Dearborn, Michigan – home to the Ford Motor Company World Headquarters, Henry Ford’s River Rouge Complex, and Mr. Ford’s Greenfield Village, a historic playground featuring dozens of famous buildings that were bought and moved to the site by the auto magnate himself. How more all-American can a city get than that? Even the name Dearborn has patriotic origins, chosen in honor of Revolutionary War hero Henry Dearborn.
Coincidentally, Dearborn today also has the largest concentration of Arab-Americans in the entire United States, with about 40,000 Arabs. Originally, they flocked here for the plentiful factory jobs, passed out like candy on Halloween. Now, they stay here for the community, even if the economy isn’t what it used to be. You can’t underestimate the strength of good roots.
I remember, as a kid, driving to pick up my Great Grandma in Dearborn during the holidays. Taking the on-ramp from I-75 to I-94, the panorama of busy factories always made me feel like I was entering another world, far from the sanitized environs of my home in suburban Sterling Heights. Driving up Lonyo to Kentucky, the car wash with neon palm trees and the women in their hijabs reinforced the impression.
While the deed to my Great Grandma’s house had a restrictive covenant stipulating that the property could only be sold to another white person, that obviously had been rendered obsolete a long, long time ago. By the late 1990s, my frail Great Grandma – 100% Polish, with bright blue eyes – was the only non-Arab left on the block. A sea change had occurred, and a new culture was flourishing on the east side of Dearborn.
Tuhama’s on the corner of West Warren and Manor – not far from where my Great Grandma used to buy her czernina (duck blood soup) – is a perfect example of the new life Arab Americans have breathed into aging Dearborn. All throughout the day, people stream in and out the old brick building, lured in by Tuhama’s stellar and economically priced Lebanese sandwiches. They have to have it.
Personally, I arrived at Tuhama’s in search of two food items in particular: lamb tongue and lamb brain. Yeah, I was that guy – I wanted to dive headfirst into some exotic, authentic, and real Middle Eastern flavors with dishes that would make the average American grimace by name alone. That was the game plan.
Well, it turned out lamb brain wasn’t on the menu. Shucks.I’d have to make do with a mere lamb tongue sandwich, a $4 delicacy that I was absolutely sure would shock my sensibilities. Would it be gamey, or would it have a rich, mineral bitterness to it? The rancid, steamy smell of a barnyard wafted in my mind. The possibilities were as endless as my imagination. This was going to make for some prime writing material.
Bring it on. Gimme some tongue, I thought to myself.
That odd looking rounded triangular looking thing? Yeah, that’s the tongue, nestled between a tomato and some garlic sauce. It would make more sense in color, but I wanted to stick to my original vision.
Of course, what they delivered to my table was completely unexpected. It just looked – honestly – like your average sub. Here I’d imagined some writhing, bleating tongue hanging out of the side of the sandwich like Michael Jordan’s tongue in mid-dunk, and I got this instead. You probably could’ve served this at Subway and no one would’ve so much as batted an eye. The hunks of tongue had grayer color than – say – your typical slab of beef, but otherwise, nothing was amiss.
At least it was still gonna taste funny, right? Wrong again, my friend. The lamb tongue had the vaguely meaty flavor beef has after it’s been stewed too long, pleasant and mild. In terms of texture, it was soft, almost buttery, melting in your mouth with each bite. I’m not sure how raw lamb tongue tastes, but this was good – seriously good, and well within the comfort zone of the typical American palette.
And don’t even get me started on the rest of the sub! The garlic sauce had a nice kick and the pickled turnips weren’t too vinegary, maintaining a lively profile. And the bread – oh my god, the bread! It was fresh and sweet, soft on the inside with a satisfying outer crunch. Clearly, the French influence on Lebanese cuisine has paid some dividends (for a brief time between World War I and World War II, France controlled Lebanon)! To think, I’d only paid $4 for this.
Why is that smoking a cigarette always has a rebellious air to it?
Looking at the black and white pictures of Beirut tacked onto the walls of Tuhama’s as I ate, I was struck by how much it reminded me of Detroit and how normal it felt to see a classic early twentieth century American commercial strip functioning as a sort of “mini-Beirut”. It didn’t feel out of the ordinary or particularly strange in the slightest. Sure, they might practice a different religion and have their own set of customs, but so what? Whenever I watch people going about their ordinary day-to-day lives – regardless of what color they are or what beliefs they hold – the first thing that always strikes is how ordinary it really all is.
How easily we forget.