On July 11th, Jason and I braved the 20th straight day of rain in Charlotte (or was that the 21st?) to attend “Explore the Gathering Power of Food” an installment of the WFAE 90.7 Public Conversations series. The conversation involved a panel of four “food enthusiasts” including a former restauranteur, a chef, a food writer, and a “communal food enthusiast” and was moderated by a historian from the Levine Museum of the New South. It was a 90-minute conversation between the panel and audience members about their experiences with food bringing people together.
Full disclosure: we attended and observed rather than getting involved in the conversation ourselves. I think having worked an 11 hour day and skipping dinner before walking into a room full of strangers to listen to everyone talk about their grandmother’s cooking took the words right out of me. Not that you would have been able to hear my comments over the growling in my belly anyway. Listening to one audience member describe the spanikopita she ate as a small child was akin to torture. (Funny note: WordPress’ spell-check feature highlighted spanikopita and suggested I change it to spontaneity instead. Silly WordPress!)
For the most part, we stayed on relatively mundane topics, like what food events brought us together as a family (church socials, clambakes, funerals), and our experience (or rather lack of) with communal dining in restaurants. One audience member’s story resonated with me; her mother loved to cook, so her diet wasn’t the standard pizza and chicken nuggets that her classmates seemed to eat. One day when the teacher went around her kindergarten class asking each student what their favorite food was, most of the children answered “pizza.” Her answer was “scallops.” As an adult, she wondered if that made her sound elitist, since maybe the other kids couldn’t afford to eat high quality ingredients. I had a similar experience in my kindergarten class, but I’m sure I didn’t come across as elitist…just weird. My answer was “collard greens,” which weren’t all that popular among the 5-6 year-old set in my hometown of Clearwater, FL.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering – my opinion is that it’s not elitist to prioritize your spending to purchase high quality food items. I may never drive a fancy car, but I will always eat well
Anyhoo, Clearwater is a beach town, so it’s touristy with a diverse mix of people. I wouldn’t say that it really has a “Southern” culture. It’s more of a Parrothead/retiree culture. When I was growing up, the “local” places weren’t meat-and-three’s like they are here – they were little restaurants that featured fresh seafood with hushpuppies and coleslaw. Grouper, fried shrimp, oysters, and smoked fish spread; fresh citrus, bananas, and key lime pie. There was food from other cultures that as a child I adopted as my own: Cuban sandwiches, picadillo, Greek salads and gyros.
There wasn’t much Southern cooking for sale where I grew up. But my mom’s side of the family is from North Carolina (going back to the 1700′s), so I was raised on collard greens, black-eyed peas, and cornbread. I’m sure my kindergarten teacher had no idea what I was talking about when I insisted that “collard greens” were my favorite food.
I work at a community college, and meet new people every day. Many have moved here recently and are adjusting to a new place, and they always ask if I would ever move back to Florida. Having lived in North Carolina for 9 years, I can confidently say that this is my home now and I wouldn’t move back. But I know what it’s like to move to a strange town with a culture that’s different from your own. There were many things about Charlotte that were unfamiliar when we arrived, but it began to feel like home relatively quickly. I think it was because Jason and I weren’t really cooks then, so we went out to eat a lot. We enjoyed the novelty of “country cooking” restaurants, and while nothing can compare mom’s home cooking, there’s a lot to be said for finding collard greens on a menu.
When I meet someone from Florida, inevitably our talk turns to food…and football. We may not agree on which team to cheer for, but we can definitely connect over food. Want to instantly get to know your neighbor who just moved here from the Sunshine State? Ask them about Publix subs…then give them directions to the nearest store in Indian Land.
My mom has lived in Florida since she was 10 or 11 years old, but the food connection holds strong for her too. The last time my parents visited, we took them to Jake’s Good Eats. It was sheer joy to watch my mother get excited about being able to order a fried bologna sandwich, and watch her relish every bite. She hadn’t had a fried bologna sandwich since she was a kid in Lumberton.
We don’t get to Florida nearly as often as we should, but you can be that when we do get down there I have my fill of seafood and obsess about Cuban sandwiches. Would I ever move back to Florida? No. This is my home now. But if you ask me what I miss most about Florida, it’s my family first, followed closely by the food.
Food makes a place a home.