August 12, 2020

Tastes and Tales from the Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum: Jennifer Byrom

It’s not often you hear fellow diners playing the tuba while you decide between stir fry and baba ganoush, but this was actually normal at the Traveler’s Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum in Michigan. Whether you are an out of town musician trying one of the vintage tubas or a local stopping by for the third time that week, the Traveler’s Club offered you more than just great food, it gave you something to look forward to–a unique and authentic experience.

For 20 years, the Traveler’s Club was Jennifer Byrom’s respite for customers and employees alike. In her new book, Taste and Tales from the Traveler’s Club, Jennifer shares the recipes and philosophies that took a tiny hole-in-a-wall-building on a sleepy street corner to a statewide treasure. You’ll learn how Jennifer makes her famous falafel, the ingredients that should always be in your pantry, and why the rules of her recipes are meant to be broken.

In today’s episode, Jennifer shares her passion for food, her experience living in Iran as a child, and how it all led to opening one of the most unique restaurants and tuba museums in the country. Enjoy.

Miles Rote: Hey everyone, my name is Miles Rote and I’m excited to be here today with Jennifer Byrom, author of Taste and Tales from the Traveler’s Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum. Jennifer, I’m excited you’re here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.

Jennifer Byrom: Thank you.

Miles Rote: There’s so much to talk about. I loved your book and how it’s organized and it’s so interesting. First, tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got into opening up a restaurant and tuba museum, to begin with?

Jennifer Byrom: Right, okay. At no point in my previous life had it occurred to me to own a restaurant. Cooking–I called it my default. I’ve been thinking about food and cooking since I was a young teenager. It didn’t include the idea of owning a restaurant and I had always heard that running a restaurant, much less owning one, was critically difficult and it just didn’t occur to me to think about it.

But I grew up being interested in food, for some reason. I’m from southern Oklahoma. All of my family are. I had two grandmothers who were very good cooks but real basic foods. The one grandmother I interacted with most, did start making fun of me by the time I was a teenager and playing with more than just your basic ingredients. But that didn’t seem to phase me–food was my track and I never did vary from it.

So, we traveled when I was a kid, and we moved to Iran when I was eight in 1957. That seriously disrupted our food habits. We were a family from Oklahoma, and we drove around the country in the summer camping but we did not have international experience. When we went to Iran, I was the youngest of two kids and my father got a job as an education consultant in Iran in 1957, which was an amazing time to have been abroad. There weren’t very many Americans abroad. There was no such thing as grocery stores. We hired a woman who became our housekeeper for the three years we ended up being there.

She did most of the cooking and I don’t recall eating anything except her food. And it was mostly lamb and rice and it was really good. Our palettes expanded significantly but like I said, there were no grocery stores, so your meat came from a carcass hanging on a hook. Vegetables from a fresh garden somewhere. The water was not sanitized water, so we boiled everything. It was early times in Iran in developmental times.

I am guessing I had been a picky eater prior. And then after that, I didn’t have much choice. We learned, coming from Oklahoma. I don’t think anybody in our family had ever eaten rice and by the time we returned, that’s all we ate. We were considered pretty odd by our family. That was a huge turning point. Everything I remember from the time we started traveling, had to do with food. Like I said, it’s my default. I am as much interested in how food gets to be what it is, as I am in making it. I love other people’s stories of their families and how their family cooked food.

Explorer of Food

Miles Rote: Okay, let’s fast-forward. You leave Iran and you’re interested in food and have been for a long time and now, of course, you’re interested too in travel and people from different parts of the world. You had that experience when you’re a young kid which must have been invaluable. What happens next? How did you find yourself in the Traveler’s Club International Restaurant?

Jennifer Byrom: When we returned from Iran, my father didn’t want to go back to Oklahoma State so he got a job at Cal State Northridge in Los Angeles and we moved to California. I grew up there, I went to college at Cal State Northridge and then up to UC Davis and was always interested in food. I got married and moved to Michigan, which is where most women my age, the reason they are where they are is because they went with a husband. I ended up in Michigan.

