The Drive-In Movie Theater Photography Project

drive-in
Copyright Craig Deman

Today we have an interview with a very interesting travel photographer. Craig Deman has done a number of photography projects, including The Drive-In Project, a look at abandoned drive-in movie theaters across America. Since today is the 80th anniversary of the drive-in theater, we decided to have him as a guest.

Welcome to Gadling, Craig! Tell us a little about the project and what attracts you to abandoned drive-ins.

You know how some people can remember many details about their childhood and teenage years and some people can only remember a few? I fall into the latter category. Even though I might not remember a great amount of the details of my childhood, I do have vivid memories of my earliest experiences at drive-in movie theaters. I remember the first movie my mom took my sister and me to at a drive-in. Can you say … “Supercalifragilisticexxpialidocious”? I remember the names of the guys I was with in my friend Mike’s trunk when we snuck into our local drive-in. Without question, I remember the details of the first girl I was “with” at a drive-in movie theater!

Today, approximately 90 percent of drive-ins are closed from their peak in the late 1950s. As a lover of architectural and landscape photography, drive-in movie theaters represent defining moments and passion for me. The distressed and decaying wood of a ticket booth, overgrown and unwieldy shrubs/trees where cars once parked, matched by the enormous scale of a screen tower all together scream as loudly to me today as if I was back in the day we laughed with joy upon successfully gaining entrance to the drive-in while sequestered in my buddy’s trunk.

Putting it simply – it’s the raw emotion, still present, from almost 50 years ago, that attracts me to abandoned drive-ins. A lot of people respond to the imagery of my Drive-in Project by referring to it as “haunting.” I’m good with that, as long as those same people’s definition of the word haunting includes “Mary Poppins” and getting busy.

%Slideshow-577%When you were doing this project, did you get to meet any folks who used to go to these drive-ins?

The people I met from Alabama to Arizona or from Nevada to New York were universally eager and open to sharing their personal experiences at drive-in movie theaters. People expressed a breadth of emotions when describing individual feelings they held in their memories about drive-ins they had visited.

Let me tell you about a couple of folks I met. I was shooting the Lake Estes Drive-in (Colorado), when I met the owners John and Sharon, in order to gain access to the projection booth. When we entered the projection booth, my eyes opened as wide as a kid being offered candy, as this was the first and only abandoned projector booth that I came across that still had a projector in it. It was dusty and needed a tune up to be sure, but it was a beautiful hunk of metal. All I could think about was what an organically perfect interior setting this was for my series. The rawness of the setting evoked such visceral emotions.

John and Sharon are planning to redevelop the land where the drive-in was located over 20 years earlier. They want a “good home” for the beautiful hunk of metal and offered me the projector. As of this interview, I haven’t figured out where I could house it. I’m still thinking about it, to the dismay of some in my family.

I came across something unique when I was researching drive-ins to shoot in Tennessee. Brothers Ed and John grew up going to the Moonglo Drive-in located in Pulaski. They own a dealership and loved going to the Moonglo when they were growing up. They loved it so much that as adults they bought the property and built their car dealership around the Moonglo’s projection booth and screen.

It was too good pass up for this project, no matter how far I had to drive to get there. Ed and John are great guys and thanks to them, I captured some wonderful images. While they’re concentrating on growing their dealership, I don’t believe it would take too much to get them to consider firing up the Moonglo as an operating drive-in movie theater.

Do you have any tips for budding photographers who want to take their own images of abandoned Americana?

Yes, I call it the three Ps – plan well, be patient as well as persistent. The Drive-in Project was shot over a four-year period in ten different states. Living in California, I traveled thousands of miles to shoot 80 percent of the drive-ins within the series. Each and every location deserved to have painstaking thought put into each image and that’s what they each received. If the lighting wasn’t right at the time I was there, I slept in the rental car, hoping the next morning would bring better light.

The three Ps came into play often during those four years, but nowhere more so than the drive-in located in Commerce, Georgia. Initially, I couldn’t even find it. So many years have passed that the drive-in is now engulfed by a full-blown forest that has hidden the remnants of the screen and ticket booth from the main road.

