunlit table; a handful of young professionals furiously typing away on laptops.

The cafe thumped like a heartbeat, its dedicated clientele the blood pumping life back into a tired city. We ran into an old friend of Kiki’s, clutching her nine-month-old niece bedecked with a thick, gold chain necklace. She led us down the block to show us the charcuterie she would soon be opening, next to an auto body shop and across the street from an overgrown, vacant lot. She beamed as she pointed out the fresh coat of vibrant teal paint on the walls, before leading us to a small, fenced-in patio. Her hope, she said, was to expand into the space between her and the corner, doubling the size by next summer.

Ottava-via-detroit

We ate lunch at a charming corner bistro nearby, seemingly the only open door on its block, where we had stellar bowls of cheap, homemade pasta. We sat at the bar, chatting with the bartender about his other life as a DJ and explaining the China roots of our friendship. He had apparently been to Baltimore once to DJ a party and ended up getting punched in the face by a stranger in a Fells Point bar. He related the story jovially, with more amusement than anger. When we left, he shook each of our hands and said he hoped to see us again. I believe he genuinely meant it.

The lost art of the letter

There is something inherently magical about a letter. It’s tactile communication – paper touched by the hand of another, tucked into an envelope that traps their air inside and transports it to you. I find it fascinating, and even slightly romantic, that we still lick envelopes to seal them shut. In a sense, peeling a letter open is like a kiss on your hand.

Letters have a cadence that facilitates a reply, built right into the structure. Not only do you tell the person how you’re doing, what you’ve seen, how you feel, but inevitably you also ask the receiver of the letter about his own well-being. And then, contrary to every modern impulse you have, you wait patiently for a reply. The anticipation is part of the joy of the sending.

postcard-collection

When I was a kid I collected postcards. Most of them are blank, souvenirs I picked up in gift shops or brought back to me from friends or family. But flipping through my collection today, I found a few that were actually mailed to me. A handful are from Elodie, a French girl we hosted one summer when I was nine or ten. She sent the family a postcard from each destination she traveled to on vacation – a stunning pink sky against the pristine snow of Val Thorens, shop lights reflected in the harbor of Saint-Tropez, fireworks over the Eiffel Tower.

postcards

Some of the postcards function like time capsules, capturing little moments that would have otherwise been forgotten. A friend on vacation writing to see if I want to go to the movies when he returns home; a mentor on a business trip describing the museums of Paris; greetings from a Polish girl I met at summer camp.

The one that struck me in particular was a postcard sent to me from New York in 1994, the Twin Towers bathed in copper light. The writer is someone named Christina, though I can’t remember who she is or where I met her. She asks how my novel is coming along. I don’t remember that either, but apparently it sounded really good to her.

NY-pen-pal

In fact, a few of the postcards are from pen pals – perfect strangers who received my name and address through chain letters. These days we’re all so guarded, so private, that the idea of giving out an address sounds like a crazy risk to take. But when you think about it, it’s really not such sacred information. Not only are most of us listed in the phone book, but the phone book is now an online database with address, map, and even age.

As an experiment in personalizing the cold reaches of cyberspace, I’m going to ask you to send me your address. With the request comes a promise of handwritten correspondence. A letter, or a postcard, or a drawing, or maybe even a box, sent to you from me. This invitation is open to friends and strangers alike, in the hope that I can keep the magic of the mail alive. You can get in touch with me using my contact form (and I sincerely hope you do).

Faking it – Coconut flour biscuits

By now, most of you know that I am in the midst of a quest to convince myself that grains are gross because they make me feel gross. This is only half-true, since all carbs are delicious, but regardless of how tasty they are I’ve noticed that eating grains (as well as processed foods) leaves me wishing I hadn’t. In addition to just a general sense of malaise, my muscles ache, my skin gets irritated, and my head is filled with a thick fog.

The problem is, sometimes I just want to eat a damn pretzel. Or a piece of toast. Or a biscuit.