By then I was a serious explorer of food. I wanted to know how to cook and make everything. I basically went all the way through Julia Child’s books, and then I went through the Joy of Cooking.  Then I started asking people how they cooked and then I got to the point where I liked just being in the kitchen by myself for hours and hours at a time.

After my divorce, I hooked up with a man named William White and we started having parties that we called feasts. We would invite anybody there was to invite. William would walk down the street and invite people. So, we would have maybe 50 people gather at the house and I would have spent two days making Moroccan food, I think was the first big feast.

Miles Rote: Wow.

Jennifer Byrom: I had a friend who had a birthday and I would cook a meal, and I asked him where he wanted it from. He said Morocco. So that’s how I learned and continued to learn by jumping in feet first. I say that about my life in general, that a great deal of my life, I have spent holding my nose and jumping in. Which has some good and bad qualities to it.

Miles Rote: Yeah, definitely.

Jennifer Byrom: When we decided to open a restaurant, well, I talk about that in the book and it’s because there was some commercial property for sale, and I thought it would be a good property to put my clothing design business in. I was designing clothes at that point. It was an old ice cream parlor, and it really wouldn’t make do with it being anything but a restaurant-like place. So, William said, “Well, let’s start a restaurant,” and I said, “Well, I hear it’s really hard.”

We had a thousand dollars startup money and the rest was just sweat and toil. For me, it was just a launching point. Whenever I got to buy ingredients and cook, and people bought the food, I realized, “Well, I can make anything then.” People ate it and liked it and I kept going. I became very fluent in most food languages and I’m very proud of that.

You know, when you’re learning a language you know you’ve learned the language when you start dreaming in it.

That’s the way it has been for me with food, when I can design in that country’s cuisine, I’m on the way. That’s been a joy for me.

Miles Rote: What was that like the first time, when you had these feast for a while and now you open your restaurant. You cook food for people and they’re paying for it, what was that like? That first moment of “Wow, people are showing up and eating my food and paying for it.”

Jennifer Byrom: I don’t think I thought of it that way. I think I thought of it more like, “Oh, I need to cook food for people because they’re coming in and asking me to do it.” I didn’t have a sense of the bigger picture at the time. It was just, a new task, take it on, let’s do it. I don’t think the “wow” came in for a long time. I tend to be that way. I just start something up and do it.

Miles Rote: You jump in feet first and then come back to the surface and then there is maybe a moment for the wow. This wasn’t just a Traveler’s Club International Restaurant, this was also a tuba museum. How did those things come together and why tubas?

Jennifer Byrom: It didn’t start out that way. We were going to just have a restaurant and have it include the ice cream parlor because it was an iconic ice cream parlor. It was going to be ice cream and sandwiches and some international food rotating specials. William was a musician as well as a businessman, and he played tuba in school. He often was carrying a tuba with him and he would leave it around because, after work, he was going to go off and play with the polka band or something. And people took notice.

We tended to be pretty casual, we didn’t decorate, it was a very organic growth where things just appeared on the piano because I didn’t have a place to put them. An awful lot of our décor was accidental. And then it became something people wanted to keep, it was interesting to watch people look at what we had hanging around the walls.

The tubas began to get noticed and William was very serious as a collector. He didn’t just pick up band equipment. Each tuba that he had, he labeled specifically who made it, and what made it different from other tubas. He put a label under each one that he hung up and people of all kinds–we had a very huge clientele, varied clientele, we had lawyers and doctors and we had little kids and moms and pops, and we had folks from the state legislature–they would sit at the counter and look at the tubas and read the signs.

That became a moniker and commonly, I would get reports back, especially from employees, and they would say they were out in another town and somebody asked where they worked and they would say, “I work at the Traveler’s Club,” and they would look puzzled, and then they said, “You know, the Tuba Place.”

More than that, we were known as the “Tuba Palace,” the “Tuba Temple,” the “Tuba Place,” the “Place with the Tubas.” That gave me such an insight that almost anything people do, there is a subculture related to it. There is a sizeable tuba subculture in the world, that was very interesting to learn.