After finally locating the screen through the forest, I loaded up my equipment and began to hike out to setup my camera, a Mamiya RZ67. Suddenly, I felt this incredibly sharp pain in my right foot. I had stepped on a 4-inch nail that pierced my shoe and was now embedded in the ball of my foot. I said to myself, “I have come this far, I have to keep going and get the shot.”

I loosened my shoe and pulled the nail out, hiking further into the forest to a clearing where the small remaining piece of the screen was visible. As I’m setting my tripod up, I heard this rustling and am joined by two Georgia State Troopers. The troopers informed me that I was trespassing on private property, but I’d done my research and I knew the name and contact info of the property owner who had given me permission to shoot there. The troopers ended up being nice guys and were quite interested in my project. They left me to do my work and just as I was feeling good about covering the three Ps until one of the troopers, as they were walking away, said, “Watch out for snakes around here!”

What’s next for you?

I’ve started a project that involves a 1950s “Normandie Starline Mod 1″ beauty parlor chair, which I have named Marilyn. Marilyn has a beautiful chrome dryer top with a pink chair with an ashtray in the left arm and a swing handle that lifts the leg rest. Marilyn will be photographed in various environments juxtaposed against outdoor landscapes, models inside my studio and street scenes.

The name of my new project is: “Road Trip With Marilyn (RTWM).” Although I am only about 20 percent into my RTWM project, I have found that Marilyn helps me in a couple of ways as a photographer. Marilyn is a great icebreaker; her physical appearance attracts and pulls people into the space she is placed in. People are anxious to play with her and pose with her chrome dryer top. I’m excited about hitting the road with Marilyn and capturing an eclectic series of photographs. Maybe we can hook up with you, Sean, while you’re on one of your upcoming adventures?

You, me, and Marilyn in the Sudan! That would make for some interesting photos. Thanks for joining us today!

VIDEO: What People In Jerusalem Wish For


When the news talks about the people of Jerusalem, it’s usually to highlight their differences. While those certainly exist, there’s more to it than that. People all have their own opinions and priorities and the folks living in Jerusalem are no exception. In this video, a group of Jerusalem residents are asked all the same question: if you had one wish, what would you wish for?

Their answers are surprising, and cut across religious, political and ethnic lines. There doesn’t seem to be any agenda to this video, as the divisive comments (some quite nasty) are left in along with the heartwarming ones. Naturally, many address the big issues, while some are tied up in their own affairs. This reflects my own experiences in Israel, where people range from good to bad to just plain ugly.

But mostly good, and that’s important to remember.

An Interview With Paul Theroux, Author Of ‘The Last Train To Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari’

paul theroux last train to zona verdeAfter writing eight travel books that took him around Britain on foot, through the Pacific on a kayak, across Latin America, Europe and Asia on trains and up and down Africa by his wits over the last 30 years, one might think that Paul Theroux would be hard pressed to find new insights into the traveling lifestyle. But in his new travel narrative, “The Last Train to Zona Verde,” the 71-year-old Medford, Massachusetts, native manages to once again break new ground with yet another insightful, page-turning account of a trip that’s equal parts misery, hilarity and tragedy.

While other established writers might be content to spend their golden years waxing poetic on the joys of cruising the canals of Southern France or writing puff pieces on cruises or luxury resorts for P.R. flacks, Theroux returns to Africa – the setting for some of his most memorable books – for one final adventure in little known corners of South Africa, Namibia and Angola.

Theroux intended to travel overland up “the left hand side” of Africa, starting in Cape Town and heading north, as a sort of bookend to his trip up the “right hand side” of Africa chronicled in “Dark Star Safari,” but after a series of tribulations including having his identity stolen, Theroux abandoned his plans in Angola, where, for the first time in his life, he found a train, heading into the country’s zona verde, that he didn’t want to board.Theroux has often remarked that the best travel narratives chronicle bad trips and by that metric, “Last Train to Zona Verde” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt – out Tuesday, May 7) is a delight. In a recent special report on Africa, The Economist concluded that Africa has never been in better shape. But apparently their correspondents didn’t spend much time in the impoverished backwaters of South Africa, Namibia and Angola, as Theroux did. Zona Verde is a bleak, but honest appraisal of a continent “plagued with foreign advisors” where corruption, bad governance, poverty and disease are the norm.

