Back Where I'm From: Detroit Suburbs

A Michigan native reflects on the foods of his childhood

detroit suburbs
Alex Testere

Back Where I'm From is an occasional series in which we explore the best food in the less-heralded parts of America.

At Leo's Coney Island in Flint, Michigan, the waitress asks me: Detroit-style or Flint? I don't understand. Born and bred in Detroit's western suburbs, a good hour or so south of Flint, there was only one way to eat a coney dog: piled high with bean-less beef chili, mustard, and chopped white onions. Granted, as a kid, I'd forgo the mustard and onions and slather my own chili-covered hot dog with ketchup, but that's beside the point. I soon learn that Flint-style involves a dry chili—just seasoned ground beef to me—in place of the wet, sloppy mess of my childhood. While common knowledge to some, this, to me, is a revelation: Even now, there are things to learn about my home state.

Hours earlier, I’d landed in Detroit after flying from Brooklyn, my current home, on my way Up North. My parents, currently living in Virginia, just bought a cabin on a lake in northern Michigan, marking a permanent return to our home state more than a decade in the making.

Hold up your right hand, with your palm facing you and your fingers extended and pressed together. Somewhere around the second crease in your middle finger is our cabin. Further south, on the outward edge of your thumb, is Detroit. Its suburbs, my grade school stomping grounds, fan outwards in an impeccable numbered grid. It’s been five years since I last came to Michigan, and as I eat my coney dogs opposite my mom and dad, the memories come flooding back. Last time I was here I was on my way to my grandfather’s funeral, and the time before that, many summers ago, he was still here with us.

Farmington Hills, the summer before 7th grade. My parents head to work and drop me off at my grandpa's for the day. He had a dry cleaning business, and once a week he'd take me on the delivery route. He smokes a cigar on the way there, and my legs stick to the hot leather Cadillac seats as I crane my neck toward the crack in the passenger seat window, searching for a breath of fresh air. The only time he'd roll the windows down all the way was at our routine lunch stop at the A&W carhop on Grand River: Parked under an awning, my grandpa orders hot dogs for us, (remembering my crucial ketchup-only stance), and a nice lady on roller skates brings out two frosty mugs filled with root beer, and latches the tray onto the side of the car. The French fries are perfectly crisp and the mugs are like ice in my hand.

Northville, 7th grade. My friends and I are playing Pokémon in the school cafeteria and eating Bosco sticks—the fluffy, cheesy stuff of dreams. They were breadsticks, yes, but soft breadsticks stuffed with melted mozzarella and accompanied by a dippable tub of pizza sauce that had every eleven-year-old for miles worked up in a frenzy. Somewhere out there in the suburbs, a committee of education professionals deemed this local chain's stuffed cheese bread suitable for school lunch (if only once a week), and the pupils of Hillside Middle School couldn't have been happier. The topic of the day is Eminem's new semi-autobiographical film—an R-rated one that none of us were about to see anytime soon—and we were thrilled, if not a little confused, that a big-deal film starring a big-deal person should be called 8 Mile. After all, Eight Mile Road, known then to sentient adults as the northern border of Detroit proper, was to us just the road our parents took to drive us to school.

Northville, the summer after 7th grade. We spend our days scootering (Razors were very in then) from friend's house to friend's house, a slovenly gang of boys with tongues dyed crimson from too much Faygo Redpop and shirts stained with Jet's pizza grease. We'd drink Vernors ice cream floats; the robust, highly carbonated ginger ale was a cure-all for childhood ailments, and still tickles my nose when I think of it. Late at night, when sugary pop was no longer allowed, I go straight for the source, standing in the light of the fridge with the two liter bottle in hand, panicked that my mother might hear the piercing tssss that I so desperately try to muffle.

Since moving to New York, many of those experiences are simply lost to the past; no matter how many future visits to Michigan I have in store, I will probably never eat another Bosco stick – I don’t even know where I’d get one. I can still go to the A&W on Grand River, but they’ve done away with the waitresses on roller skates. My late night soda cravings have vanished. But others stand the test of time: Sitting across from my parents at this diner, a pit stop on the first of many road trips up to the cabin, I order a Vernor’s, my first in probably ten years. The ginger soda, as sweet and effervescent as I remember it, is the perfect foil for the dense chili-slathered coney dogs; my ten-year-old self definitely took it for granted.

The next time we make the trip, we can stop at Bread Basket Deli, and my dad can order the mile-high pastrami sandwich he used to eat with my grandpa, and that he still dreams of to this day. We can go to Guernsey Farms Dairy for an ice cream cone as big as my head, though I might actually be able to finish it now. When we come up in the fall, we can visit Parmenter's Cider Mill for the season's first local apple press, and get some doughnuts to take up with us. With this return to my home state, my family and I have already begun making new memories, creating new traditions. My mom and I share a Greek salad, and I enjoy my coney dogs with the traditional mustard and onions now, proof of my palate's graduation into adulthood. But even still, I reach for the ketchup, because some things never change.