If you want to find cultural gems in Charlotte, follow Tom Hanchett's lead. The eternally curious and wildly observant historian for the Levine Museum of the New South believes that one of the best ways to explore cultures is to do so with food. Hanchett is interested in what makes up a New South city, and his explorations take him all over town to discover the cultures and traditions that comprise the fabric of this new Southern tapestry. His findings are documented in his Observer column Food from Home, and he frequently hosts historical walks along Central Avenue, to tour and taste Charlotte's kaleidoscopic food traditions.
On March 16, the Duke Mansion in partnership with the Levine Museum will host an afternoon with Tom Hanchett to explore North Carolina food traditions. We sat down with Hanchett at the Landmark Diner to discuss his explorations, why he believes we won't ever have a Chinatown or Little Italy and what salad has to do with the suburbs.
Creative Loafing: You are an urban explorer of sorts, finding the dive eateries and best ethnic joints around town. This is how you interpret the pulse of Charlotte's changing culture. What are some of the things that you notice?
Tom Hanchett: One of my backgrounds is in folklore. Foodways is part of understanding folk life, how people have lived their lives and how tradition fits into people's lives today. Having that interest has been really valuable living in the Central Avenue area, watching these new traditions become part of this newest New South.
What's so cool here in Charlotte is that we're not creating a Latino side of town or a Vietnamese neighborhood. If you look at [one] corner along Central Avenue, there is a Vietnamese nail salon, a Colombian bakery, a Latino Christian store, an old line Southern restaurant run by Greeks and a Mexican-American supermarket.
This mixture of cultures is something you call "Salad Bowl Suburbs," which is different from cities that have a Chinatown or a Little Italy, places with large concentrations of a specific culture in one area.
I don't think we'll ever have a Chinatown or a barrio. As more and more immigrants arrive in Charlotte, people are looking for places they can afford, where they have an opportunity to pursue and live out their dreams.
Instead, you have things like the Grand Asia Market in Stallings built inside an old Winn Dixie. What's more Southern than a Winn Dixie. Next to that is Enzo's Italian sausages [Enzo's Italian Market] and Lucy's Bakery, a Colombian bakery with wonderful puff pastries and a gas station serving Mexican food. Four different countries surrounding one parking lot on the Stallings-Matthews border, which is not one of your great international borders.
Do you feel that many people recognize the wealth of culture here in Charlotte?
Unless you are specifically looking for it, it is easy to miss Charlotte's diversity. Eating is a way to slow down and see the richness that is here. Food is a door, a point of entry, and a really tasty one at that.
Food From Home: An Afternoon with Tom Hanchett is sold out. For more information on the next event from the Levine Museum of the New South, visit www.museumofthenewsouth.org.