But Zona Verde isn’t all doom and gloom. It’s also filled with amusing anecdotes, Theroux’s trademark storytelling, and some of the most prescient insights about both the pleasures and hassles of travel I have ever read. It is clearly one of his best works; a compulsive read that deserves to be recognized as one of the classics of the genre.

the last train to zona verde my ultimate african safari paul therouxZona Verde is replete with vivid descriptions of corners of Africa that rarely make the news, but it really shines thanks to the author’s disarming admission of vulnerability. Theroux admits that he’s getting old and shares his fear of dying in an out of the way slum, only to have people who barely know him conclude, “He died doing what he loved.”

“It’s only when in a hovel in the bush, or being stared down by a hostile stinking crowd (Meester! Meester!), or eating a sinister stew of black meat or a cracked plate of cold, underdone, greasy, and eye-speckled potatoes, or banging in a jalopy for nine hours down a mountain road full of potholes – with violent death as close as that dark precipice to the right – that it occurs to me that someone else should be doing this, someone younger perhaps, hungrier, stronger, more desperate, crazier.”

We reached Theroux at his home on the North Shore of Oahu where he told us about how he lost four friends in Africa, encountered an untold number of busybodies and crooks, and had his identity stolen but somehow remains an Africa optimist. Theroux also assures us that he hasn’t lost the “vitalizing itch” to travel but warns that “some kid who is in his parent’s basement with a blog” should be the one stuck on “9 hour buses to nowhere” rather than him.

Travel writers usually complete their proposed trips, even if they are dangerous or make no sense, because they think they have to in order to sell their stories. In Zona Verde, you reached your Waterloo after a lot of trials and tribulations and said, ‘I’m not getting on this train.’ I didn’t think you owed readers an explanation for wanting to go home, but you gave them one.

My travel books have always been faithful accounts of what happened to me, things that happened, conversations that I had and feelings that I had. I didn’t feel an obligation to do anything but explain why I wasn’t going further. I had the idea of going north from Angola into the Congo, and then Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria and Mali but it’s just not possible to do that and write anything other than an anatomy of melancholy. I didn’t really want to be completely downbeat.

A younger traveler or someone who is interested in the sociology of cities would probably do it better than I could. As far as I was concerned, my patience was done and my trip was over. I was sort of happy too because I wasn’t thinking ‘Oh God, if only I could do it.’ I was thinking, ‘I’m relieved of this. I won’t discover anything. I won’t learn anything.’ If you know you’re not going to learn anything, it’s like having a bad meal. You take a few bites, and you say, ‘well that’s that.’

Did I feel an obligation to go on? No, I didn’t. I’ve never traveled with a sense of obligation. I’ve always traveled with a sense of purpose and, I suppose, adventure. But if I don’t think in my heart there are going to be any discoveries, there is really no point in going.

At a few junctures in the book, you address a fear of dying in some backwater and having people say, “He died doing what he loved.” You also wrote that when you left Cape Town you feared that you were “setting off to suffer and die.” I don’t recall you addressing this fear of mortality in your previous books. Am I wrong?

Maybe not, but I was younger then! There are three deaths in this book and I subsequently learned that a woman I met in a township called Khayelitsha who runs a bed-and-breakfast called Vicki’s Place was killed. About eight months after I met her she was stabbed to death by her husband. She was stabbed multiple times. It was witnessed by her children.

Have you ever had this happen before, where you go on a trip and then come back to discover that someone you met died?

No. Not that I can recall. It does happen. In Africa, there was a student I had that died, but no, this is unusual and it concentrates your mind. It’s not Africa necessarily. But there were people I got to know and I really liked them. These people loved being in Africa. There was an Australian, Nathan Jamieson, who loved being there with the elephants. A Portuguese guy, Rui da Camara, who was born there and Kalunga Lima who was full of energy and I was planning to go back and travel with him. So it was a shock. It makes you value what you have and question, ‘Am I doing what I love or am I willing to take the risk of going further?’

