By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
When I was a young man of nineteen, maybe twenty, I spent three weeks living in a motel in Detroit. The particulars of how I found myself in such a sorry state — staying in a room where, on my first night, I found a dead rat under the bed so old I'd originally thought it was a rotting banana; which looked out on a popular stroll densely populated by working girls; which smelled so powerfully of curry and head-shop incense that I started smoking cigars in the room to make it smell better — are unimportant here. What's important is what I remember of the food.
My first attempt at finding barbecue was a disaster, and my first attempt at finding fried chicken a delight, even if the place I found was boarded up on the outside and inside and appeared to be seriously fire-damaged.
I spent many nights hanging out at an all-night diner on Telegraph Road, eating skillet breakfasts at two in the morning and getting advice on the finer points of making one's living as a car thief. I got mugged there, losing about fifty bucks and part of a tooth, and then, a night later, ended up eating fried chicken and drinking coffee with one of the guys who'd mugged me — a college student who rolled tourists and business travelers for pocket money. He didn't give me back my fifty, but he did buy dinner, which was nice of him. I spent other nights in a video-game arcade playing Mortal Kombat (which should tell you how long ago this was) for money against guys too young to be hustling pool; the dirty-water hot-dog cart parked out front provided all the sustenance I needed while being schooled by vicious, foul-mouthed twelve-year-olds.
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And though I know my recollections are tainted by the neighborhood I was living in and the kinds of places I was frequenting, what I remember most about Detroit was that every other restaurant seemed to be a soul-food restaurant of some sort — either a chicken shack or a rib joint, a fast-and-cheap street-corner dive or some half-creepy neighborhood hole-in-the-wall famous for nothing but its collard greens, whiskey shots and chicken. Detroit is a great city for soul food, a kind of fine-mesh screen made for catching northeast and south-coast food traditions and capturing them before they head too far west; a snare for poor folk looking for poor-folk party food. As far as I know (and I do know some...), Detroit has no particular food to call its own — no hometown specialty, no beloved regional cuisine. What it does have is everyone else's favorite food, all the dishes you want when you're stuck there and dreaming of home.
Henry Coleman, owner and head cook at the new Coleman's Soul Food, knows from Detroit soul food, Detroit comfort food, Detroit's streetside, slapdash, eat-while-walking cuisine. He's a veteran lunchwagon cook from the city, a guy who knows his way around a vat of potato salad, a crock of greens and pork chops done in the pan. From behind the rail of his kitchen at Coleman's, he knocks up specials (roasted barbecued chicken breast with greens and rice and gravy on my most recent visit), bakes the cornbread, slow-cooks his brisket and hot links.
The menus at Coleman's (there are several) can be confusing. There's one hung outside, in the window, which lists dinners and sandwiches, offers cheeseburgers and a variety of sides. There's another, much shorter one, laminated in greasy plastic and set on each table that lists just five plates and a couple of sides. There's yet another hung over the kitchen pass — larger and somewhat more detailed — that lists more sides, more possible plates, rib and hot-link sandwiches; beside it is a chalkboard where Henry writes up his special of the day.
And then there's the true menu, which exists only in the head of his niece, Tyawne Williams, who waits on all the tables and watches the front of the house. She'll tell you that Henry has black-eyed peas cooking in the back even if black-eyed peas are listed nowhere else. She'll tell you that the regular chicken dinner comes fried, not baked, and that it's made for them of big appetite. She'll tell you when the cornbread's good and when it's a little burned around the edges, that Henry damn sure can make those pork chops smothered (provided you're willing to wait to have them done right), that the place doesn't take credit cards or anything else — it's cash on the barrelhead or you're walkin' — and what kind of tea they've got brewing behind the bar.
Without Tyawne as your guide, ordering a meal at Coleman's can be a haphazard affair. And if there's something you've got your heart set on and don't see on the menu, just ask her. Who knows? You might get lucky.
Two weeks ago Saturday, I was craving fried chicken — all steamy-hot and crackling, with some greens, some beans and a couple shots of whiskey, neat — and was standing in the bathroom slicking back my hair and tucking in my shirt and whining to Laura about how I could almost taste that chicken: the crackle of biting through the skin, the bitterness of gray-green collards wet with pot likker. It was a hot night, and everywhere there was that smell of blacktop steaming after a fitful, momentary rain shower. The last thing I wanted was to sit in a fancy dining room for two hours eating duck, tuna tartare and sour-cherry reduction.