Putnam Weekley: The Detroiter Who Ate (and Drank) Everything

To whet our appetites for the tantalizing premiere of Detroit Restaurant Week -- 10 days and nights to experience 17 of Detroit’s top dining establishments -- we need to find just the right aperitif.

To help us in this mouthwateringly crucial decision we solicited the help of Putnam Weekley, a blogger who publishes Detroit Drinks, has contributed his liquid prose to the Gang of Pour, a wine-loving collective spread out over several states and Canada, and works at Slow's in Corktown and Everyday Wines in Ann Arbor. He's like the Detroiter who ate, and drank, everything.

The guy works so much and spends so much time on I-94 we wonder when he has time to drink what he writes about. But he does, he assures us, when he's relaxing in his home in Southwest Detroit's Hubbard Farms with his rescued pets (that he helps place in friendly homes) and a glass or two of his favorite red or white du jour.

Weekley, 40, was born in Rochester but has lived in Detroit since 1998. He says the motivation behind his blog is "to use the internet to subvert centralized and remote 'messaging' about taste. Taste is learned and local. Detroit is vast. I want the blog to explore it." That he does, writing about and judging wine (initially on behalf of local retailers and wholesalers) for the past 12 years. He also writes about what to eat with those beverages. Recently he wrote about the merits of the the chicken wings at Sweetwater Tavern downtown, what Detroit is drinking, and what to do when you are "stuck with a takeout container filled with Slows' pulled pork bark." The answer to the third involves a skillet, Calder Dairy buttermilk and securing "a bottle of 2008 de Tarczal Gewurztraminer."

When growing up, Weekley says, he was filled with knowledge gleaned from his mom and the organic foods co-op she belonged to, then was "ostracized" for scaring his suburban classmates with exotic foods like bean sprouts, granola and white cheese. What else could a foodie kid do but follow his budding taste buds to Europe and Mexico, where he backpacked from 1987 to 1993 and experienced a wide variety of regional eating and drinking pleasures. "I preserve those memories with practice," he says.    

Q. Hello Putnam. Let's practice with a toast to healthy, happy food vibes in this vast, post-industrialized metropolis ... What are we drinking?
A. Personally, I would like to treat everyone to a nice, barely cool glass of Muscadet from Domaine Pepiere. It's a French wine that is devoid of pretentiousness and filled with authentic, satisfying flavor. It comes from locally adapted indigenous vines, farmed organically and rooted in billion year-old granite soils. There are gulls where it's grown and there are gulls in Detroit. I think it goes brilliantly with the air here. Also I like Franck Peillot's Mondeuse with Lafayette Coney Islands for similar reasons.

Q. You've traveled quite a lot and sampled food and wine in a number of places. Is there something about Detroit or Michigan regional cooking that we can celebrate or champion more effectively?
A. Europe and Mexico taught me that vibrant, nourishing food culture arises from a balance between exchange and protection, whether planned or not. Think about lager beer and pizza. Judging from our actions as consumers we expect pizza and beer to be cheap and predictable. But it's not realistic to expect stirring experiences for such cheap prices. By contrast, Supino's pizzas in Eastern Market are profound, and a bargain for $15. Eventually word gets out and pizza is reclaimed for what it can be, a real family food treat. It makes me think of the scene in The Bicycle Thief, where pizza is the bright spot in a sad story, a moment of redemption.

Q. You live Southwest Detroit ... by coincidence or design, since the neighborhood is teeming with restaurants, produce markets, street vendors and aroma of food is always in the air?

A. I came here in 1998 for the low rent. Now I stay because it's home. During the blackout of August 2003 everyone in the neighborhood came into the street. We were busy trying to salvage the contents of our freezers, so we passed around large plates of food, beer and wine and talked until it got dark. That memory is still in the air here.

Q. Let's stay focused on neighborhood ... where else in the city would attract the nose of a food lover?
A. Follow the immigration. Hamtramck. W. Warren in Dearborn. The rest of W. Vernor. And then there are the natural fusions, like Silvia and Norberto Garita's El Barzon. He spent a lifetime mastering Italian cooking. She is a master of Poblano (Mexican) cuisine. Both foods go well on a menu and with good wine. Only in Detroit. This is where adaptation can lead to flourishes of creativity.