Sir Richard Burton said, ‘What am I doing in a canoe going up a river perhaps never to come back?’ He said, ‘Why do it? The devil drives.’ There is no explanation for it. When he wrote that he was 42 years old. I mentioned in the book, I was once 42 and willing to take any risk. I had just written “The Mosquito Coast” at that age. I was game for anything. I was in South America. I was in Africa. And I was doing fairly risky things. Not to the Richard Burton level but when you’re 42, you can make it. Even more when you’re 32.

I just turned 40 and I’m probably more risk averse now than I was when I was 30 because now I have a wife and two kids.

When you have small children and responsibilities you feel like, ‘I owe it to them to keep them happy and to keep myself alive.’ I was more willing to take risks then. Burton didn’t get to my age. He died at 69, I think, in Trieste. When he was in his 60s he was in Trieste doing consular business and he was writing and translating erotica. He had a big library and a great life in his 60s but a very sedentary and scholarly one. There must be travelers my age who take risks but I don’t know any of them.

Dervla Murphy! She’s 81 and is about to release a book about her travels in the Gaza Strip.

Oh yes. She’s older than me. She’s very game. She’s a candidate.

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You wrote that when you’re staying in a really pleasant place, it’s easy to imagine you can keep traveling no matter how old you are. But it seems as though you still have that “vitalizing itch” to take these really difficult overland trips through developing countries?

I do, yes. I think I do. If there is something to find out, I’m up for it. But if there is nothing to learn, no. If you’re talking about physically being up to it, yes, I am. And even being psyched up for it. But the longer you live, if you have any sense at all, and you are somewhat forward looking, you create a home for yourself. You have a painting you like. You have a library with good books. A chair you really like. A lovely bed. Maybe you are married and you love your wife. You have all the things that create happiness.

When I was younger, I was more nomadic. What is the ideal place to live? What’s a picture that I really like? What are the books in my library that I want to keep or donate to the library? You make a plan. And I think you have more of a home in your later life than you do in your early life. That’s a great reason for staying home. Being happy. Having a place to live.

I’m speaking to you from Hawaii. I grow bamboo. I have geese running around. I have beehives. I live on seven acres. I’m about five minutes from a beach. I’m up on a hill and I can go down to the beach. Sometimes people will say, ‘Come to our writers’ conference, it’s lovely,’ and they name a place like Key West. Well, I’m in Hawaii, so I’ll say, ‘Tempt me, but you’re going to have to do better than we have a wonderful beach.’ I’m in Hawaii!

I imagine that might explain why you’ve never been to Niagara Falls, my hometown. I read in the Times that that is one of many places you’d like to visit sometime.

I do want to go to Niagara Falls. I mentioned several places I haven’t been to but would like to visit. Montana, Niagara Falls, Idaho, a lot of Canada, Scandinavia. There are a lot of places I haven’t been to.

You could live to be 300 and not see it all.

You can’t. The world is so big. And it’s also staying longer in a place and going deeper. But since I wrote that piece, I’ve traveled in the American South for a piece I’m writing for Smithsonian magazine. The rural south is a place well worth visiting. Full of surprises and strangeness, so I’m up for that.

Coming back to Zona Verde, you wrote that you always considered yourself a fortunate traveler but on this trip you had your identity stolen and someone made $48,000 worth of purchases on your credit card. You wrote in the book that you believe someone at the Protea Hotel Ondangwa in Namibia may be the culprit. Did you make a formal complaint against them with the police?

That was pretty dismal. I made a complaint. I called the American Embassy and they put me in touch with the police. I gave them the names of all the places my credit card had been used. In some places, it was used to buy $4,000 worth of furniture. Getting windows tinted. Some of the charges were just getting a $2 ham sandwich at a gas station but others were very big expenses like computers.

It was $48,000. I think if someone bought $4,000 worth of furniture from you, you’d remember them, wouldn’t you? And also, the furniture has to be delivered somewhere doesn’t it? I got a couple emails from the police and then nothing happened. I think someone made a copy of the card at the hotel where I stayed but I don’t have proof of that. I just feel it.

Did the credit card company hold you liable to pay the entire bill?