Miles Rote: And even there is that group that are interested in tubas, and then there is the group of people who don’t realize that they’re interested in tubas. They’re sitting there having lunch and they see the tuba on the wall and they’re suddenly interested.

Jennifer Byrom: Yes. Sure, and as the tubas increased in quantity, then so did photos of tubas or posters of tubas or paraphernalia that William would collect. Tubas became his second identity. He named a character Tuba Charlie and so, Tuba Charlie just became a living thing. So then, when he started brewing beer, it was Tuba Charlie’s Beer. I heard him more than once, later in our relationship with the restaurant, I heard him say, if someone asked what he did, he would say, “I own a beer pub and we serve some food.” And I would just kick him because it was, “No, we have a restaurant that has tubas in it, and we serve beer.”

Miles Rote: Yeah, that’s amazing.

Jennifer Byrom: It was a presence of its own. And the smashed tuba that alone, became an icon. So, the whole thing was a remarkable human experience that I treasure. There are a lot of tuba stories and there are lots of Traveler’s Club stories. Whenever somebody mentions the Traveler’s Club on Facebook, there starts being all kinds of input of people saying “Yeah, I did this, I saw that.” It was a quirky place.

The Smashed Tuba

Miles Rote: Share some of those with us, what are some of your favorite Traveler’s Club stories?

Jennifer Byrom: One of my sons was visiting with his kids recently and these are two major stories that I tell in the book but they make me laugh still to this day, 20 years later. One was ‘the smashed tuba’. William was a very creative person and who knows where he came up with this idea, but East Lansing was refurbishing its streets one August. Some of the main grand river was closed off so that they could reapply new asphalt. I don’t know, he must have checked in with the Department of Transportation, but he got permission for us to take something down there and put it on the road and the steam roller would roll over it.

None of us knew this until that day. He’s coming in with the tuba over his shoulder and he says, “Let’s go smash the tuba.” It’s an ordinary August day, there were just people wandering around and not much traffic because the road is closed, there’s a big steam roller, it’s hot and this was a throwaway tuba from a junior high band or something.

I went with him and he had an old-fashioned movie camera, and he lays the tuba down in the middle of the road. Steamrollers are really big things, so the guy sitting on it is just as tall as an elephant. He’s way up there and William lays the tuba flat down on the road and we’re all kind of standing there quizzically. And the guy turns on a steam roller and moves forward very slowly and at first, there’s not enough friction so the tuba moves forward.

Then, little by little, it caught on and the steamer rolled right over that tuba. When it passed, we were all leaning in, staring at this flattened thing in the asphalt. Then he rolled back over it and then he rolled it forward over it and then he rolled back over it and then we had a very flat tuba.

We went home and William found an artist who embedded it in a big piece of cement, and it was next to the front door. So, when you came into the restaurant, you passed the smashed tuba. I loved it so much that I started having fantasies of doing it with other instruments and making a wall of them.

Miles Rote: Wow.

Jennifer Byrom: The other favorite one of mine is definitely dated because an awful lot of people listening to this won’t know the musical, The Music Man. But I loved it and played it, and sometimes the orchestra would put on a play.

The MSU tuba line in the band is famous for being such a good line of tubas playing band and they travel around the States giving exhibitions.

So, the community knows the tuba line. Some members of the tuba line called William up and said they were in town early because the band always comes back early before the students do, in order to practice. Could they come over and get some ice cream at the restaurant and play their tubas? William put, I kid you not, I don’t think it was even two lines in the classifieds in the newspaper that said, “MSU Tuba is at Traveler’s Club at Sunday 4 PM,” that was it.

Sunday is the worst day to run a restaurant that is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and it is my shift. And by 4:00 on a Sunday, I am out of that building. I was sitting next door because I lived in an apartment in the house next door. I am sitting on the porch just relaxing and not even thinking of the restaurant, and I start seeing a slow traffic of people walking down the sidewalk towards the restaurant, every kind of people.

People dressed in suits, people dressed in shorts and flip-flops, kids, everybody, and I had a bad feeling that it was getting crowded in there. Pretty soon, William calls me and he says, “Can you can come over? We’re really, really busy,” and I said, “Nope I am not coming over.” And he persuaded me too. It took several phone calls. I have the ability to lower the temperature, just as some people do. So, I finally went over and it was a madhouse.

