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Food, culture and love

Seeking out 'the other' in ethnic eateries

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I grew up in Sandy Springs, once dubbed "the golden ghetto" by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In that lily-white world before desegregation, it was rare to see black people, much less immigrants.

Years after I left home, my mother told me that she regretted raising my two brothers and me in such an insular environment. She didn't know that even as a teenager, I did everything I could to shake off the ghetto's gold dust.

This usually meant catching a bus to downtown Atlanta, supposedly to go to the library. But I mainly spent those Saturdays in the forbidden world of the "other." In downtown Atlanta, I looked at dirty magazines, ate pig-ear sandwiches in soul-food cafes and hung out at an herb shop owned by a Caribbean "root doctor" who taught me about the gods of Santeria and occasionally shared a sample of her cooking.

I don't actually think my taste for the "exotic" was an expression of rebellion, any more than the love of travel means you hate your hometown. Rebellion usually tempers itself, and my love of the "other" has only grown. Food and Atlanta's burgeoning ethnic communities have been a large part of that.

When I was 19, I fell in love with a Cuban refugee. This was in the '70s, when a huge wave of fugitives from Castro's regime arrived in Atlanta. Many of them lived in Midtown, supplanting the hippies who had earlier colonized the now-expensive neighborhood. During that year and the five years of marriage following, no matter how alien I found my wife's family – many of them didn't speak English – dining with them was always amazing.

The flavors themselves were new and delicious. But what astonished me, coming from a comparatively well-to-do background, was how much they made from so little. Most of them were recent arrivals and had very little money. Much like black people and soul food, the Cubans turned humble ingredients into artful meals. They made a ritual out of preparing every family meal and talked about food constantly.

There were very few other immigrant communities in the city then. In fact, my wife and I lived near Buford Highway, and I don't recollect anything like the profusion of ethnic dining that distinguishes the area now.

In the mid-'80s, I moved to Houston for a few years. It was there that I got a deeper lesson in the problem of assimilation and food culture. In Houston, I fell in love with Mexican food, which was a shock, since there wasn't anything but highly Americanized Tex-Mex food in Atlanta. Indeed, when I returned, I wrote frequent columns about the lack of good Mexican food in our city.

Then the explosion occurred on Buford Highway. A restaurant for practically every Latin American country opened there – plus all of the Asian countries, especially Vietnam. (Indians largely settled in the Decatur area.) Staffs of these restaurants frequently spoke no English, so ordering in them required playing charades.

I particularly fell in love with Bien Thuy, Suzanne Bojtchewky's Vietnamese restaurant. (Its name means "Demilitarized Zone.") Suzanne, who wrote two cookbooks, returned to Vietnam a few years ago, and her former restaurant is now a coffee shop. It was my favorite place to take friends who never imagined themselves eating "strange food." They always loved it and became regulars themselves, eventually exploring other restaurants.

That is another thing about ethnic dining. While I wrote above that I think an adventurous spirit was given with my existence, it's also true that people can be educated to expand their taste. In fact, a study a few years back demonstrated that the more people experiment with their palate, the more generally curious and tolerant they become. (The French now teach "taste" in their public schools.)

Most ethnic minorities in the United States, even if they are here as refugees, are oppressed. With the debate over immigrants at full boil these days, prejudice in the American melting pot is greater than ever. I don't think it's far-fetched to say that if xenophobic Americans actually decided to cross the borders of their own taste and visit ethnic restaurants, they would realize how much we have to learn about our own country from newcomers to it.

But the main advantage is the one I found years ago as a teenager: Ethnic dining takes us out of ordinary life. We become the immigrant's guest rather than her host. I take it to be true that whenever we journey beyond the familiar with intention, our senses seek the beautiful rather than the fearful.

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