It took months to sort it out but no, I didn’t have to pay. The card had been used without any I.D.

My credit card company frequently denies charges I make overseas if I forget to call and alert them that I’m going to be out of the country. I’m amazed that someone could make nearly $50,000 worth of purchases before the fraud department at your credit card company got wind of what was going on.

Exactly. Why would I buy $4,000 worth of furniture in Namibia? The fraud department said this happens all the time but very rarely that large an amount.

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I loved the “Three Pieces of Chicken” chapter in Zona Verde where you were so hungry that you found yourself trying to decide which piece of fly bitten chicken in a dirty bucket was fit to eat. That’s the kind of decision every serious traveler faces at some point, right?

That’s one of my favorite chapters in the book. It’s an object lesson in travel. You see a meal, it looks disgusting, but you think, ‘I’m hungry and there’s nothing else to eat.’ So you eat it and there’s only two pieces of chicken left but the same number of flies. And then, you eat the second one and there are a lot of flies and only one piece of chicken left. Things happened in that chapter. I lucked out. There were girls getting their efundula, this rite of passage ceremony. That’s traveler’s bliss. You arrive in a place, you don’t know what’s happening, and then you discover that something interesting is going on.

You wrote, “Most people come to Africa to see large or outlandish animals in the wild while some others make the visit to Africa to tell Africans how to improve their lives. And many people do both, animal watching in the morning, busybodying in the afternoon.” You also wrote that Africa was a “continent plagued by foreign advisors.” Can you elaborate on some of these “busybodies” you met?

What I was suggesting is that people go to a country, they see a situation and say, ‘This is a nice place. I like the weather. I like the food. I think I’m going to help these people.’ Someone from say, Alabama, goes to Zambia and says, ‘Gee, these people are having a tough time,’ not noticing that Alabama has many of the same problems that Zambia has. A high infant mortality rate, AIDS, hunger, poor housing. But busybodying in your own country isn’t romantic enough.

There was a piece in the New York Times about how the Gates Foundation and a lot of health agencies have completely undermined the health system in Sierra Leone by corrupting officials there. That’s a form of busybodying I suppose. They think they’re solving a health crisis but all they’re doing is creating a mess in the government. You were in the Foreign Service so none of this is news to you. Where were you?

Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary. And I was once the desk officer for Chad and the Central African Republic.

Trinidad is pretty interesting, isn’t it?

It is but there are good reasons why V.S. Naipaul wanted to get out. It’s one of those places that is better to visit than to live in. Port of Spain is not the Caribbean paradise people dream about.

I haven’t seen much of the Caribbean, but I know Naipaul hated Trinidad. You know I wrote a book about him.

Sir Vidia’s Shadow. Great book.

Thanks! I’ve never been there and I used to tell him I wanted to go and he’d say, ‘Why would you want to go there? It’s a dot on the map, it’s corrupt, it’s horrible.’ He also felt that Indians were discriminated against there by Afro-Trinidadians.

In Zona Verde, you spent some time with a USAID Foreign Service Officer and you questioned why American taxpayers should help promote tourism in Namibia, rather than say, Maine. That kind of critique can get you in trouble though, can’t it?

Yes, but I was friendly with this guy, Oliver Pierson. I’ve heard from him since. I wrote a piece in Playboy about aid to Africa and he saw it and thought it was fair. You make some enemies but I thought I accurately reported what he was doing. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is actually well run and well monitored. It’s much better than USAID building some endless project.

I’ve been traveling in the South. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi but I got really interested in it. A lot of projects in this region are run on a shoestring. If they had more money, they could make a huge difference in the rural South, but that’s the way it is. Tanzania and Ghana are places that get hundreds of millions in aid. 600 or 700 million dollars. That’s a lot of money for countries that are basically not badly off. Ghana isn’t badly off.

But for some reason, the romance of building a school in Africa is greater than the obligation we have to build a school in rural Alabama. And there are some very bad schools there. There are parts of South Carolina that look like Zimbabwe. Allendale, which is a town south of Columbia, where I spent some time recently, is one. There’s no employment. Everything is closed. Local industry has been outsourced.

