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Food for thought

Hangin' with Harangua and finding good local food




I met Mulenga Harangua on the corner of Cass and Forest in Detroit last Friday evening. He’d told me to meet him there so we could go to dinner. I figured we’d be dining at the Cass Cafe as we’ve enjoyed a few evenings there. He was waiting for me, with his bicycle, when I arrived.

“Man, it’s cold as heck out here. How can you be riding that bicycle?”

“It’ll be warm when we get inside,” Mulenga said with Buddhist matter-of-factness. He started walking toward the parking lot next to the Cass Corridor Commons building.

“Do you ever think about getting a car?”

“Man, I can pretty much live for a year on what it costs to drive a car around,” Mulenga said as he cut across the parking lot.

“Where are we going?” I asked. “I thought we were going to eat. There aren’t any restaurants nearby in this direction.”

“We’re going to have dinner right here. It’s Food Justice Friday. The first Friday of every month, the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) and the People’s Kitchen Detroit sponsor a meal here. It’s open to the public and you pay whatever you want between $5 and $15.” Mulenga chained his bicycle to the ramp leading up to the entrance and we went in.

Lottie Spady, associate director of EMEAC, sat at a table near the door collecting names and contact numbers from attendees. We put our contributions in a container on her table and took seats over near the window. I surveyed the crowd. About 90 people were sitting at tables or milling around chatting. Folks called to each other across the room and others who obviously had not seen each other in a while embraced. More than half the crowd was made up of teens and young adults. A banner across one of the walls read “Environmental Justice Media & Food Justice.”

Beneath the banner sat DJ Bryce surrounded by sound equipment and working the mic with announcements and music. He mentioned there was a sign-up for the open mic that would accompany the meal and called out to various folks in the crowd. Jaleel Muhammad from Earthworks Urban Farm wandered the room taking pictures.

“See, we get dinner and entertainment here for a good price,” Mulenga said, puffing up in his seat like he owned the place.

“I hope the food is good.”

Mulenga went over to chat with someone. I wandered over to Spady and asked her what the purpose of Food Justice Friday was. “It’s to create an environment to meet people where they are so they can get involved in progressive activities,” said Spady. Indeed, there were announcements for various organizations and upcoming events steadily streaming from DJ Bryce.

Just then the DJ introduced chef Angela Newsom, who talked about the evening’s menu. She mentioned the cold weather affected what they cooked and sort of apologized that, “Tonight’s meal is not as local as we would like it to be.”

“Local food is where it’s at,” said Mulenga. “If it’s grown near where you live it’s better for you, and it’s better for the planet because you don’t have to drive it around in trucks. The carbon footprint is smaller.”

Newsom went on to tell us the menu: roasted winter vegetable jambalaya (vegetarian and with chorizo), black-eyed peas, fried green tomatoes, kale salad, kimchi, sauerkraut, blackberry jam and bread donated by Avalon bakery. It sounded good to me. After coming in from the cold I was ready to eat anything.

We filled our plates and sat down, dining while wordsmiths like Patuka, King Code and G Mack spit out their lines. “Living with a purpose, while roaming this earth’s surface,” rapped G Mack. He was all about family. In mentioning his daughter he said, “I know what a woman is like, so I’m a raise one.”

During a break in the action Mulenga asked me, “So what do you think about this Belle Isle business?”

“I think that anybody who considers it a jewel today wasn’t around when it was really glittery. The place is in terrible shape now. A few years ago I suggested that we hold our family reunion there. My family shouted that idea down. They took it to a park in the suburbs.”

“So you think the City Council should have given it away to the state?”

“It wasn’t a giveaway; it was a lease for 30 years. On the surface it seemed like a good move. We don’t give up ownership and the state takes over the cost of fixing the place up and maintaining it. However, it seems like the details of what the state was going to do were not nailed down. That’s just bad politics. I think Gov. Snyder and Mayor Bing are both businessmen who don’t know how to work things through politically. And City Council, they’re not much better. Good politicians get this stuff hammered out before they take it to a vote. When things come down to a vote there should be no surprises. There is a glitch somewhere in the system.”

“Well, I don’t trust the state,” Mulenga said. “Once they get their hands on it they’d probably figure out some way to keep it. As they say, possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

“So now you’re falling back on some schoolyard saying?”

“Isn’t school where you are supposed to learn your lessons?”

“So we’re just going to go to hell in a handbasket with all our stuff clutched tightly in our arms. I think if people really wanted to make things work out instead of clutching pathetically to power it would be like what Patuka said earlier, ‘The differences between us can be dissolved in a beat of a drum.’ I guess we get what we vote for.”

“I vote for the sovereign state of Belle Isle,” said Mulenga. “I actually lived in the woods there for a couple of weeks. It wasn’t bad. I mostly lived on fish I caught in the river and stuff picnic people left behind.”

“Well, that’s another idea making the rounds. One of these Ayn Rand conservatives wrote a book proposing that some corporate entity buy Belle Isle from Detroit for a billion dollars and turn it into a sovereign state. People would buy citizenship for $300,000 each, though the population would be limited to 35,000. Taxes would be limited. They would have businesses in Detroit, but all the management functions would be centered on Belle Isle.”

“So it would be an island playground for the rich. Don’t they usually have those in places where it’s a lot warmer?”

“Maybe they know something about global warming that we don’t know. In a few years Belle Isle could be a tropical island. The Bahamas will be way too hot.”

The dinner was wrapping up so we threw our coats on and headed out. As Mulenga unlocked his bike, the wind cut across the parking lot, causing me to squeeze my jacket more tightly around myself.

“Man, I could use a little global warming about now,” I said.

Mulenga shook his big round head at me. “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”

Larry Gabriel is a musician, writer and former Metro Times editor. Contact him at

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