All it took was a small sign on a strip mall on Polk Street in Pineville:
“Elsa’s American, Asian and International Food Mart.”
When historian Tom Hanchett spotted it, he scurried to what he calls “my good friend, Google.” Within a couple of minutes, Hanchett had learned a new word – “sari-sari,” a Philippine variety store.
And he had new evidence of his favorite subject, the changing life of the modern South:
He found eight shops representing seven nationalities of food along a mile of Polk Street near Interstate 485’s Exit 65.
Filipino, Japanese, Colombian, Indian, Polish, Peruvian and German.
From Elsa’s to the Waldhorn Restaurant, they’re all doing business along a busy highway named for the 11th president, James K. Polk, whose log cabin birthplace sits in a nearby field.
“There’s an area like this in every American city,” Hanchett says. “It’s just more visible in the South because we didn’t have a Greektown or a Polishtown or a Chinatown.”
‘Beer nuts of Japanese food’
People with titles like “museum curator” and “historian” aren’t supposed to have as much fun as Hanchett does. They’re supposed to page through dusty books or use $10 words like “hierarchical” and “dichotomy.”
They’re not supposed to paw through the soft drinks and crow that the pickled squid is “the beer nuts of Japanese food.”
That’s Hanchett. Ever since he came to Charlotte to curate the Levine Museum of the New South in 1999, he’s been using international food to tell us our story. Hanchett, 57, and his wife, East Charlotte activist Carol Sawyer, delve into so many little restaurants and food stores that he now writes a short column for the Observer, telling the stories of people who make everything from Bosnian sausages to Taiwanese steamed buns.
Hanchett sees history in soda cans and social change in bakery cases. Show him a shelf of pickles and he’ll give you a lesson in community values.
Two years ago, when Southern writer John T. Edge went to Indianapolis to write a story for The New York Times on changing American suburbs, Hanchett went along to munch arepas and spot meaning.
Edge credits historian Carl N. Degler of Stanford University with inventing the metaphor of the salad bowl to replace the melting pot. In a salad bowl, Degler wrote in the 1960s, each population group contributes ideas and texture to the cultural mix, but they don’t disappear into the whole.
Hanchett takes that a little further with his idea of the salad bowl suburbs, where “newcomer and native-born intermingle without ethnic boundaries.”
‘I like junk food’
On a recent Friday morning, we climbed into Hanchett’s white Prius to see what he learns when he wanders through those stores and restaurants in Pineville.
“I’m not a sophisticated eater,” Hanchett says. “I find the things that are most familiar. And I like junk food. So I buy junk food and try it until I know it.
“Once that isn’t strange anymore, I find something else.”
Wondering through Hatoya, the Japanese market, he stops first near the cash register, by a bag of snacks.
“One of the coolest things is impulse buys,” he says.
Store manager Qinj Xu is from China, not Japan. But he explained that there are Japanese people working at a number of factories around Charlotte, such as Yamoto and Mitsubishi.
Then he gave us coffee candies as we left. That’s how it usually goes: Hanchett breaks the ice by handing out Levine Museum brochures, and people end up giving him things to eat.
“I’m shy,” Hanchett admitted in the car. “I’ve learned that at cash registers, people are willing to talk.”
Elsa’s, the Philippine sari-sari that started our trip, was closed that day. But Hanchett pointed out something in the window: A sign with the slogan “door to door service to the Philippines.”
Many of these small stores double as packing services for sending things back to people’s native countries.
“These are community centers, and that’s a big business in the community,” he said.
At El Cafetal, a small Colombian business, we expected coffee. But it turned out to be a store that sells products that include packaged coffee, along with a packing service and a small room where you can get your taxes done or your computer repaired.
Hanchett zeroed in on a rack of business cards by the door.
“Colombian restaurant 101,” he announced, flipping through the cards for food businesses scattered all over the region: Los Paisas, Las Americas, El Paisa. If you want to learn what a community is doing, he says, look for the business cards people leave by the door.
Spices and laundry soap
At India Grocers, a small market with an intense aroma of spices and laundry soap, Hanchett stopped to chat with Nayna Patel, who owns the store with her husband. Pritesh Patel was at their second store, in the University City area.
Stopping to pick up a copy of Saathee, the magazine for the Indian community in North Carolina, Hanchett points out a card for a caterer who makes “Gujarti or Punjabi, Mexican, Chinese and Non. Veg. Foods.”
A customer walking by stopped to listen. Ishani Shah of Ballantyne does a little catering herself, she says. Soon, she and Hanchett were strolling through the aisles, talking about products like Kurkure, the Indian version of Cheetos, and swapping tips on German bread and the apple strudel at the Waldhorn.
“Nice people,” Hanchett declared as we jumped back in the car.
“Polish, Colombian and a naughty lingerie shop!” The next stop is one of Hanchett’s favorites, a tiny cluster of shops that includes a Polish meat market and a Colombian bakery and cafe.
At Delicias Colombianas, we buy an Arepa de Choclo – a warm corn fritter topped with a square of soft, white cheese – and a couple of small pastries filled with thick milk caramel.
Hanchett didn’t know what the pastry was, but he knew the important thing: “If it’s Colombian, it will be filled with caramel.”
Next door, Zygma is mostly a Polish meat market, but it also has German and Russian products.
Kate Baszynski was running the store for the owner, her cousin Marta Zelazko.
“Huge amount of clients,” she says. “Russia, German, Czech. Even Chinese and Vietnamese.”
Hanchett pauses by long shelves of pickles.
“You can tell what is important to a cuisine by how much shelf space it gets.”
‘The American dream’
We finally sat for lunch at Machu Picchu, a Peruvian restaurant in the Pineville Town Centre.
Owner Julian Herrara decorated one long wall with the things he wants you to know about his country: On one side, there are nets and fish decorations to commemorate ceviche, the fresh seafood “cooked” with lime juice. On the other, there’s a mural of the temple ruins at Machu Picchu. In between, there’s a widescreen TV showing soccer.
“Everything important is on one wall,” Herrara says.
While we filled two tables with a spread of dishes – an herb and chicken soup with a whole cooked egg, fried and fresh ceviches, yucca bread, rotisserie chicken and sweet plantains – Hanchett considered what brings so many nationalities to a suburb like Pineville.
“It’s a high traffic area and you can get good deals on real estate,” he says. “Newcomers who are chasing the American dream get overrepresented in these areas where there is high traffic and affordable rents.”
Herrara comes over to talk about how happy he is to see American customers – he wants Americans to know Peruvian food as well as we know Mexican.
Hanchett listens, nodding.
“This is a very American restaurant,” he says when Herrara steps away.
“You come here to taste the American dream.”