Do the words “CORN REAL GOOD” mean anything to you? If so, you’ve gotten at least a little taste of Detroit’s informal food economy.
The slogan has been hand-painted on signs hanging high above the Lodge Freeway and other spots, a pretty ingenious grassroots marketing campaign from Orrin Fields, aka The Corn Man. At a vacant lot at Puritan Avenue and Normandy Street on Detroit’s west side, Fields grills sausages, burgers and corn for elotes, prepared with cheese, lime and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
WDET checked in with Fields last week — head to their story for more on his journey from cannabis to corn; the tiki torches, bean bag chairs, art and music that turn the lot into a gathering spot; and his effort to bring back “the mom-and-pop” shop to the neighborhood.
But The Corn Man is only one among many men and women cultivating beloved, sometimes ephemeral, neighborhood food spots along Detroit’s main thoroughfares and residential streets. They’re not food trucks, and not quite pop-ups, but what we’ll loosely call informal food stands where chefs who serve up everything from rib tips to birria — from smokers in parking lots and off their front porches.
You’ll know a food stand when you see one — but for more on the significance of these spots, we turned to Mark Kurlyandchik, former Detroit Free Press restaurant critic and now editorial director of Frame in Hazel Park.
Over email, Kurlyandchik gave us the lay of the land on Detroi’s food stands, including types of fare you can find, tips for would-be diners and how they fit into our local food culture.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Detour: How would you categorize or define this type of informal food stand?
Kurlyandchik: I like to think of these folks as part of Detroit’s robust informal food economy. It’s existed for a long time and has been an integral part of feeding people, particularly in Black, brown and immigrant communities who’ve had to rely on each other in the face of systemic inequities. Think of the church bake sale or the barbecue block party or, increasingly with the rise of social media, the neighbor selling meals out of their house via their Instagram stories.
How do these kinds of eateries working without a brick-and-mortar location fit into Detroit’s food culture – what do they indicate about our dining scene or community around eating?
These are all a form of mutual aid that fills the huge sustenance gaps that white supremacist capitalism have created. You’ve probably heard of the term “food desert” to describe swaths of Detroit, but the more accurate term “food apartheid” has gained traction in recent years. These food stands are grassroots efforts to counter that form of discrimination.
They also act as important sources of income for folks who have little access to capital and political power. [Opening a business involves] a lot of red tape and requires time, money and skills that somebody who just wants to cook good food might not have.
In effect, these informal food stands are both essential community feeders and a unique form of resistance to systems that have historically oppressed BIPOC.
And it’s not just in Detroit — the informal food economy is essential to migrant communities around the world.
Are there types of cuisines that are particularly common at food stands here?
The cuisines here are as varied as the communities themselves. In Southwest Detroit, there’s the off-the-books pupuseria famously visited by Anthony Bourdain on “Parts Unknown.” Then there’s the barbecue oasis that is 7 Mile. The pandemic only exacerbated the trend of selling food on Instagram. Val’s Pizza, which is now a popular pop-up, began by selling pizzas out of their house in Old Redford. Antojitos Southwest, the popular birria food truck, began by selling from their porch. Sandwiches, seafood boil bags, smoked fish — I’ve seen it all promoted on Instagram. Just send a DM for payment and pickup instructions.
Some aim to grow into “legitimate” businesses, like Val’s and Antojitos. But many others, especially those in undocumented and overpoliced communities, aim only to put food on the table for their neighbors and themselves, with no goals of assimilating into the burdensome regulatory system.
At the end of the day, these places are peddling comfort, so comfort foods — no matter how a community defines them — are what you see the most. Affordable, filling food that can be eaten standing up or in your car. Typically, it’s food that travels well and can be prepared in bulk: pizza, tacos, burgers, barbecue, etc.
Say you happen to drive by a parking lot barbecue spot around lunch time. What clues can you look for to know it’s worth making a U-turn and getting a plate?
The best one is other people. If there’s a line of people all queued up for birria or barbecue or whatever a given vendor is selling, that’s usually a good sign that there’s something special going on here, and you might want to stop by for a taste of your own.
How can would-be diners find out about favorite informal food spots? Is it mostly word-of-mouth and happenstance?
Finding these spots is the trick. Because many of them operate outside of the law and local regulations, you’re [usually] not going to find them advertising or be featured in an Eater heat map. At the end of the day, they exist because they are essential to their own communities and aren’t designed for interlopers, who bring an increased risk with them. Basically, if you know, you know. And if you don’t, you need to find someone who does who can guide you there. Because of these vendors’ fragile position off the books, trust is key. And every transaction from a stranger could potentially lead to an unwelcome visit from the health department or other government entity.
Are there any etiquette suggestions or tips diners should keep in mind?
If you’re lucky enough to happen across an informal food stand, first and foremost, respect the hustle and the culture that it grows from. And don’t blow the spot up. Ask for permission before you post anything on social media or start telling all your friends. Bring cash, and tip extra heavy, because every dollar goes to support someone who is more than likely in an extremely vulnerable position. Don’t be a tourist.
One last thing while we have you — what do you have brewing at Frame right now?
We just launched our newest venue, the Frame BIG TOP, which currently features Khana Detroit’s Pakistani-inspired food Thursday-Saturday all summer long, plus comedy and cinema on Thursdays, a second Sunday maker’s market and more programming to be announced soon. I think people tend to think of Frame as a fancy place that you need a ticket to, and this is our effort to provide something more casual and accessible to the community.