The following interview with Alice Jo Gannon Boss was conducted several months ago, but, for some reason, I’m just now getting around to posting it. Hopefully that fact won’t diminish your excitement over the fact that she’s now one of us… Please join me in welcoming her to the neighborhood, even if it is a bit belated.
MARK: I like doing these interviews the most when I have next to nothing to go on, and, in your case, I know very, very little. I know that you bought the old Thomason homestead, and that you’re friends with Stefanie Stauffer. Taken together, that tells me that you probably have at least a passing interest in urban agriculture… Or, at least, that’s my guess. Am I right?
ALICE: These two things are true… To be honest, though, purchasing the old Thomason homestead was a bit of a coincidence. When the house listed, sometime in late May of last year, I’d been looking to move out of Ann Arbor for a while. While I’d been looking all over Ypsilanti, I focused, for the most part, on a few neighborhoods, as I really wanted a Victorian era home. There was no real hurry to move, so I had time. It just needed it to be the right place. It needed to “feel” right, and it had to have everything that I was looking for. It had to tick all of the boxes, you know? The place I was looking for needed to be close to the City center, with lots of things to do within walking distance. And, most of all, it needed to be a place where I could age with ease.
When I came into the front door of the Thomason homestead for the open house, I had no idea of the history of the home. I didn’t know the “City Chicken” connection. But then I noticed the newspaper article proudly framed and displayed on the wall of the formal dining room. I thought, “Well that’s pretty cool.” I liked the fact that the folks who lived in the house had strong convictions about “high-quality and accessible” food. In addition to City Chicken articles, there was also a lot of Zingerman’s stuff around the house. So I sort of knew then that this was the right place for me… that I’d found my new old home. I was the second person to sign the log at the open house, the first being a broker. So it was sort of meant to be.
As for my interest in urban agriculture, well it’s more than just a passing thing. I’m a trained chef. So, for me, food is life itself.
MARK: So the purchase came together pretty quickly?
ALICE: At the open house, I started to chat with the listing agent, David Palmer, and it ended up that we had a common connection in Amanda Edmonds, our mayor, and the executive director of Growing Hope. David had asked me what I did for a living, and I told him I was a chef instructor at Washtenaw Community College. And, I told him, prior to that I’d taught for the Ypsilanti Public Schools Regional Career Technical Center (RCTC) as the 11th and 12th grade culinary arts teacher. I told him that, while at RCTC, I used to have the high school kids put on their “best kicks” and walk over to Growing Hope to do community service work twice a month. This was in 2007. And David mentioned that he sat on the Growing Hope board for a while. And we just chatted. Well, some weeks later, David sent me a text message asking me what I thought about the house, and I said I loved it, but the price was to high, and I wished him all the best. To my surprise, he said, “Well, the owners are open to hearing all offers,” so I put a number out there, not thinking it would fly, and, four days later, a verbal agreement was reached. And here we are today.
MARK: Where did you live previously?
ALICE: I was born at the old St. Joe’s, raised on the east-side of Ypsi, moved to LA, then back, then NYC, then back, then SF, then Ann Arbor, then back. What’s that saying? “All roads lead home”? Or is it just, “A long and winding road”? Hard to say… It’s taken me 30 years to get back homeward, though.
MARK: You showed up at our annual Krampus gathering last winter. I hope it didn’t give you any reason to regret having moved here.
ALICE: Thanks for the invite, I needed to take a break from the tedious task of moving. It was a refreshing and welcomed change of pace from the whole Ann Arbor, athletic scene. In recent years in Ann Arbor I found myself coordinating my weekend activities around “football traffic.” Every other weekend I felt like running out of town. It’s a total pain if you forget there’s a game happening in town. So the “coolness” of how Ann Arbor used to be, well… that’s what Krampus was for me. I thought to myself, “This is the cool right here.” Ann Arbor has sort of “priced itself” out of the market of cool. You can’t buy cool! Krampus made me want to run to town, not from it! I’m sorry that folks don’t “get” the idea of a modern day Krampus… not everyone’s “into” the holidays for a wide range of reasons. It’s just not for everyone. With Krampus, you can do whatever you want. Everyone can participate and have fun! So, for me, it was like Ypsilanti threw me a “welcome back” party!
MARK: So, not a fan of Ann Arbor?