Everybody was eating ice cream and they were all eating food and they were all waiting for the tubas and where were the tubas? None of us knew. So, I just helped out with the staff, and then I kept looking out of the door–I had no idea what they were going to look like. And after a while, directly across the street from us, was an iconic Ace hardware store. It had been there for a long time, long before us. I look out the window and a band pulls up and some guys get out.

They’re in cut off shorts and flip-flops with very polished tubas and I turn around in the door and I say to the customers, “The tubas are here,” and it erupts. The whole place erupts standing and cheering because the tubas are here. They lined up in line with I think, there were eight of them, they lined up in two lines across the street and trotted over to our door with their tubas and went in. I mean, it was just a scene out of a movie.

People were cheering and clapping and then the tubas played the tuba line. They played the baseline, they didn’t know the main melody of the ‘fight song’, which they were going to play. So, they just ‘tuba’d’ and ‘oom-pah-d’ all around the restaurant–around and around inside, and everybody is cheering. And then they got their ice creams and honked and went home. But I thought, you know, I could easily have started an annual downtown tuba parade. It has the energy.

Miles Rote: It seems like music was a big part of the restaurant because you had a piano there as well and even offered free coffee to people who would play competently.

Jennifer Byrom: Right and if someone came regularly, like every Monday at lunchtime, they got a free lunch.

Miles Rote: Oh wow, that’s amazing.

Jennifer Byrom: Music was one of the things that attracted me and William to each–music and food. I grew up playing, I learned to play piano, but I played flute all the way through school in college and in marching bands. My mother in particular always pursued folk art and that included folk music. Wherever we went in the world, we found venues of people playing local music.

I grew up very appreciative of traditional music, wherever the culture was and was very knowledgeable of Michigan. Traditional Michigan music is unique to Michigan. William was friends with an elderly man who had homemade fiddles, who had been a lumberjack up in the UP. So, when I first got to know him, we explored all the bars in Michigan that had immigrant musicians playing there. For both of us, food and music always went together. So, the restaurant had to include music and it did.

Miles Rote: That’s so great, from international food and community and music, it is such a great combination to create a culture of people coming together.

Jennifer Byrom: William was and is a remarkable musician that has native skills and he was capable, always, of picking up any instrument from any part of the world and within 15 or 20 minutes understanding enough to play on it, and to play traditional melodies, which is remarkable. So, he had a nose for anybody out in the community who was an interesting musician.

World Cuisine

Miles Rote: That’s amazing. So, in your book, it is really cool the way it’s laid out. You do a really cool job with it as far as telling stories and anecdotes, and then there are a lot of recipes as well, of course. What are some of your favorite recipes?

Jennifer Byrom: I sent the book out by PDF to a number of friends and this friend wrote back and said, “I don’t find galloping horses,” and she was really upset. Galloping horses was a Thai pork and peanut recipe and it is basically pork, either baked or broiled, sauced with this really good peanut sauce that we became really famous for. I laughed because we mailed out a quarterly menu, as well as our regular menu, and we made specials from around the world each month.

January was Africa month and May was one of the Asian months. We would mail out to people who had signed up, this mailer that would say, “Here is the four months’ worth of food specials we are offering.” There are people who own every one of those we ever sent out. And people put things on their calendar. So, every May there were people who came for galloping horses.

So that was big, what everybody liked about galloping horses was the pork and peanuts. The peanut sauce was really good, how can I incorporate that and have it always on the menu? Not the pork and peanut, but the peanut sauce. I learned a lot. I knew nothing about running a restaurant, inventorying, and all of that. I learned that you can’t just add one item that is going to require special ingredients all by itself.

It has to be able to be used on other dishes as well. So, it took a long time before I came up with the stir-fries. The peanut stir fry was, I’d say, top of the list.

Miles Rote: That’s great, I don’t think I have ever heard of a restaurant that each month has dedicated to a different type of cuisine, it is such an amazing idea. This is why you have to check out the book.