I don’t like to be the person who is negative about aid. I’m not for cutting off aid. In a humanitarian crisis, I’m all for giving aid, but accounting for the money is very important as well. For example, that piece (in the Times) on Sierra Leone is a perfect example. You have some very smart people who have gone there and been completely bamboozled by the government in Sierra Leone.

Most of the book is a pretty bleak assessment of the poverty and corruption you experienced in Africa, but near the end of the book you wrote that you are still optimistic about the continent’s future. I was a little puzzled by that because it seemed like you encountered very little on this trip that would make one hopeful about Africa’s future.

That’s a fair question. I think I’m hopeful because it’s unfinished. So much of what is there, buildings, governments, infrastructure is so fragile and could just fall down. When a place is almost built on sand, my hope would lie in people’s indignation or in their being rebels against governments that are cheating them. Aid prevents them, to some extent, from showing this indignation. The government is throwing them crumbs and other countries are running their education and health services or what have you. But if they knew how deeply they were being cheated, and they do on some level, then you overthrow the government.

Things are thrown together with duct tape and no one is there for the long term, at least in terms of helping. It’s a house of cards and it can be rebuilt. But it’s also still a huge, green, empty continent. The majority of Africans live in cities. The bush is depopulated so that’s still full of possibility.

A few months ago I interviewed a legendary German traveler named Gunther Holtorf, who has been to some 200 countries and one of his favorite places is what he called “Virgin Africa.” The bush – not the cities.

I can relate to that. And there’s still a lot of it too. There may be more of it now than before, because people are leaving villages for the cities. The Eastern Cape in South Africa has nothing. There is no industry. They’re not growing food as they once were. People are streaming out of the Eastern Cape and going to the cities. The middle of Angola is pretty empty, but Luanda is full of people. The cities are full of people who are thinking, ‘Well, something will happen to me here.’ On some level, people feel safer in cities and insecure in the bush.

As a reader, I’m torn between wanting to see you return to places you’ve already been, like to the places in the Pacific you wrote about in “The Happy Isles of Oceania,” for example, or reading your take on places you’ve never been to. Would you prefer to return to places you found interesting to see how they’ve changed or go somewhere new?

That’s an excellent question, but it’s the same impulse. You know that if you go back to the place you were in before, 10, 15, 20 years later, in the case of the Pacific, I was there in 1990 and 1991, a lot has happened in those islands since I was there. So there would be a lot of discoveries to make. And then in a new place, I know I would also make discoveries. So the reason for travel is not to reassure yourself and enjoy a mai tai at sunset, as nice as that may be.

It’s nice to find out something new. There ought to be an intellectual experience, making a discovery. Both are impulses so the answer is both. If you go to a new place, you’ll see something new. In the Pacific, it’s been a slippery slope, because they’ve had more fast food and more Internet. Going to an island that didn’t have TV and now has Internet, I don’t know how much of a thrill that would be, but there’s something to write about. Whenever something bad happens, you have something to write about. That’s what you want. Not the predictable.

Was this your last trip to Africa?

I will probably go back to Africa but as far as writing a book like this, I doubt it. I would have to be really tempted and be sure I wasn’t wasting my time. I have a lot of friends in Africa but I haven’t been back since I finished this book. I can speak Swahili. I can speak the language I learned in the Peace Corps, Chichewa. The idea of being in a place where you can speak the language, a place you know – I’ve known it for 50 years – is a great temptation. But the idea of getting on another nine-hour bus on a trip to nowhere – no I’m not willing to do it.

Some kid who is in his parent’s basement with a blog, that’s what he or she should do. Go find out what the real world is like. I did it. If I were younger or if I liked cities more or understood them better, I might be up for it. You read the piece in The New York Times about where I want go. Those places – that’s where I’d rather go. Niagara Falls. I’d like to do that.

You wrote in the book, “Reading and restlessness – dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere – made me a traveler. If the Internet was everything it was cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake, to verify, to smell, to touch, to hear and sometimes – importantly – to suffer the effects of this curiosity.” We’re always signing the praises of travel, but having that restless itch can also ruin people’s lives can’t it?