ALICE: Don’t get me wrong… Ann Arbor is a fine town. I mean, technically, I’m a true Tree Town townine. It’s just not the same A2 anymore… Joe Star Lounge, Del Rio, Second Chance, Cult Heroes, Scott Morgan, Destroy All Monsters with Ron Asheton from the Stooges and Michael Davis from MC5, Shakey Jake. You know, wicked Ann Arbor cool. I recall the last time I went to Art Fair. There was a huge Cadillac car display right at the intersection of South State and South University. That was the beginning of the end of an era in my mind. It’s kind of sad really, because Ann Arbor has become very transient, based around research and athletic dollars (and supporting businesses) and folks who come and go every three to five years. Take that away and you’re left with the real residents living in a shell of a town that has been built up around a few core industries. Really, I miss the Ann Arbor when you could walk down the street and see familiar faces, and folks knew your name. So I was looking to belong to a town, a small town of people who are not just here for a few years… I was looking to plant my roots and become entrenched in a place I can make real change, a place to belong, not just exist.
MARK: Ypsi is still pretty transient, but you can definitely make more of an impact here. At least that’s been my experience. Like you, I’ve left and come back a few times. Linette and I met here, then moved to Atlanta. We came back after a few years, though, so that she could go to graduate school. Then we moved to Los Angeles, where we lived for a few years. Eventually, though, we decided to come back. When it came time to get married and put roots down, we wanted to do it somewhere that we could actively participate and make a positive difference. Ypsi, in our eyes, was that kind of place. There was room to create and try new things. And I think we’ve found that to be the case. Hopefully you find the same thing.
ALICE: Well, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one popping in and out of the area… and expecting it to just take me as I am. But what I find is that each time I’m drawn back, I become a better and better person, and the City treats me with such love and kindness each time I ask her to be there for me whenever I need her. She is very elastic, hopeful and willing, yet, in a funky kind of way, she just is, sort of neglected, with all this potential at all the same time. I don’t think Ypsilanti has bloomed to her full potential… yet.
MARK: So, how did you come to be a chef?
ALICE: Honestly, I came to food purely by accident… well circumstance really. So here’s the deal. I was born into a largish family, five kids in all. I’m number four of those five. Back in the 70’s, when I was a wee lass, my parents split up and eventually divorced. We (kids) ended up with mom, and dad lived across town in a trailer. And we had the once a week, Sunday visits. That’s how separated families rolled back then, very different from now. During this dark family time, mom and dad both struggled, and we had to go on food stamps (now known as Bridge Card) to get by. We lived day to day, with little to work with. In a lot of ways it was pretty surreal since my grandparents had a comfortable existence… My grandmother had stable jobs her whole life. She worked at a factory, and as a produce salesperson at what we now know as Eastern Market. My grandfather was a machine tool engineer by trade, and a labor union rep. Later, he’d become a Wayne County elected official. So our grandparents had a nice enough home, food in the cupboard, fridge and cellar… but not in our house. We often had to pick between food or electricity, and our meals usually consisted of powdered milk, government cheese, peanut butter, and whatever friends brought over.
These are harsh realities at the tender age of seven. And I was just old enough to get it. I could see that my friends didn’t have these struggles, and neither did my grandparents. By the time I was 11, I’d figured out that, if I wanted anything different in life, I had to get it myself. So I started mowing lawns, shoveling snow, doing laundry, washing dishes and doing holiday prep-work for my neighbors. This would have been at about the same time that my mom finished her associates degree in Respiratory Therapy at Washtenaw Community College, and received a job offer out west, in Orange County. So we took a summer trip out west, and it was amazing for me. The food was inspiring. It was the first time I had Vietnamese food, avocados (guacamole), Mexican food… My life really changed… Food, instead of being a point of distress and worry, became a point of joy.
From then on, I knew that food security and food love were one in the same. Noticing my growing in interest in food, my grandmother took me under her Polish wing and started showing me the ropes in the kitchen… She was the product of immigrant parents that had come through Ellis Island and made it through the Great Depression… I learned a lot from her about food, and life. Oddly, later in life, I found out that, on my dad’s side of the family, who were all Irish immigrants, was the first female farmer to receive a land grant in Michigan. This was back at a time when Michigan was awarding land grants to people who wanted to farm here. Pretty sweet stuff! Anyhow, this all combined and sparked a life-long journey, with me discovering a rich vast world around food.
Food has been both very harsh and very kind to me… it’s a very complicated relationship. It’s her depravity as a child that drove me to her as I aged so I would never be without. In that journey, I have had the most amazingly colorful career. I’ve catered rock concerts all around Detroit for Brass Ring Productions. I’ve cooked on-site for film productions, serving out of food trucks in Los Angeles back in the ‘80s. And, today, I teach at Washtenaw Community College in the very square footage where I was taught as a young culinarian many moons ago.
MARK: I imagine it wasn’t easy going as a female chef.
