I grew up on a tree-lined street with wide sidewalks that even a big city kid wouldn't have mistaken for farmland. There wasn't much room between the shingled Colonial Revival houses and brick post-war duplexes for pig pens or stands of corn.
But our neighbor, Mr. Stadel, who was born in Ann Arbor in 1914, remembered walking his cows across the stretch of grass that we called our backyard. Long before the swing sets and picnic tables arrived, our neighborhood contributed to the local farming economy. Now, under the leadership of a Seattle native and his wife, it's doing so again.
Jeff McCabe and Lisa Gottlieb in 2009 opened the Selma Café on the first floor of their house, just a few blocks from where Mr. Stadel lived. The couple describes the project as a "weekly local-foods breakfast salon," but what transpires every Friday morning is almost too lively for a term that evokes tittering and powdered wigs.
Working with a guest chef - James Beard winner Alex Young of Zingerman's Roadhouse recently took a turn - a crew of volunteers weekly prepares a menu that might include whole-grain waffles, bread pudding studded with local fruit or freshly-baked granola. The meal's served up free to community members, although donations are requested. All of the profits are used to purchase year-round greenhouses for local farmers. In its first two years, Selma plated 10,000 breakfasts and bought 10 hoop houses.
"I'm a social worker, and that informs my philosophy around Selma," she says. "I think people are really hungry for connection. Not through e-mail, not through text, not through Skype."
Last Friday, when I visited Selma, the café drew a record 264 guests. Although the attendees - wearing masking tape name tags, according to Selma tradition -- stressed the café's coffee supply, most of them were happy to mill about the property while they awaited a sofa perch or seat at the dining room table. If the wait made eaters tense, they could visit a small produce stand in the driveway or a chair masseuse in a front room.
"At first it took some getting used to," Gottlieb says. "But in the scheme of things, that's pretty minor. We're having a blast."
At least one neighbor was less pleased with the arrangement, and filed an anonymous complaint with the health department. The department initially threatened to close down the café, explaining it was an unlicensed food establishment.
"There were flurries of letters and conversations, and eventually we sat down and worked out a plan," Gottlieb says. Now sponsored by a 501c3, Selma is permitted to "cook food in our home and offer it to anyone we want." The resolution inspired a similar organization in a nearby town to inaugurate a Thursday breakfast program. Although "it never really took off," Gottlieb believes other communities could successfully replicate the Selma model, which is openly publicized on the group's website.
"There was a certain interest when it was under the radar, but it's much more inviting now that it's above board," Gottlieb says. "People feel welcome and included and they're having a wonderful time."