Yes it can. And impatient people who are used to the Internet will find that travel is slow and full of nuisance and delay – that there’s no instant gratification. Or that there’s only one bus or train a week and you might get stuck. They haven’t got the patience for it but that’s what travel teaches you. Temperamentally, people are less suited to travel than ever because the Internet is so quick in offering answers, but they’re not always the right answers. So there is more reason than ever to travel but there are fewer people willing to put up with the nuisance of it these days.

[Photo credits: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Peter Cleghorn, Jeremy Holden,Justin Ornellas, JMerelo,JMazzolaa, Aftab, Rui Ornelas, and Zokete on Flickr]

The Detroit Dining Scene: An Interview with Chef Steven Grostick

Chef Steven Grostick has never worked in a kitchen outside of Michigan. It’s a remarkable accomplishment in an industry focused on apprenticeships in France, Italy, Japan, on jumping from stove to stove in New York City, on doing a turn at a resort in Arizona. Staying in-state has let him amass a network of purveyors, and he’s calling in favors from as many as he can at his year-old restaurant Toasted Oak in Novi, a growing, mostly white town halfway between Ann Arbor and downtown Detroit. I sat down in his restaurant’s bustling lounge to catch up and gauge the temperature of eating out in the area.

“I was born and raised here, and with the way the economy’s been, and the way the dining scene is, I’ve always said that Michigan is not a dining state,” Grostick tells me. “Nobody says ‘Hey, let’s go to Detroit to eat,’ not like Chicago or San Francisco or Vegas. But we’re such a food state in the fact that we’ve got the five Great Lakes, we’ve got all the fresh seafood, we’ve got awesome amounts of farms here.”

So what’s happening with Michigan farming?

“There are some really, really awesome things that are going on in Northern Michigan. I’m a part of the Northern Michigan Small Farms Conference. They do sustainable farming, and there’s a farmer up there called Paul May-he’s up in Frankfort, Michigan-and he started this really cool system where he gets these barren plots of land, takes it over and he splits it up into 52 sections. In the first section he lets cows go in and graze, and then the chickens come in, and then the pigs come in and root up the soil, BOOM, now you’ve got refreshed land to farm in.”

What are some difficulties with Michigan farming, besides of course the weather?

“The hardest part has been sourcing things because when you run a restaurant, you go to a small farmer, say a chicken farm, and I get all geeked up and say, ‘Oh yeah, I want to put your chickens on the menu.’ And so they go ‘Okay, how many do you want?’ and I say, ‘Can you give me 50 a week?’ You never hear from them again. So I’ve kinda changed my approach when it comes to this. Now it’s, ‘Well, what can you give me? What can you supply me with?’ So I might not put that particular farm on my menu if they can’t produce what I need, but I’ll use it as a special and say ‘So-and-so’s chicken’ or ‘Wordhouse Farms pork tenderloin’ if I only have a short supply.”

What’s the concept behind Toasted Oak?

“The idea of Zingerman’s Deli is actually part of what I wanted to do-I wanted to bring that concept here with the deli cases and things. I ran a fine dining restaurant for many years and I realized that fine dining is kind of dead. It’s got its place out there but you can’t survive on just fine dining.”

What’s the vibe at your restaurant?

“The guests want that chef-that white coat [as he grabs his own white jacket]-walking out and talking. So I encourage all my cooks and sous chefs to know our guests and our customers.”

I hear you’re going to the James Beard House in New York, the fancy foodie HQ that invites rising star chefs to cook for the NYC food world. What’s on the menu?

“I cook Michigan, and that’s exactly what I call my menu for James Beard, ‘I cook Michigan.’ I’m taking farm raised products, Michigan wines and I’ve actually found a Michigan distillery that makes whiskey, New Holland. The hand-crafted, smaller products are always much more fun because they’re so in demand.”

What’s it like to do business in Detroit? What’s the secret to success here?

“People expect quality no matter what you’re doing. Detroit, we’re the Motor City, so whether it’s a quality car product, a quality food product or whatnot, people want value and they want quality and that’s what I like to produce.” When his restaurant won two two Best of Detroit awards from Hour Magazine, “It’s not restaurant of the year where a food critic comes in and says you’re restaurant of the year, it’s my guests, the people sitting in these seats, that say it. So that’s a really cool honor.”