Q. What's gotten you most excited about the food scene here in the last few years? Do you sense any sea changes?
There are hundreds if not thousands of elective food workers and serious home cooks now living in Detroit. It is explosive. Many of these people live in the city and commute to suburbs where incomes support paying prep work. It's only a matter of time before these people plan their own businesses. Also, Detroit's organic gardens are threatening to become a significant supply of key fresh ingredients. Shed 2 at Eastern Market and Wednesday's on Cass are the access points for that.

Q. You were telling me earlier about Gleaners Food Bank ...
A. Yes, that might be the most exciting local food related activity of the decade. On one scale they have a giant, clean warehouse and a massive regional reach. On another scale, Gleaners' backyard is home to Earthworks' main garden; this is essentially the college of Detroit organic agriculture. Nearby you have the Capuchin soup kitchen. Anyone who gets involved with these projects, even for an hour, is changed. It changes how you see your own food choices. It may even change how food tastes, for the better.

Q. How can the organics, sustainability and urban agriculture movements benefit Detroit? How do you imagine the food scene here over the next 20 years?
A. Obviously, Detroit now has a lot of open land for personal gardening...and has begun to dominate our collective imagination about food. Detroit is more demanding and more creative with food than ever before. I expect the trend to continue. It depends on what happens globally with the economy and food technology. I think it's reasonable to expect that the way we've been eating food for the last 50 years is more of a deviation than a point of progress.

Q. Let's switch gears and go topical. Give us a quick thumbnail for some of the participating restaurants in Detroit's first Restaurant Week.
A. 24 Grille Westin Book Cadillac Detroit: Fresh ingredients handled with care; Coach Insignia at GM Renaissance Center: Matt Prentice, Madeline Triffon, and their team make this the standard for the market. It's the alma mater of many celebrated cooks and servers. Cuisine in New Center: Paul Grosz transforms fresh local ingredients, concentrating richness, flavor and substance; Wolfgang Puck Grille at MGM Grand Detroit: Look at the menu. These are things you've had before, right? But you only think you've had it until you taste it. Patience provides memorable taste. Limited items keep standards high; Iridescence at Motor City Casino-Hotel: Just a hunch, but this should be circled for Restaurant Week.

Q. And one restaurant where tomorrow's memories might be made this week?
A. Roast at Westin Book Cadillac Detroit. The best happy hour menu in the city. And it draws the rabble, like me. Travis is my favorite bartender in the city. He makes a wicked Sazerac, up. The best gin martini I ever drank was here. I remember the way the setting sun illuminated the cloud of lemon oil as he twisted it over the glass. Joseph Allerton writes a great beer list, filled with farmhouse beers and numerous items from Dexter's Jolly Pumpkin.

Q. If the book on Detroit food is being written now, and you're writing it, can you tease us with an excerpt?
A. The downtown and casino restaurants are surging with activity now. I suppose this is where the next chapter of Detroit food history is being written. Now one sees a critical mass forming, where enough restaurant workers, from dishwashers to chefs, routinely gather together to discuss work: how to portion fish; what to do with heirloom tomatoes. After work is the time to run your mouth, not during. These conversations take place around a bar with drinks. It seems like wherever I go I see Wolfgang Puck's chef Chef Marc Djozlija gathering and dispensing ideas, from the mundane to the profound. It's a lively scene, it's exciting, and it shows in the quality of the food.

Walter Wasacz is FilterD editor for Model D. Send feedback here.

Read Putnam Weekley's Detroit Drinks blog here.

Detroit Restaurant Week runs Sept. 18-27 and features 3-course meals at 17 top restaurants for $27. It is a collaboration of the Greater Downtown Districts -- Downtown, Midtown, New Center, Corktown, and Eastern Market. It is produced by the Ferndale-based Paxahau, and Model D is a sponsor.

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Putnam Weekley

Entree at Atlas Bistro

Entree at The Whitney

Dessert at Wolfgang Puck Grille

Appetizer at Roast

All photographs by Detroit Photographer Marvin Shaouni Marvin Shaouni is the Managing Photographer for Metromode & Model D.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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