The first two I haven’t figured out yet, but last week I think I came as close as a human can to perfecting a grain-free biscuit. I had made previous attempts with almond flour (which is my go-to flour alternative for sweeter baked goods), but those biscuits came out dense, chewy, and flat. I took to the internet and found that most people seem to use coconut flour for baking breads. This seemed odd to me at first because I would more quickly associate almonds with savory than coconut.

Coconut-flour-biscuit-dough-gluten-free

Not one to shy away from culinary experimentation, I picked up a bag of coconut flour and got down to business. Since the internet also insists that different brands produce different results, for this recipe I used Bob’s Red Mill Organic. Not because I have any allegiance to it, but rather because it was the only coconut flour available at the store I went to. I used this recipe as a starting point, and really only changed the flavor-related ingredients while retaining her structure.

The result was a fluffy, just slightly cheesy, perfectly puffed-up biscuit. It was a little drier than I would have hoped, but only slightly, and I think that wouldn’t be an issue at all if I were using these to mop up chili or smothering them with gravy (two applications that I very much intend to test).

coconut-flour-biscuit-gluten-free-low-carb

If you have a gluten sensitivity, make sure that you’re using a baking powder that’s clearly marked as gluten free. While you probably already know this, I figured it’s still worth mentioning that most brands use corn or potato starch (both totally cool) but some also use wheat starch (full of gluten). If you don’t eat dairy, you should be able to replace the butter with ghee or another oil, but I don’t think there’s much you can do about the cheese. Except maybe let a little cheese back into your life.

Parsley-Parmesan Coconut Flour Biscuits

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup coconut flour
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic & herb seasoning (my favorite is McCormick)
  • 1/2 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 1 handful chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 cup shredded Parmesan

Directions

  • Preheat oven to 400 and line a baking sheet with parchment paper
  • Mix together all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. I prefer to use a glass bowl so that dough is easier to mix.
  • Add in the cheese and chopped parsley, stirring to evenly distribute
  • Stir in melted butter, then eggs
  • Mix well until there are no lumps and a dough forms. This requires a bit more mixing than regular flour would.
  • Drop by the spoonful onto the parchment-lined sheet. Leave a little space for the biscuits to expand.
  • Bake for 15 minutes

The original recipe said this would make ten biscuits, but I only ended up with nine. This is quite likely due to the fact that I made larger biscuits than the recipe intended, though the cooking time remained the same. The biscuits came out of the oven smelling amazing, with golden brown bottoms and pillowy tops. Unlike some of my previous biscuit attempts, they taste just as great as they smell.

The dawn is a blinking cursor

One day last week, I woke up with a line of verse in my head. It didn’t go anywhere, but it also didn’t go away. For days, any time my mind was at a lull, the line would float back up to the surface. I wrote it down, stared at it, willed it to continue on into another line. Frustratingly, it did not oblige.

But experience told me that if there is power in one line, then it’s worth waiting for the rest to take shape. Last night, something clicked. I’m not much for defining something as good or not good, but I am for taking pride in something you patiently nurtured into being. I’m also trying to get more comfortable with the idea of sharing what I write, because I have a tendency to be guarded when I should be more open.

I’m not sure that it’s finished (whatever that may mean), but I’m content with where it is at the moment.

shadow-self-portrait

The dawn is a blinking cursor

Some days I am almost a bird.
It is a becoming,
a certain of-ness,
a craning of the neck that glides
into an unintentional alert nod
over a tilted shoulder.

I startle easily.
There is something so natural
about the rush of blood,
thumping chest pushing back
against the constraints of skin.
As if the sudden intake of breath
were just an extension
of the wind.

But also I wonder at times if
what I want is a conscious choice,
and if that choosing is mine entirely,
or just a reflex wired through
the half-awareness of my
avian heart.

Cereal killer

These days, it seems like using the word “carb” is akin to shouting “Voldemort!” in a room full of wizards. And not without some merit. While carbohydrates are undeniably delicious (my ideal lunch involves a fresh, crusty loaf of bread, butter, and nothing else), the reason we find them so palatable is the simple biological fact that they make good storage for later. The human body is the original doomsday hoarder, but instead of canned goods, it just keeps jamming fat cells full of “what if?” fuel for any unforeseen famine.

