“You have to bite your tongue a lot,” Agnes Gira said. “You can’t yell at anybody, or cuss anyone out, as much as you might want to at the time.”
For 25 years, Gira worked as an inspector for the Detroit Health Department, and in addition to trying not to chew and swallow parts of her own mouth, she has also seen some things. She always photographed the back-of-house horrors she encountered during her 9-to-5 gig, but those shots of real-life kitchen nightmares eventually became the basis for her first exhibition at a Detroit art gallery.
When MUNCHIES spoke to Gira, she was in the middle of breakfast at Dooley’s, which she said was one of her favorite restaurants. “They have consistently good food, with a simple menu. That’s what people want,” she said. (She also inspected the restaurant “many times,” so the fact that she’s still a regular says a lot about Dooley’s commitment to cleanliness).
Gira told us that she’s been interested in photography for most of her life, largely because of her mother’s own passion for it. “We still have a lot of color slides from way back, pictures that she took in the 1950s,” she said. “That’s not something everyone can say.” In the early 2000s, she took a photography class at Wayne State University as part of her Fine Arts degree, and presented some of her inspection photos in class. She credits her professor, Marilyn Zimmerman, with the inspiration to keep snapping pics—and ultimately, to put together her exhibition, The Other Dirty Show, which is currently on display at The Scarab Club.
“I was working and going to school at the same time,” she said. “[Professor Zimmerman] taught me so much. I feel like I started to take much better pictures after that, because she told me to get low, or to stand on boxes, things like that.”
Thanks, in part, to Zimmerman’s guidance and confidence, the exhibition opened in mid-January, and runs through this Saturday, February 16. All of the framed photos are shots that Gira took during actual restaurant inspections—but she’s not spilling any details about whose filthy kitchens are on display. “I will say that probably 75 percent of restaurant owners don’t want any trouble, and they just want to do what’s right,” she said. “The casinos are a good example. They don’t want to get thousands of people sick.”
Gira retired from the Health Department in 2015, but she couldn’t leave all of her unsettling memories behind when she turned her clipboard in. “One time, I saw a chef take a bowl of corn starch from the cook line and carry it into the bathroom,” she said. “When he came back out, there was cornstarch all over his pants, from where he’d put it on his ass. He must’ve had an itch or something, but he brought it back out and put it right back on the line.”
On another occasion, she temporarily forgot that whole ‘bite your tongue’ thing. “After an inspection, I was trying to be nice, and go over [the violations] and the woman I talked to took all of the paperwork I’d given her and she just lit it up on the stove. She set it on fire right in front of me, and I asked her if a house had fallen on her sister. That was a pretty good comeback line, but I got in trouble for that one. She said I’d called her a witch, but I didn’t—not directly, anyway.”
So how can customers be sure if the restaurant we’ve just walked into is clean or not? “You might notice if something is broken, or if a waitress is sneezing,” she said. “But you’re not going to get to see the flooded basement, or what’s happening in the kitchen.”
Well, we can now—thanks to Gira’s photos.