Editor’s note: For the recent Southern Foodways Alliance summer symposium, El Sur Latino, Observer food editor Kathleen Purvis was asked to give a talk on the six essential dishes for understanding Charlotte. Here’s the text of her talk:
The durian madeleine brought me up short.
Durian is a huge porcupine of a fruit that is so notoriously stinky, Julia Child described the aroma as “dead babies mixed with strawberries and Camembert.”
And a madeleine is a shell-shaped French cookie so delicate, it begs to be eaten with pinky lifted.
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Durian in a madeleine? That’s a mashup that’s sort of like a chamber quartet playing Sid Vicious.
But it may work as well as anything to sum up the churning kaleidescope that is the food scene here in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the early 21st century, a city where I’ve tracked, covered and tried to make sense of the food world for more than 30 years.
I spotted those madeleines on a chilly Friday night in February at the annual Tet Festival at St. Joseph’s Vietnamese Catholic Church.
St. Joseph’s is in a corner of Mecklenburg County called Steel Creek, a sprawling area of starter-home suburbs and small farms about 15 miles southwest of the center of the city.
I had stopped by for the opening of the festival, wandering along with my smartphone set on video as teams of cooks, most of them volunteers, rushed to fill steam tables with family cooking, comfort foods and holiday specials. This wasn’t restaurant food designed for the comfort of non-Asian customers. This was home cooking, holiday cooking, Vietnamese food not translated in any way except by the desire of the people who live here now to celebrate with the tastes of what they valued most back home.
So there was fried fish paste packed around wooden sticks, star-shaped clusters of shrimp and shredded potato, sticky-sweet deep-fried bananas, even one big tray filled with paper bags with the tantalizing label “Frog With Lemongrass and Pepper.”
While the band was warming up the drums for the usual dragon dance, I paused at one stand where a woman in her early 20s was helping her mother set up a display of their home baking.
The spread of cookies included Italian pizzelles flavored with coconut and those French-style madeleines flavored with durian. The French connection did, at least, make a little sense. The French influence still colors food all over Vietnam. But Italian and French cookies by way of Vietnam baked in southwest Charlotte?
How do you even begin to sum up a South like that?
When the Southern Foodways Alliance started planning its summer trip here, John T. Edge asked me to come up with a list of the Six Dishes That Define Charlotte. And I spent months puzzling over it. Where do I start?
Do I try to figure out where the barbecue stops and the barbacoa starts? Do I look for the mystical lines that divide skillet-fried, deep-fried and gas-station fried chicken? Do I include the nostalgic longing for dishes like persimmon pudding? Real wild persimmons have almost disappeared around here, plowed under as housing developments replaced the local woods in our constant rush for growth.
Is Charlotte in the two-layered congealed salads that some church luncheons still serve and hardly anyone still eats?
Tom Hanchett sees the story of the South in every halal market that has taken over a building that used to be a barbecue restaurant. I used to be able to see it whenever I spotted a Greek dish on an Italian menu, or a picture of the Parthenon on the wall of a barbecue restaurant.
How do I reconcile the Japanese-style ramen and Texas-style brisket that seem to be the current obsession of every Charlotte chef?
Should I pick baklava? For me, that’s kind of an essentially Charlotte thing: The Greek style, large, sweet and always filled with walnuts, speaks to all the diners and coffee shops (not trendy coffee houses, mind you, but real coffee shops) brought here by the wave of Greek immigrants who came to Charlotte for factory jobs back in the early 20th century.
And then there’s the Syrian style, cut in smaller diamonds and not as tooth-achingly sweet, like the kind you find at Golden Bakery on Albemarle Road. That’s arrived much more recently, with the new wave of people from the Middle East who are trying to find new and safer lives in a city that’s always making room for more.
Coming to Charlotte for jobs and bringing your food with you is a very, very long trail around here.
I did decide to make one rule for myself: You’ll notice that barbecue isn’t on this list. That’s because barbecue, real barbecue, is an Essential Dish of the Carolinas, not an Essential Dish of Charlotte.
Charlotte is soul food, and Greek food, and Vietnamese food, and Indian food, and German food. Charlotte is diner food and church supper food. Charlotte is festival food, from the syrupy, fried loukamades I eat every year at the Yiasou festival on East Boulevard to the syrupy, fried julabes at every Indian festival.
But I have to make six picks. So here are mine. Maybe, somewhere in this list, there’s an Essential Charlotte lurking, like the top of a Panthers T-shirt sticking out from under the collar of a button-down blue Oxford shirt.
1. An actual dish. My first essential dish is an empty one. At the Levine Museum of the New South, the artifacts include an oval Pyrex casserole dish that’s enshrined in a display case. It’s nothing remarkable, just a white dish with a gold pattern on it. But that dish once held a whole city’s hopes. In the 1970s, when Charlotte faced court-ordered busing to achieve school integration, a group of parents, both black and white, were asked to come together to figure out how to do it without tearing the city apart. They held evening meetings at locations around the city to hash out a plan.
