In August 1972, I was 23 and a senior at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Don’t ask why it took me so long to get to be a senior. My best friend, Kurt Westfall, and I had just opened our first exhibit of photography, a two-man show, in Cedar Key, Florida. After the opening I felt like a rock star. I decided to go to the big city and make my fortune as an artist.
On the way back to Gainesville I picked up two hitchhikers who told me that they were making an unbelievable $3.75 an hour working on the assembly line at Ford’s Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. I made a quick stop at my apartment, tossed my clothes and camera gear into the car, and drove them all the way to Detroit.
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When we got to Dearborn, wouldn’t you know it, the factories were all shut down to re-tool from one model year to the next, as was customary in August. They knew, but conveniently forgot to tell me.
After a few months I went to Chicago to see an exhibit of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago by my mentor and inspiration, Jerry N. Uelsmann. After one look at Chicago I decided not to go back to Detroit. Chicago was so much more beautiful and the arts and food communities were so much more vital (OK, Detroiters, send me your hate mail). I got a job at Foremost Liquors in Skokie and rented a room upstairs in a woman’s home.
A few days after I started work I stopped at a Chinese restaurant, the Nine Dragon Inn. It was opening night and I was their first customer. Over the next few months I ate there often. I even kept a case of white wine in their walk-in cooler because they had no liquor license, and I hung around the kitchen watching them cook. I took friends, customers, and even my future wife there on our first date. The owners’ two young girls, Jean and Ada, found endless fascination in my beard, and played under the table while I ate. They called me something like toy-ya-ya, which I thought was a term of endearment, but I later found out meant “smelly feet”.
I loved everything they made at Nine Dragon, but I especially loved their grilled ribs. I have tried Chinese ribs many times since, but never found a restaurant that made them the same way. The owners later moved to the west coast, and I have lost track of them. So I was forced to try to replicate their Asian-style ribs recipe, and I’ve come pretty close while also adding a BBQ element by finishing them on the grill. Sadly, I have never come close to the affection I had for Jean and Ada. Hopefully some day they will Google Nine Dragon Inn and find this article, and me.
Published On: 4/12/2013 Last Modified: 4/8/2021
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