In an attempt to cut back on carbs, two weeks ago I gave up eating cereal for breakfast. It’s not like I was wolfing down a giant bowl of Sugar Smacks every morning, but I thought it was worth a try to ditch the very boring grain flakes with almond milk I was eating and replace them with a mix of nuts and seeds with almond milk. Of all the carb-swapping I’ve attempted recently, I’d have to say that this has been the most enjoyable. Unsurprisingly, I got all the ingredients from the best nut retailer in the galaxy. (Not their slogan, but it should be.)

grain-free-cereal

The base of the recipe is a small handful of unsweetened coconut flakes (about 1/4 cup) and then I just add pinches of this and that depending on what I’m in the mood for. The mix in the photo has sliced almonds, a few raw cashews, a few raw walnuts, some chia seeds, dried goji berries, fresh blueberries and cinnamon. Sometimes I add raw pumpkin seeds or unsalted raw sunflower seeds. Sometimes I used freeze-dried berries if I don’t have any fresh. I keep all the ingredients in the fridge to give them a good crunch (and keep them from spoiling), and if I’m going to add goji berries, I let them soak overnight in a little bit of almond milk just to plump them up a bit.

So many people are ditching grains, whether it’s because of a gluten sensitivity, Celiac, or a paleo-style diet. For the record, I will never be able to fully embrace primal eating, for the simple fact that you’ll have to pry my cheese out of my cold, dead hands. But as a lifestyle that encourages an increase in bacon consumption, I give it a general thumbs-up.

It seems, in the midst of all this carb-shunning, cereal manufacturers have found themselves taking a big hit in sales. I say this because an interesting side-effect of this experiment has been a heightened awareness of cereal ads on television that are aimed at adults. And these aren’t just any cereals – these are cereals normally consumed by children, trying to lure adults back into childhood with their sweet, sweet carbohydrates.

While I’ve never been a Lucky Charms fan myself, apparently people who think the marshmallows taste like food (instead of styrofoam) really like picking the marshmallows out of the box. So, I’d say this is a pretty clever angle to take in trying to get adults to remember the sugary joy of being a kid. I mean, as an adult, you’re in charge of the purchases, so you could buy a dozen boxes of Lucky Charms and just fish out the marshmallows from every single one. Living the dream!

Froot Loops, on the other hand, totally missed an opportunity with this one. They’re trying to get parents to remember what it’s like to be a kid, and while that’s not a bad strategy, they have a woman getting all pumped up about hitting a coin block on the very first level of Super Mario Bros. (which, if memory serves, should be a mushroom block and not a coin block anyway). Getting past the Hammer Bros. is much more deserving of a mouthful of incentive carbs than just remembering which button you press to jump.

Frosted Mini Wheats have taken a different approach by trying to convince you that eating a bowl every morning will give you enough energy to make all the fancy coffees you need to make today. It will also give you the sugar rush you need to help forget that the economy has forced you back into the type of job you had when you were a teenager, before you earned a graduate degree and all the debt that came with it. Their tagline really should be, “Frosted Mini Wheats: For when you want to eat your feelings.”

I think this is my favorite of the bunch, simply because it comes across as a seriously desperate attempt to be hip and relevant by casting internet sensation Grumpy Cat in a commercial for human food. It also (probably unintentionally) hits the carb nail right on the head, because I think trying to convince people who have given up grains to eat cereal will get you the same response as trying to get Grumpy Cat to smile.

no

Summer oddities

Judging by the feeling that my cheap shoes were melting into the asphalt in the Target parking lot yesterday, summer is now in full swing. Even though I’m photosensitive to the point of nearly vampire, I know that for most people this change of season means a lot of time spent outside. Though I won’t need any outdoor items myself (except my trusty SPF 100), a very brief scan of the internet proved that fandom isn’t the only category filled with odd and/or puzzling products.

Toypedo

Toypedo

Aside from the worry that the very product name sounds like something that should be kept far away from children, there still remains the fact that this is a pool torpedo toy. You know, for kids. The makers of this maim mobile are very stealthy in their warnings, telling you that you shouldn’t throw it at other people but also should wear goggles while using it. In other words, you’re probably going to lose an eye to this underwater lawn dart.