The group was led by Maggie Ray, who came up with the ingenious idea to do it as a year-long series of supper meetings. Every week, Maggie Ray used that dish to bring her own potluck offering to the table. The dishes weren’t anything special, just simple casseroles, hot chicken salad and the like. But it was the living embodiment of a phrase coined by Harry Golden, the publisher of a self-published newspaper called The Carolina Israelite during the Civil Rights era. One of Golden’s rules was “no eating, no meeting.”
Maggie Ray’s twist took it a step further: “No eating, no understanding.” It’s hard to hate another person when you’re eating their food. It doesn’t matter what you put in the dish. It just matters that you share one.
2. Salt-and-pepper catfish at The Twin Tops fish camp in Belmont. Fish camps once dotted every river town in the South. Now, Catholicism wasn’t exactly a driving force around here, so I don’t think eating fried catfish on a Friday night was a religious thing. It was more that in the hard-working textile belt, it was an inexpensive indulgence, a way to take a whole passel of family out at the end of a long week.
The food was always fried, the salad bars were always loaded with the maximum amount of creamy things, and the big candy displays by the cash register were a good enticement to get your kids to eat at least a couple of bites of hush puppies. The greatest of the old fish camps, Lineberger’s, disappeared long ago. But if you go to a little section outside Belmont, you’ll still find a cluster of them, includng Twin Tops. They’re still packed with families every Friday night. On this visit, you’ve gotten a taste of that, along with Ava Lowery’s excellent film on the fish camp experience.
3. A pack of nabs. Working in the textile mills that used to dominate this area was a hard life. It was hot, loud and dangerous, and in an anti-union state, the hours were long. To keep going through a 12-hour shift, people used to buy a nickel pack of cheese crackers and a short glass bottle of Co’Cola, the generic term around here for anything from a Sundrop to a Cheerwine. The Lance Cracker company is still here in Charlotte. You can even see the front door of the original factory in SouthEnd, before it moved to a sprawling campus near Pineville.
The textile mills may be long gone, but no self-respecting fisherman would set out on the Catawba River without a pack of nabs tucked in his tackle box. The funny thing is, everyone still calls that sleeve of Lance crackers “a pack of nabs,” even though the name “nabs” started with the New England-based Nabisco company in the 1920s. That’s the Charlotte way: If you find your way here and stick around, we’ll eventually claim you as ours.
4. Baked macaroni & cheese. Yes, spotting macaroni & cheese listed with the vegetables at a “meat and three” restaurant makes people snicker. (It’s simple, people: If it’s not meat, it’s a side, and you put it with the vegetables.)
But for African-American families around here, it is the ultimate holiday food, served at every Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, Easter, Fourth of July and family reunion. It is essential, the one dish that can only be made by the best cook in the family. Some women have told me that getting the OK to bring the macaroni & cheese was a rite, the moment when they stepped closer to the rank of family matriarch. The best place to get the real deal when it isn’t a holiday: At any location of the United House of Prayer for All People. Back when the church’s founder, Bishop C.M. Grace, used to preach all day and into the night, he figured out that if people went home to get dinner, they might not come back. So he had dining rooms added to his churches. They’re still wonderlands of baked macaroni & cheese, slow-cooked turkey wings and a coconut pie that makes me happier than a praise band on Sunday.
5. A burger “all the way” at Brooks’ Sandwich House in NoDa. There was a time when calling the North Davidson Street neighborhood “NoDa” was a joke, a snicker over the pretentiousness of turning what was once a mill village into an arts district. Long before NoDa was NoDa, before the curated cocktail programs and the gallery crawls, the Brooks family opened a little walk-up burger stand to serve people who worked in the mills that used to fill the brick buildings that are now loft condominiums.
Sneaking away from my office on a fine afternoon and leaning against the hood of my car to eat a burger that’s topped with chili, onions and mustard and wrapped in greasy paper is still an essential part of understanding the original Charlotte, the factory town that’s hidden under all this reclaimed wood and distressed brick.
6. Finally, I’m going to have to say that the last dish is one I haven’t seen yet. Charlotte is constantly unfolding and enfolding new styles of food. I see it at The Asbury, in Matthew Krenz’ sticky buns rolled around a filling of minced country ham and drizzled with a goat cheese glaze. I see it in the crazy deviled egg fillings that Alex Verica concocts for his dad Paul’s restaurant at Heritage in Waxhaw, and in the craft beer-ice cream mashups at Golden Cow Creamery in South End.
I haven’t yet seen a livermush tortilla or a sweet tea horchata. But I know it’s coming and I can’t wait.
Because once you’re seen a durian madeleine, you know you’re in a place where anything can happen.