Monday, September 7, 2020

Labor Day, 2020

And just like that, here we are, Labor Day: the unofficial end of summer. Warms days are too precious now to waste the last holiday of the season on fractious politics so I opt instead for stories and recipes. What are you cooking/picking up/bringing to the Labor Day celebration? We’re doing souvlaki.

I first had souvlaki in 1970, the first year of what would become the annual Festival of the Arts in my hometown of Grand Rapids, MI. At the time it was colloquially known as “the Calder Festival,” named after the giant red/orange sculpture – La Grande Vitesse – by Alexander Calder that had been planted on a giant concrete plaza in downtown GR the previous year, and home to the festival.

43 feet tall, 54 feet long, 30 feet wide, and weighing in at 42 tons La Grande Vitesse  - literally ‘the Great Swiftness’ – can also be translated as ‘Grand Rapids.’

In addition to it’s size and color the sculpture’s claim to fame was as the first public art funded in part by the nascent National Endowment for the Arts. Public sentiment - then as now - towards both the public expenditure and the sculpture itself ran the gamut from “awesome” to “monstrous.” Yet there it was on the newly constructed Vandenberg plaza: surrounded by the equally new buildings of governance and commerce erected following the city’s frenzied spate of “urban renewal” fueled by federal funds. The program mostly consisted of knocking down old buildings such as the original City Hall and replacing them with non-descript glass boxes.

Demolished City Hall Notes — IdeasAh yes, progress. The shadow in the last frame is of the Calder on the rather stark plaza.

But I digress, the first Arts Festival was funded by $15,000 raised by the Junior League and other artsy-fartsy types around town. It featured art hung on the exterior walls of the new City Hall, 5 food booths and 2 portable stages for music. The Festival was operated entirely by volunteers and 7000 people attended that first year, no streets were closed and the organizing committee spent only $12,000 of the $15,000 they raised (well done!). The following year food booths doubled to 10 and attendance more than quadrupled to 30,000 and “Festival” was on its way to becoming a GR institution.

One of the earliest food booths sold souvlaki. It might have been run by members of St. Nickolas Greek Orthodox church, but my memory is not that clear. My food memory on the other hand is clear as day: the aroma of succulent pork cubes, garlic and lemon roasted over a red hot charcoal fire, the taste of juicy pig with a fresh, soft, pita bread wrapped around it: simple ecstasy. And pretty exotic fare in an era where “ethnic” dining consisted of pizza, egg foo young and tacos.

So for no particular reason other than I found a small pork shoulder roast in the freezer we’re celebrating Labor Day here at Casa MOTUS by grilling up some Greek pork souvlaki. I don’t recall the original Calder Festival version coming with tzatziki, but here in our Detroit environs, home to a large Greek diaspora, we serve lots of things with tzatziki. So if you’re in the neighborhood, follow the aroma of the smoke: I’ll have plenty.

Grilled Pork Shoulder Souvlaki

The Pork



1 1/2 lbs pork shoulder 1 pound pork shoulder, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

1/4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

3 cloves garlic, finely minced

1-2 tbs fresh, minced oregano

2 tsp kosher salt

1/4 tsp black pepper

Tzatziki Sauce

1 cup grated cucumber

2 cups plain Greek yogurt

2 tbs olive oil

1/4 cup lemon juice

2-3 cloves garlic, grated or finely minced

2 tbs minced fresh dill weed

1 tsp kosher salt

Toppings/Additions (all optional)

1/2 cup thinly sliced red onion

2-3 sliced tomatoes

shredded lettuce

1/2 cup thinly sliced cucumbers

pita bread, or any kind of flat bread

Garlic Herb Flatbread | Minimalist Baker RecipesThe Flat Bread


Pork Souvlaki

1. Trim the pork shoulder of excess fat. Cut the trimmed meat into 3/4 inch cubes.

2. Place the cubes into a sealable bag.

3. Mix together the olive oil, garlic, oregano, salt, and pepper. Pour the marinade into the bag with the pork and seal the bag.

4. Refrigerate it and let it marinate for 2 - 8 hours.

5. If using wooden skewers, begin soaking them 1 hour before you are going to use them.

6. Heat a grill on high.

7. Thread the pork onto skewers, don’t pack them too tightly for even cooking

8. Grill on high, turning occasionally, until the outside is browned and crispy and the inside is just a little pink, about 10 -12 minutes.

9. Serve immediately on pita bread with tzatziki sauce, lemon wedges and any toppings you want.

Tzatziki Sauce

Tzatziki Sauce Recipe with Pita: Easy Appetizer! - The Food CharlatanThe Tzatziki

1. Wrap the grated cucumber in a paper towel or some cheesecloth and squeeze it dry.

2. Combine the cucumber, yogurt, garlic, olive oil, and salt in a bowl and mix together.

3. Transfer the sauce to a serving bowl and either use immediately or refrigerate until you are ready to eat.

4. Tzatziki sauce can be made up to 2 days ahead.  

In the 50 years since that first Calder Festival the city and the country have embraced all forms of ethnic cuisine. Souvlaki is as American as hot dogs now. So too has the Grand Rapidian public embraced the Calder sculpture. Initially considered an eyesore by a majority – and in fairness, still held in contempt by some – it has been adopted as a beloved and iconic symbol of the city.

Michigan ModernThe Calder and the New City Hall, 1969

That’s progress for you. So thanks, Progressives, for always showing us the Way Forward!

P.S. Grand Rapids Arts Festival was cancelled for 2020, due to cooties