Jennifer Byrom: And the ice cream. And the ice cream was big.

Miles Rote: Then the ice cream part–that is exactly where I was going with this to top it all off with a cherry on the top, there was an ice cream parlor that you guys were really well-known for.

Jennifer Byrom: Yes we could not, not have traditional ice cream. So, you know most people now only know ice cream as soft serve, and the traditional milkshake where you put your two scoops and your syrup and blend them is going away. There were people my age and older who would sit at the counter and if they would order an ice cream soda, you had to make it right because they knew how to make it right. And there was only one way to make an ice cream soda.

That was a lot of work, the waitresses had to work a lot harder at our place because they had to take the orders, they had to take care of the customers, and then they had to make desserts. Adding the ice cream to the labor component was a serious interruption in their workflow but it was good and people loved it. I learned a lot about that culture.

Miles Rote: What would you say was your favorite aspect of the restaurant? Was it being able to cook for people? Was it the food you made? How people felt being there, having ice cream, the music? If you could put your finger on one thing that you just cherished the most, what would it?

Jennifer Byrom: The fundamental is learning about food, I mean that still is my heart talking. Knowing that I can go to somebody else’s country and speak about their food with them and enjoy it and get pleasure out of how their family grew up in that country is still just the absolute top. But then there is the wonderfulness of working with customers and employees and running it my way, which is not the most efficient way, but it made sure everybody was treated as a human and that included the employees.

They came to me, there were just really interesting people and I encouraged that. The conversations that we had throughout the years, and I am still friends with a number of the early employees, who now have kids graduated from college. It is a joy.

Miles Rote: That is so amazing. I am so happy you were able to write all of these stories down into a book and save all of these magical experiences that you’ve had. I highly recommend people check out the book. If they could take away one or two things from the book, what would it be?

Jennifer Byrom: It would be what I start out with in the book, which is equality. The things that are so important to me that I will just get in people’s faces about is that we are all equal. Everybody deserves respect, everybody deserves to be as different as they are, and to love them. I had so many people come through the door, in so many ways and I cherish every one of them because they gave me so many rich memories. When I started to write the book, I knew that a lot of the book really needed to be telling the stories of the people who came into the restaurant, as well as the employees.

It took me a long time to put it together. I am very proud of the way the publishers really understood me and created the format. I think it’s excellent. I couldn’t have drawn it out better. They just really got how I wanted to be presented. So, everybody’s life is full of threads and it is not just you go to work, and you go home. You have home life and you have tragedy and you have love and you have a world. I have this sense of embracing the world.

Miles Rote: Yes, you’re right. There are so many different threads and it is amazing to see the thread of empowerment through your book wrapped up and embedded in all of these different things. It is really cool to see, and it really shines. Jennifer, this has been such a pleasure and I am so excited for people to check out the book.

Jennifer Byrom: Thank you.

Miles Rote: Everyone, the book is called, Taste and Tales from the Traveler’s Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum. You can find it on Amazon. I love reading that title every time I do it, it is just like there is so much there that makes me happy.

Jennifer Byrom: Yeah.

Miles Rote: Besides checking out the book, where can people find you?

Jennifer Byrom: They can find me at my email, which is [email protected]. I have started finally working on Facebook. I have avoided doing social media and I can’t avoid it any longer. So, I have created a page on Facebook, because the food is also part of the rest of my life, which is Miss Jennifer’s School of Practical Arts.

William has kept the website from the Traveler’s Club open and thetravelerstuba.com. He will be selling the books there along with spices that I created and t-shirts and other memorabilia that were hot topics for a long time. People meet each other across the world and see someone else wearing that Travelers Club t-shirt and they identify with each other. They can order directly from me.

Miles Rote: All right, perfect. Jennifer, thank you again. This has been so much fun and keep inspiring people and keep doing all of the eclectic and amazing things that you do.

Jennifer Byrom: I just turned 71 and I have a lot ahead of me. I am looking forward to it.

Miles Rote: Jump right in, feet first.

Jennifer Byrom: Yeah.