Last summer a friend posted a link to my Facebook page with the simple comment: “Want.” The link led to a photo of a mason jar filled with fizzy pink liquid swirled with vanilla ice cream and a recipe for Cultured Hibiscus Soda Floats. The soda, I read, had been steeped with scarlet hibiscus petals, mixed with whey, and allowed to gently ferment until bright and bubbly. The ice cream was dairy-free, made from creamy cashews and sweetened with Medjool dates. Clearly this was an unusual float.
The recipe was courtesy of the blog Suddenly Sauer, the online home for a Detroit-based startup pickle business. Its founder, 26-year-old Blair Nosan, experiments with Jewish-inflected, cured cuisine in her home kitchen, making dishes like maple gravlax (salmon cured with pure maple syrup and juniper berries she harvests herself) and cream cheese made with cultured buttermilk. The gravlax and cream cheese were inspired by what Nosan called a “fixation” on creating a completely homemade bagel and lox platter. Meanwhile, she also sells fermented pickle products in the Detroit area through a buying club. Last year her customers received six deliveries with offerings such as russel (pickled beets), caraway sauerkraut, dilly beans, butternut squash kimchi, sauerruben (turnip pickles), and pickled cauliflower. Like everything Nosan makes, these products mix old-world tradition and flavors with innovative ingredients and an eye for DIY culture.
Nosan grew up in the affluent suburb of West Bloomfield, majored in English, French, and women’s studies at the University of Michigan, and discovered a passion for food and fresh, high-quality ingredients while studying abroad in France. After college she attended Adamah, a Jewish farming fellowship in Connecticut, where she spent eight months tending to a 10-acre farm, milking goats, caring for a flock of chickens and learning the basics of food preservation (jam, cheese, yogurt, and pickles), which particularly resonated with her growing desire to connect to her Jewish heritage. After her fellowship ended, Nosan stayed at Adamah for five more months as an apprentice in their pickle kitchen. The experience proved transformative, but she craved a return to her home city. “I am a strong believer that you have to work on your roots first,” Nosan said. Today, she lives in Detroit’s downtown North Corktown neighborhood, and she considers supporting her hometown’s economy to be a foundational aspect of her business. Nearly all of the ingredients she uses for Suddenly Sauer are grown in the city.
Nosan is just one of many young, idealistic people moving to downtown Detroit despite its reputation for blight and its rapidly dwindling population. (The 2010 census revealed Detroit’s population to be just over 700,000, down from 1.85 million in 1950 and 950,000 a decade ago.) Nosan’s Suddenly Sauer is part of a loose network of about 1,200 urban farms, community gardens, and local food businesses that have sprouted up, utilizing 40 square miles of abandoned lots in Detroit’s city limits. “I just started buying up whatever bulk produce was available [at the farmers markets] and worked from there,” Nosan said, who received funding for Suddenly Sauer’s 2010 launch from the Soup at Spaulding, which raises seed money for Detroit-based startups.
Nosan has also found support and collaboration in another, less expected, place: Detroit’s Jewish community. While at Adamah, Nosan reconnected to her Judaism, and since moving to Detroit she has become active in Detroit’s last functioning synagogue, Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue, becoming a member of its board earlier this year. At one in a series of lively Shabbat potluck dinners she and her roommate hosted last year, she met Ben and Dan Newman, two brothers who recently launched the Detroit Institute of Bagels, their own food company. “[I have] been basking in the glory of a vibrant Jewish food community since moving to Detroit,” Nosan wrote in a blog post on The Jew & The Carrot.
This grassroots energy has breathed new life into Detroit’s organized Jewish community, most notably Nosan’s synagogue. The 90-year-old Conservative congregation, which spent the last several decades limping along, dwindling in size and contemplating closure, has recently expanded its schedule to include holiday programming and regular Friday night services. At last year’s Hanukkah party, Nosan made 400 latkes, using all Michigan-grown potatoes, and provided homemade applesauce and sour cream. She also recently teamed up with the Detroit Institute of Bagels for a fundraising event for the synagogue, selling homemade bagels and Suddenly Sauer cream cheese, named “Downtown Schmear.”
As Detroit’s new agricultural initiatives like Suddenly Sauer garner attention, it’s important to note their historical precedents. In 1890, then-Detroit mayor Hazen S. Pingree created a program known as “Pingree’s Potato Patches,” which encouraged owners of vacant lots to allow the city’s unemployed to grow food on them. In the 1970s, then-mayor Coleman A. Young did something similar, launching the Farm-A-Lot program, which created a permit system to allow residents to farm vacant lots in their neighborhoods. These initiatives—as well as early startups like Earthworks Urban Farm, the city’s first organic farm run by the 82-year-old Capuchin Soup Kitchen, the Feedom Freedom garden, and Avalon International Breads, a community-focused bakery founded in 1997—helped to literally sow the seeds for future agriculture programs. “Thank God people stuck with it,” Nosan said.
Nosan dreams of eventually opening a storefront in downtown Detroit—a deli or dairy restaurant with pickles available in bulk, of course. But her first step is finding a professional kitchen space. In the meantime, she heavily supplements her pickling income with a variety of other jobs, including teaching environmental education at a Hebrew school in her hometown of West Bloomfield. Her business, like the city itself, has a long way to go, but in its best moments they can both feel as effervescent as Nosan’s ice cream float—buoyed by potlucks and persistence, and strengthened by the shared belief that strong communities must grow from the ground up.