If you had to sum up the essential dishes of Charlotte, what would you choose?
The keys to understanding what’s really going on in food here. The things no one should miss.
When the Southern Foodways Alliance brought its annual symposium to town last weekend, I got the chance to look back over 28 years as the Observer’s food editor and pick what I think is essential.
Davidson College professor Joseph “Piko” Edwoozie summed it up nicely: Getting the call that the influential Southern Foodways Alliance was coming to Charlotte for a summer symposium was like “we got the call from the Olympics committee to host the Olympics.”
Yes, Charlotte is gnawing for attention from the national food world. A recent story on the national website Eater.com, “Road-Tripping North Carolina: The 22 Must-Visit Restaurants,” raised the problem to a full boil when it completely skipped the Queen City.
We may not be a sexy food destination like New Orleans or Nashville, other cities that have hosted the annual summer event. But this was our chance to challenge that idea, to bring attention to our international diversity and to see ourselves reflected by outsiders.
As one of the speakers, I was asked to sum up Charlotte’s six essential dishes. And as one of 150 people who attended the three days of lectures, meals and food tours, I got the chance to see my own city through the eyes of others.
1. There’s a factory town under it all. In my talk, I listed fish camps that sprang up in textile towns, including Twin Tops in Belmont. I included “a pack of nabs,” the sleeves of Lance cheese crackers that were handy snacks for the long factory shifts. And I named Brooks Sandwich House, the popular cheeseburger hut in NoDa that started in 1973 when North Davidson Street was more about textile mills than art galleries and cocktail programs.
2. We use food to find unity. I told the visitors about the casserole dish on display at the Levine Museum of the New South. It was used when black and white parents in the 1970s held a series of dinner meetings to figure out how to handle court-ordered busing to achieve school integration.
3. We’re about families. When SFA showed an oral history film about the small, international businesses that dot Central Avenue, a dozen owners came up to be recognized, from Izzat Freitekh of La Shish Kabab to Zhenia Martinez of Las Delicias Bakery and the Nguyen family of Le’s Sandwiches & Cafe. A lot of those stores and restaurants are now being run by the second generation. People come here for jobs, but they stay for the roots.
4. Diversity is our flavor. I started off my talk with the durian-flavored madelines I saw at this year’s Tet Festival at St. Joseph’s Vietnamese Catholic Church – traditional French cookies made with an exotic Southeast Asian fruit. Southern food isn’t stuck in amber here, it adapts with every new cook. For one breakfast, restaurateur Jim Noble served a breakfast of posole – soft hominy – and pork barbecue that was the best of Mexico and the South in a single bowl.
5. We can stand food on its head. The final dinner, cooked by Joe and Katy Kindred and Nereyda Mali of Tacos El Nevado, was one for the history books, 16 dishes that stretched from smoked trout topped with Peruvian ground cherries to a silky braised lamb cooked with mezcal and topped with crunchy hominy. It was grounded in tradition and felt completely new, and no one who ate it will ever forget it.