Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary about immigrants becoming naturalized is called “Citizen USA” and provides an inspiring antidote to the jingo, scare tactics of some candidates for office. I particularly like a beaming Albanian. He explains what it means to be an American by resorting to culinary terms. In his native country the food was sparse and unchanged day after day. In America he can eat Chinese for one meal, Italian for the next, Mexican, Cajun, Greek, and Indian. The melting pot, literally.
That’s also the difference between a wide spot in the road and a metropolis. The former, in my part of the country, offers the same old chains, the meat and three plate and BBQ. The other has restaurants offering variety, diversity, a world of choices.
To keep from being a hopeless Podunk, a place needs a college or university, an arts community, a movie theater playing indie films not just the multiplex blow-up movies, and enough diversity of employment and education and sufficient prosperity to attract a smorgasbord of people, and with them institutions catering to their cultural interests and culinary desires.
When I first came to this town, some of the above were present but the dining scene was thin and the farmer’s market leaned heavily toward collard greens. As a Midwesterner I knew what an ear of sweet corn should taste like and the stuff on offer was suitable only for pigs.
A few decades later a lot has changed. The farmer’s market now has fabulous corn, peaches, artisanal goat cheese, heirloom tomatoes, middle eastern foodstuffs and several bakers offering croissants, cappuccino muffins, cranberry scones, and even a Romanian couple offering Beigli, mitteleuropean walnut and poppy seed roll-ups the like of which I haven’t seen or tasted since the days when my school friend Nelson Weber’s mother made them for his Hungarian father. Yum.
The restaurant scene has also improved greatly. For a long time a wonderful French restaurant in a nearby town, La Chaudiere, was the one bright spot. Though it has now been gone for years, its loss is still lamented. But authentic Mexican food with homemade tortillas are thick on the ground as are specialty grocers offering amazing and mysterious foodstuffs.
Use them or lose them is the rule with such places. We had a short-lived restaurant serving New Orleans favorites whose food was great, service spotty, and location terrible. It was sparsely attended and is now a goner.
Many of my readers I presume are in my neighborhood and I encourage them to try a couple new restaurants in town so they get a chance to survive. One offers the best Indian food now available locally, the other the best Chinese.
Sona’s Indian Cuisine has what looks like the usual buffet at lunch, but it comes with out-of-the-ordinary dishes including a goat curry, lamb and quail entrees as well as old favorites such as tandoori chicken. But even they are a cut above the usual fare. The tandoori is enlivened by an unbeatable spicy crusting and the naan is excellent, warm, buttery and puffed up, straight from the oven
Captain Chen’s Gourmet China is run by a couple of Chinese folks who met at the local University and started a restaurant in part because they were homesick for the tastes of the old country, especially the authentic spicy Sichuan of the chef’s native Chongqing.
I have been to China only once but this food is clearly more like the food I ate there than any I have ever had in an American restaurant. Fish and bean sprouts in a ruby red chili oil-flavored broth is fiery and delicious. An unctuous eggplant dish with crumbly pork bits, copious garlic and an elegant oil is a revelation. Here are flavors you can’t get anywhere else in town, possibly nowhere else in the state.
Readers from outside my neck of the woods can probably think of their own local favorites whose loss would leave a real hole in the community. The solution is obvious for those of us worried about being banished to the outer darkness of perpetual Podunk. Patronize the local theater, the cinema willing to show an indie or foreign film, the museum, if any.
And, by all means, dine at any restaurant willing to venture outside the bland comfort zone of the locals. Visit them often and spread the word. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow they may die, especially if enough like-minded diners don’t show up. And remember always, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. Leaving you hungry for tastes you can’t forget.