What other restaurants in the city are doing great things?

“Downtown they’ve got some really cool places that have built reputations. Whether it’s in the big casinos, places like Roast or Saltwater or Iridescence, those are your higher-end restaurants. But you’ve also got Slows BarBQ, this tiny little barbecue joint.”

When I was in Chicago, a woman from Detroit told me to try a Coney dog. What the heck is that?

“One of the things I’m taking on my James Beard menu is my version of a Coney dog because New Yorkers think they invented the Coney dog because of Coney Island. Actually, it was invented here in Jackson, Michigan. It’s a Vienna all-beef frank, and there’s a chili that goes on top made from beef hearts and beef liver. That’s a Coney dog, but the Michigan dog is the same Vienna all-beef hot dog, the Coney sauce that goes over top of it and then two strips of yellow mustard and chopped onions.”

After spending your whole life in Michigan, and as a small business owner, do you still believe in Detroit?

“It takes a certain type of person. You met that person out in Chicago who told you about Coney dogs, and I bet she was proud to say she’s from Detroit. My sister lives out in Colorado Springs but she sports the Detroit Tigers cap with the D on it. She’s proud to be from here. I think us as Detroiters, we’ve been through-it’s just like that car commercial-we’ve been through hell and back. Those of us that were born and raised here, we really believe in what we do. We want to stay here, which is why I buy local. I want to keep my money in Michigan.”

The Bookmobile: swapping stories and hitting the road

It’s appropriate that at Litquake — the recent week-long celebration of books in San Francisco — I’d find out about unconventional ways of honoring the written word.

I came across the Bookmobile, parked on busy Valencia Street with its doors open wide, inviting visitors to come inside.

‘Is it a library or a bookstore?’ I wondered, trying to categorize it so I could understand it. The thing is, it’s neither.

It’s a truck that’s empty inside, except for wooden shelves on each of the side walls, which are filled with books. The concept is simple and brilliant: step inside and get a book. In return, they don’t ask for money. They ask to videotape your response to the question “what book influenced your life?”

Creative and thought-provoking, right? Even better, the Bookmobile will soon put its wheels in motion to reach people in small towns along the Lincoln Highway. It’s set to leave San Francisco in April and arrive in New York City in mid-May.

At the helm is founder, Tom Corwin, who has had success as an author, music producer, and film producer. And if you think the driver looks familiar, you’d be right. Along the way, different authors — including Amy Tan, Tom Robbins, and Dave Eggers — will be joining the road trip and taking their turn at the wheel.

At the end of the project, Tom will combine the interviews with a history of the Bookmobile and create a documentary, appropriately named “Behind the Wheel of the Bookmobile.” He hopes to finish the film by spring 2011.

“Books influence our lives in ways too often untold,” says Tom. “Our trip is designed to tell some of those stories while our back roads route connects the project to America’s literary history.”

You can only imagine the stories waiting to be told — both by people along the Lincoln Highway and the authors themselves. They’re likely to be as varied as the books out there. Already in the archives is the story of Ralph Eubanks, the Director of Publishing at the Library of Congress, who recalls being thankful to visit a bookmobile during his childhood. As an African-American in Mississippi, he could get books there, when he couldn’t get them at the library.

The Bookmobile on this trip is authentic, alright. Until recently, the “Old Gal” made her rounds of the suburban Chicago area for 15 years (and 70,000 miles) to bring books and the love of reading to children and adults. Bookmobiles have been used as mobile libraries for towns without library buildings and for people with difficulty accessing libraries — the first U.S. bookmobile ran in Maryland in 1905.

Books have already been donated by libraries and publishers, but what the project could use now are money donations (from $35 for ‘buy a mile’ to more for ‘buy a state’).

If you’re not on the cross-country route, you can still be a part of the Bookmobile experience. Submit the story of the book that influenced your own life (in 200 words or less) to the Bookmobile website. And follow along via the website’s blog and interviews, or get updates on Twitter and Facebook.