Bird Spikes

bird-spikes

Are pesky birds spending way too much time being visually stunning on your property? Do you just hate the sight of wildlife in your outdoor space? Well, luckily for you, someone has invented a product that basically turns your deck into a fortified medieval tower. Just add a moat and a couple of murder holes and you’re ready to thwart an invasion. These make the perfect companion piece to a toypedo, offering you the opportunity to poke your eye out on land as well as in the water.

RedNek Wine Glass

rednek-glass

The class factor of these glasses at a backyard barbecue is somewhere between drinking out of a paper bowl and drinking out of an empty potato chip bag. I also imagine if you’re at the kind of party where people are drinking out of Mason jar stemware, you’re probably more likely to just drink right out of the Franzia box spout. Another blazing red flag is that the website tells you it’s “a fun way to serve up your favorite wine or homemade moonshine.” So classy, you just might die of class poisoning (or moonshine).

Steel Grill Perforated Meatloaf Pan

meatloaf-grill-pan

Williams-Sonoma, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Only you could decide that meatloaf needed to be made on the grill, and then invent a pan to make said meatloaf on said grill. Even the example photo loaf looks dried out and charred, with a fine coating of burned fat residue left on the perforated insert. It will probably not surprise you to learn that this item is a Williams-Sonoma exclusive.

Portable Briefcase BBQ Grill

briefcase-grill

This is a James Bond, stealth skewers on a secret lair-adjacent beach, laying in the sand with a woman whose name is a thinly veiled reference to a vagina kind of gadget. Even the product description thinks so:

Get down to barbecue business with this portable grill that fits within the confines of a sleek stainless steel briefcase. Perfect for kabob enthusiasts on the go, this versatile design opens up to reveal a grill and charcoal pit, perfect for an al fresco meal for two. Just prop out the two adjustable legs, grill to your heart’s content, wait for the piece to cool, and then take your grill wherever the smoky barbecue sauce takes you.

Coming soon to a picnic near you – Heinz 57: License to Grill.

Faking it – Almond flour pancakes

My subconscious has been infiltrated by pancakes. Not that anyone needs any particular reason to fixate on pancakes (they’re fixation-worthy in their own right) but my own hankering has come from reading my way through the Odd Thomas series. The titular character is a fry cook who is renown for his pancake skills. And also seeing ghosts. But ghosts don’t have nearly the same pull on my subconscious as pancakes do, it would seem.

The cruelty in this craving is the simple fact that I am terrible at making pancakes. For all the cooking that I do, you would think that I’d be able to handle something supposedly so simple, yet they elude me. Grilled cheese, tuna melts, fritters, crabcakes, latkes – I rock them. But attempting to make pancakes is a guaranteed recipe for failure. If you’re a potential suitor (a creature I’m starting to suspect is mythical), the key to my eternal devotion is a well-made stack of fluffy buttermilk magic.

Since I’d managed to convince myself that zucchini was a substitute for pasta, I figured making a pancake that wasn’t really a pancake might actually work. I took a recipe that came from my almond flour dealer, halved it and added a bit more moisture. The end result didn’t exactly satiate my pancake lust, but it was tasty and I managed to only burn two (a new personal best).

almond-flour-pancakes

The trick to not murdering these pancakes, for me anyway, seemed to be making six smaller cakes rather than three normal ones. Don’t let the extreme close-up above mislead you; the pancakes pictured are about the size of a coaster. If you’re cooking for multiple people, the recipe should double without any problems (since it’s a halved recipe to begin with).

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup almond flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch salt
  • 2 Tb almond milk (or any milk – regular, soy, coconut)
  • 1 Tb oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 very ripe pear, peeled and mashed

I just mixed all the ingredients together to make a batter, coated a pan with nonstick spray, and cooked over medium heat. If you don’t have any ripe pears around, I suspect you can achieve the same result with applesauce (2-3 Tb should do the trick). In addition to being delicious, depending on the ingredients used they can also be gluten-free and paleo-friendly. What they cannot be is buttermilk pancakes, but they’ll tide me over until I can get my hands on the genuine article.