The Kibbee Shack

A while ago when I lived in Detroit I worked at FoMoCo in Highland Park. Lunch options were scarce. But, the ones that were there were prrretty, prrretty good.

As you know, Detroit is a car town. No. Make that, THE car town. Detroit, Motown, Michigan: "During the day we make the cars; at night, we make the bars." I was there before Eminem; and I was the shiznit, before there even was a shiznit. You down with that?

I joined Ford right out of college just to have income while I went to graduate school. I applied for a job on the assembly line at a time when HF I's (Henry Ford the 1st) original assembly line factory was making tractors—the Highland Park plant was the first automobile assembly line in the world, turning out those Model T's. The assembly line I believe is Henry’s contribution to the succesful quest to amass a fortune at the expense of the working man. Think of those archival images of Model T’s coming off the line. There's a nice bit of historic video on that plant at the end of this, so stay tuned.

By the time I arrived the place was so old and so dark. Lit with incandescent bulbs and every surface brown/black with oil and the whole place a noisy racket and smelling of dirt, oil, smoke, and perspiration. Once you take a whiff, you know...I don't know what, but you know. A multi-sensory time travel. If the dehumanizing setting weren’t enough, the story goes that Ol’ Henry was such a hump that if you were on the commode he could drop in to see what you were making. Better have something to show the MAN. Later, of course, there were the unions and I am a proud former member of the UAW. When later I worked in the FoMoCo Surface Coatings Division R&D lab, in homage to Henry, the bunch of us crammed into the lavatory stall to get the boss’s signature on an important document. Boys will be...

Paydays, feeling a little flush, the boys would make the bars. Once I tagged along and got introduced to the joys of gin (as in a shot of gin) with a Coke chaser. Tough boys, those car guys. Maybe there's a new trendy drink to try out. Hey, bartender, Gin & Coke, please.

Later, I opted for a salaried post in the quality control lab. There were two sections; one for physical testing, the other for chemistry. I went to the chemistry side and got to do things like carbon content analysis (refractory furnace, ultra-sensitive balance scale), salt corrosion testing (huge salt steam chamber), and monitoring the production line chemical gear plating station. The transmission gears were all phosphate coated for corrosion resistance and lubricity. Then the gear faces were ground (for your pleasure and enjoyment). The test upstairs in the lab was to monitor the various chemical baths to determine that the required chemical concentrations were up to spec. Since the plant was so big I got to ride to my stop at the phosphate station on my very own company bicycle. It was like riding through the Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Art Institute.

If you are not familiar with the realities of industrial plant production and sometimes wonder how what you get is so different from what it should be, let me tell you. In the lab the tests for chemical concentrations are very precise. Very tidy and determined. On the production line floor, however, with huge, maybe 5,000 gallon chemical baths, it's a bit more free swinging. Next to the station were large bins of loose granulated chemical compounds. Based on calculations from the lab tests I would go down and tell the attendant how many shovels full of this or that to toss into each vat. I would evaluate the outcome of the plating process with a test strip that came back to the lab after processing to measure thickness. Let's say I erred on the generous side. Not better, necessarily, mind you. The system was goldilocks, not too much not too little; they wanted it just right.

Anyway, at the lab on Thursday's it was Hot Dog Day. Each of us would take turns springing for all the fixin's. Hot Dogs, buns, condiments, and—if you were feeling generous and sporting—homemade chili. Since it was a chemistry lab, we had heat and these almost gallon sized glass beakers to cook the hot dogs. Exquisite.(When in Detroit go to Lafayette Street, Downtown Detroit, for the definitive Coney Island Hot Dog. As a lad my record was five —5!)

I was laid off from Ford Tractor and landed at the Industrial Coatings Division. At the time it was located in the front office building to the plant on Woodward Avenue.

That's where we formulated and tested car and truck paints and base resins for the foundry. I got to wear a lab coat and conduct experiments testing paint formulae against an arm's length of variables.

