Brightmoor 1

Whatever’s Available Soup

August 16, 2012 | by Sheryl James

For first-year student Katie Allis, the defining moment of her school project in Brightmoor, a neighborhood located in northwest Detroit, was that pumpkin pie. And, arguably, the goat.

It was fall 2011, and Allis was in one of two U-M classes that collaborated to produce a cookbook called The Brightmoor Farmway, A Collection of Stories & Recipes from Neighbors Building Brightmoor. She and her classmates in English 125, “Food, Justice, and Community,” were interviewing residents who were transforming part of this 1920s struggling neighborhood into a community—a place for families and for hope—with gardens.

Not just any gardens, but extra-large, lush gardens covering acre lots and full of cucumbers, pumpkins, squash, beets, broccoli, watermelon, herbs, flowers, and more. Each U-M student interviewed one resident and obtained a recipe that October day. They then wrote a profile for the cookbook.  

After her interview, Allis and other students met up with Riet Schumack, the pioneer and life force of this garden renaissance zone, which she had dubbed the “Brightmoor Farmway.”

“She offered us pumpkin pie,” Allis says. “As we ate, she told us that the pie we were eating was made from scratch, and everything in it had been grown and harvested from her back yard. The milk was from her goat out there.

“This was so much more than a school project,” Allis continues. “It was something that the students invested in and truly cared about. It was an experience, it was fun, exciting. We truly came to care for Brightmoor.

“All in all, Brightmoor impressed me beyond belief.”

All in all, Christine Modey, a lecturer in LSA’s Sweetland Center for Writing, couldn’t have asked for a better teaching laboratory. Her class, offered through the Michigan Community Scholars Program (MCSP), helps students use writing “as a way of thinking about their own relationship with food and also for understanding food as central aspect of human life: physically, environmentally, socially, culturally, ethically, morally, and economically.” (Resident Craig Reinke’s recipe “Whatever’s Available Soup” comes to mind here.)

Modey contacted Hannah Smotrich, an associate professor at U-M’s School of Art & Design, about including the project in her winter 2012 studio, “Detroit Connections: Design Collaboration." Smotrich wanted students to have the opportunity to get to know Detroit, work on a “real-life” design project, and produce something useful for their community partners. The cookbook project was a natural fit.

The project originated with Amy Roggenburg, a junior in the Ford School of Public Policy. She had been volunteering with the Brightmoor Youth Garden, an initiative that led to the formation of a nonprofit called Neighbors Building Brightmoor (NBB). U-M students from various programs are continually involved with NBB.  Through her work, Roggenburg decided that she wanted to bring something new to the community.

“I came up with the idea of creating a Brightmoor cookbook because I know food is something that brings everyone together and that recipes were something meant to be shared,” she says.

She pitched the idea to Ross School of Business senior Dan Morse, founding director of MSCP’s Brightmoor Youth Garden Partnership, who suggested it as a project for Modey’s class. Shortly thereafter, students were attending NBB potlucks and collecting neighbors’ ideas and recipes in Brightmoor.

“The feedback we got from residents had a strong influence on the design process," says Smotrich. "At one point, someone suggested we think about wildflowers, saying 'They're colorful and varied, but natural and down-to-earth.’ That image became one of the central visions for our design plan.”

Ultimately the project allowed Modey’s and Smotrich’s students to explore an area most never had seen or conceived of before and talk to people who captivated them.

“My students were incredibly inspired by the positive energy in Brightmoor and proud to have contributed something to that momentum." Smotrich says.

Adds Modey, “Many students said the Brightmoor project was the most rewarding part of the semester. Their writing rose to the occasion as well. But the residents’ warm welcome really has stayed with them. I think several students have a standing invitation to dinner whenever they’re in Detroit.”

All proceeds from the Brightmoor Farmway cookbook benefit NBB. To purchase a copy, email Riet Schumack (mschumack@sbcglobal.net).

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