Is there any better place to come together and learn about each other than at a dinner table? There's music, of course; there's festivals, sporting events, school plays. But when it comes to getting down to that primal place where everyone lives — even Donald Trump — food is about as fundamental as it gets.
When I first arrived back in North Carolina in 2002 after living in New York and Los Angeles the previous 15 years, I feared losing the breadth of international food choices I'd grown accustomed to. Living in those cities in my 20s and 30s, I learned more about the things that bring people and cultures together than I'd ever known — simply by breaking bread and talking with folks at the Ethiopian, Moroccan, Israeli, Lebanese, Indian, Dominican, Mexican, Thai and other restaurants and markets in and around the various neighborhoods where I lived.
Though Charlotte was much quieter in 2002 than it is today, it was changing. But since I'd been away for so long and knew little about the demographic shifts that had occurred across the South in my absence, I assumed the Queen City was the same sleepy fried chicken and barbecue town it was when I left N.C. back in the 1980s.
Two Charlotteans quickly re-educated me: one was Charlotte Observer food writer Kathleen Purvis, who immediately took me to a Peruvian restaurant for lunch; the other was Tom Hanchett, then-staff historian at the wonderful Levine Museum of the New South. I found Hanchett to be not just an academic historian who walked dusty old museum halls, pointing to yellowed photographs and old narratives of times and places far removed from the here and now; he was a practical historian who drew direct lines from the past to the present. He seemed to understand that there's really no such thing as time or place; we all occupy this big blue ball together in a living, breathing, morphing continuum.
So when CL news editor Ryan Pitkin announced in our editorial meeting last week that he was taking a Charlotte City Walks "Munching Tour" of the world of food in the Q.C., and Hanchett was leading it, I immediately thought it would make a great cover story.
"I grew up in a black and white South where we were supposed to be separate," Hanchett tells Ryan in the story. "And we are now in a Technicolor South, where everything is all mixed up."
To show this, Hanchett began his tour in a tiny area of the city — a parking lot at the corner of North Sharon Amity and Albemarle roads — where participants could walk from one restaurant or market to the next, exploring the array of available food experiences.
Ryan talks with Tsige Meshasha and her husband Zerabruk Abay, owners of the Nile Grocery, an Ethiopian coffee shop and grocery store; Meena Chamlagai, who owns the Rohan Grocery, a Himalayan bazaar; Palestinian Izzat Freitekh, whose La Shish Kabab serves Middle Eastern cuisine; and the Syrian owners of the Golden Bakery, which sells sweet baklava and other treats.
These restaurateurs and market owners share with Ryan their experiences of how they wound up in Charlotte, each very personal and different. Freitekh operated a sandwich shop in his hometown of Old City, Jerusalem, in Israel, before moving to Charlotte 10 years ago to be nearer to his son, a student at UNC Charlotte. Abay, an Ethiopian textile engineer who moved here 19 years ago, tells Ryan that the Queen City's expanding immigrant community makes him feel much more at home here nowadays than ever before.
But not all Charlotteans are comfortable with these changes, which is why Hanchett sees breaking bread among people of different cultures as essential to breaking down barriers. "I think we are wired as mammals to be uncomfortable with difference," Hanchett tells Ryan. "But if you study ecology, difference is what makes ecology work."
It's important to point out, however, that although experiencing cuisines of different cultures is a great way to bridge cultures, there are ways of doing this that further separate us. Last year, my old Observer colleague Purvis wrote a column on why seeing foods of different cultures as "ethnic" actually builds even larger walls between "us" and the "other."
"There's an uncomfortable truth here, isn't there?" she wrote. "The darker the skin of the people doing the cooking, the more likely it is that someone will pull out the E word . . . Caucasian is an ethnic group. Does anyone call Cracker Barrel or Red Lobster ethnic restaurants?"
So come together with us this week and let's learn more about each other over our wonderfully eclectic cuisines. (And check out Hanchett's next Munching Tour on South Boulevard.) But leave that other E word — ethnic — at the door.