Lunchtime is a highpoint, if not the highpoint, of a working man's work day. One fellow and I shared a very rare gourmet taste. Bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread with yellow mustard. Accompanied by pickled hot yellow peppers and a large glass of milk. Still, quite excellent. I fancied myself quite the cook and every so often I would treat the guys to a pot of homemade New England clam chowder. Is there any other kind? On paydays occasionally we would pile into cars and head off for an "extended" lunch at Buddy's Rendevous (since 1946) on 6 Mile Road and Conant. Since those days, Buddy's has expanded with multiple locations all round town. It is famous for really delicious square pan pizza. And huge goblets of draft beer, we called "shupers". Be sure to add a good slug of tomato juice to the beer. Tastes good, goes down easy. Buddy's is where I was served beer for the first time while I was still under age. The waitress just looked at all of us boys and said, "You're all 21, right?" Naturally, you know what we said. She winked—she was hip to usso I didn't have to go to confession for telling a lie.

We also had a line on a bakery that made hot pasties ("pass-tees"). Not pastries. Certainly not "paste...ies" (that's the Gaiety Burlesque on Woodward Avenue, and for another write). [But I will say that we had to stop at the Gaiety Burlesque on the scavenger hunt the night of my college fraternity initiation weekend. A G-string was on our list of things we had to bring back; or else. The nice lady at the Gaiety not only gave us her G-string, she autographed it. I don't remember the name exactly, "Lili St. ..."? Blaze Star? Another item on our must get list was a bra. That one wasn't gonna happen. The loveliest cheerleader on the squad, Ms. Vera B., slammed the phone on me when I called her for that favor at 2 in the morning. Sorry, Vera.]

Back to the baked goods. It's pronounced "past'... ies. The little pastie seems to go back in history to the early 16th Century, can you believe it. Filled with lamb, onions, potatoes, and swedes. Wow! It's a item that the miners in Devon, England would take to work. The sturdy bread crust keeps things warm by the time lunch rolls around down deep in the cold mines. [When I was dating the future wife she asked me to suggest something I'd like her to to cook for me. Pasties, please? She left the room crying after I gave her the verdict. (But, she evened the score some time later, and left me crying. Literally, left me. Some dish.)]

But what about the Kibbee Shack, you ask? I know the writing is excellent, but you signed on for some information, not a literary tour de force. (But, thank you for the compliment, anyway. Tell everyone you know.)

Not far from the Ford Highland Park plant on Woodward Avenue going eastward toward downtown, was a small little restaurant with a sign "Hamburgers" in front. Inside there was this old married couple serving the customers. Open the menu and, sure there were hamburgers, but a long list of Middle Eastern specialties as well. Those two old folks were immigrants from Syria, tough and craggy like the very hills they came from. But, order the Baba Ganoush, and mama would waddle back to the kitchen and roast an eggplant over the flame of the stove. Soon after you could hear her pounding it into a purée in her wooden mortar. It would come out still warm, drizzled with fragrant olive oil and maybe some fresh pomegranate seeds.

That stuff was so far from what you get in the salad bar today that you would need a rocket ship to travel the distance. One of the few things that still can bring tears to my eyes is remembering the birth of my two little angel daughters; and, of course the Kibbee Shack. In no particular order of importance. Just kidding. The Kibbee Shack. Nah!

The Middle East is known for its hospitality and the epitome was the long gone Sheik Café in downtown Detroit. They welcomed you like family and I even once got a tour of the kitchen. The food, never equaled again. Once, when I wanted to treat my parents and brother to an excellent meal, it was The Sheik Café. My dad was smacking his lips with enjoyment.

Well, there was something that did go one notch better. A Lebanese Catholic church on the east side of Detroit that on Thursdays had a lunch in the church basement. For $2.00 you could have all you could eat of the very most lovingly prepared Lebanese dishes made with care by the ladies of the church. When they made kibbeh nayyeh, it was like you were there at the dawn of civilization. (Hey, Mark Bittman, ever had anything that good?)

I'm not going to give a recipe for kibbeh nayyeh. The Internet is chocked full. But, if you want kibbeh nayyeh, first sample the real deal. Find a Middle Eastern restaurant that is reputed to be of the highest caliber. The dish is made with raw lean lamb and you want to have some confidence that the chef is first cut, quality wise. Don't be put off with that "raw" part. It is absolutely the BEST! A desert island dish. If I could ululate, I would.

Here is some dessert. But, can she cook?

The following video has historic footage of the working assembly line at the Highland Park Ford Model T factory.

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