ALICE: Even today, women are still underrepresented in the hot foods category… The establishment always wants us ladies to be in the bakeshop, making frosting roses for cute birthday cakes. Not me. Move over fellas. I was determined to go into hot foods, and I did!
MARK: What do you think if the local Ypsi food scene?
ALICE: Ypsilanti has something real special because we have the space to do lots of awesome food things, we can grow from both in the fields to the brick and mortar and not be priced out of the market of doing food from “dirt to dinner”. There’s a lot of opportunity here in Ypsilanti. We’ve recently seen that folks are willing to make Ypsilanti a dining destination, as well as a home for a small food manufacturing businesses. Not all cities can support both of these endeavors, as well as support brick and mortar. So that’s what Ypsi has. There’s staying power. In a way, Ypsilanti is a lot like Madonna, she just keeps reinventing herself.
MARK: Given our demographics, and the kinds of restaurants we already have in the area, what do you think would work well here? (My idea is a Indian restaurant with a gay bar on top. If we could make that happen, Ypsi, in my eyes, would be complete.)
ALICE: Well that could be an interesting concept Mark, it would sure help support the mashup in diversity Ypsi is well known for!
MARK: Do you ever think of opening a restaurant of your own?
ALICE: Once in a while, I do think about it. I often think we don’t have enough diversity in food offerings here in Ypsi. Often, when we think of concepts, we play it safe. And, let’s face it, restaurant work is risky business and no one has money to toss out the window – it’s got to work. Sometimes I think a lot about my Polish family and that good, fresh food, and think it would be awesome to have a pierogi joint or something like that -something simple – and good. I don’t know, maybe I could call it “punk’n pierogies” with fresh made kielbasa and all things Polish, with open mike ‘polka nights.” Would you come? We need to keep our food fresh, local, flavorful and real—down to earth. Sadly, if you get too creative, you loose the basic crowd. You can’t get too immersed that you lose the everyday palate. Look at it this way — simple, good food works. Look at our friends at Zingerman’s, it all started with making a good sandwich, and, thirty years later, they’re a multi-million dollar business with a lot more to offer folks than a great sandwich.
MARK: I usually ask new people if they have any questions that my readers or I might be able to help with, but it sounds as though you had a pretty good handle on the community already. Is there, however, anything that you haven’t yet been able to figure out? (And, yes, I would go to your pierogi restaurant.)
ALICE: Yes, I do have a question for the good folks of Ypsi to answer. Why don’t we honor our beloved Iggy Pop? We could make an annual Y-Pop(s) IGGY Fest – (get it?) and we could start the fest at the most appropriate Y-Pop location, the Water Tower… it’s SO IGGY!! Let’s make this happen Mark! Then we could open a small gallery called Y-Pop for year ’round fun… that served small plates… this would be my dream place… food art and art art, maybe with occasional punk show. That makes me think of “The Elbow Room.” Wouldn’t that be perfect? If I could find the backers, I would SO do it it a hot second!
MARK: What would you like to accomplish over the next five years?
ALICE: Oh, I don’t know, I think about a lot of things, maybe starting to plant trees in my off time, or work on water preservation or pollinator issues. Recently to formalize some of these thoughts, I have been appointed to the Washtenaw Food Policy Council (WFPC), a community volunteer group that works on food policy on a wide range of food related issues we face today in our community, and preparing to preserve food diversity and access for future years to come. This is very important work to me… it’s the least I can do (outside of teaching) to continue to serve the community that has served me in so many ways over the years. It’s a chance for me to give back. It’s my hope that I can make a real difference in how people think about food in general, and to really think about the impact of food purchasing choices, and what the implication of those choices carry and mean. Especially those folks who are in the position to make choices in purchasing at volume levels. I often think it would be important for the small mom and pop shops to think like a big, high-volume purchaser by creating their own network, so they can secure lower pricing to stay afloat, and make a real statement with their dollars. Something like a food-hub – a network for mom and pop restauranteurs – that would allow its members to have the purchasing power so we can keep food diversity alive. It’s getting harder and harder for the small shops to stay afloat. Coupled with that, it’s important to be sustainable and as local as possible for economic health, wellbeing and survival. It’s a lot that we ask of the few mom and pop shops that are out there, it’s virtually impossible to be an expert in all these areas while having to be the butcher baker and candlestick maker. That said, it would be awesome for Ypsi to have a good butcher shop, that carried great homemade vegetarian “meats” as well… there are so many possibilities that aren’t here yet that could really be something special.
[Still wondering why people are moving to Ypsi? Check out the Ypsilanti Immigration Interview archive.]