Fried Green Tomatoes al Pesto: Charlotte, North Carolina

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 New South 2004 - Old South 1967- R. Johnson
New South 2004 – Old South 1967- R. Johnson

No coffee, no toast, breakfast time is over, said the man at the deli when I tried to grab a brunchtime bite. Even if I could have scored a Krispy Kreme (an ethnic food here), there were few chairs in which to sit.

Once office doors open in Uptown Charlotte, North Carolina, the streets around Bank of America, First Union, Wachovia Securities and other towers of trade and arbitrage empty out, save for clumps of lumpy office workers taking smoke breaks. In contrast, I earlier spotted a formation of perhaps fifty trim, smokeless BofA executive trainees dressed and made up like TV weather reporters march off to a meeting. Deli-man says 20-minute lunch breaks are the rule here…if that. “What would Jesus do?” was the corporate motto of BofAs scion Charles McColl, whose company occupies a tower right out of Superman’s Metropolis. Jesus, achiever that he was, would have probably lunched at his desk.

Whatever happened to the “ya’all come down now, bloodhound on the porch” Deep South,” home to Jesse Helms, otherwise known as “Senator No,” once the bane of the civil rights and gay rights movements, pig farmer/senators like Lauch Fairclough, a name around which you can literally see buzzing flies, and other stuck in the muck “Tar Heels?”

North Carolina is still living high on the hog, pig farming being its top industry, but not wallowing in any more. Vice Presidential hopeful John Edwards beat Fairlough for his Senate seat and has been moves to clean up the industry’s damaging doo doo. Blacks are moving back from their exile in the gritty cities of the North, finding a better, less expensive life in this place that once shunned them, even though de-facto segregation is still in the news here. North Carolina’s Hispanic population has increased 400% over the ten years covered by the last census. Slaughter houses are being challenged by temples of moneychangers.

Charlotte, called the Queen City, once the center of a gold rush, cut by streets named Stonewall and Billy Graham Parkway, is where old time religion and NASCAR share a cultural landscape with high finance, green mansions, vintner’s dinners and Fried Green Tomatoes al Pesto. It, like many other cities is trying awfully hard –sometimes too hard — to get with globalization and portray an image of urban sophistication.

  Charlotte — sign — is importing chefs from…California. If you don’t like fried green tomatoes, the pesto doesn’t add much. It is one of the side dishes on the prix fixe menu at the Ember Grill in Charlotte’s new Westin Hotel. Another was a garlic coleslaw that tasted like a tame Korean kimchi and another dish that seemed to be grits-based. These odd tributes to Carolina Cuisine were accompanied, however, by an old fashioned filet mignon that was done to perfection. The night before I tried a dish of North Carolina trout at trendy Aquavina across the street. I would have enjoyed it prepared simply in a butter sauce instead of camoflaged, as surely as would chicken fry, with over-the-top Asian-styled spices.

I did, however, find a dream restaurant in this red meat culture. My wife and I are sushi once-a-week people and hear the siren call of Indian curry almost as often. After four days in Charlotte, we craved the kind of psychological grounding offered by a dollup of uni or stew of Chicken Tikka Masala. Cuisine Malaya, owned by a family from Ipoh, Malaysia offers a menu of Malaysian dishes as complete than anything I have seen in Malaysia itself…PLUS a full sushi bar. So it was Hamachi and eel for appetizers, Beef Rendang and nan for the main course and vanilla ice cream in a sweet pastry, Malaysian style, for dessert.

Central Charlotte and Dilworth, away from the sterile Uptown district drip, like Carolina bees, with honey and charm. Outdoor restaurants mimic front porches. Broad, perfectly preened lawns spread out in front of brick mansions. Mansion style is de-rigeur in Charlotte, even in new suburban housing where you can buy your own mini Tara for less than US$500 thousand (excuse me if I think that is a bargain, but I live in Calfornia where that would buy you a leanto).

Further out, the hills are green with Carolina pines. It was in this region that I trudged as an Army recruit in the late 1960s, more attentive to the warble of birds and the scents of nature than the grunts of war. As a soldier I was a non-achiever, the worst shot in my platoon, Tiny Tim in the midst of John Waynes. I spent my off hours wandering through small towns and countryside with an old Rolliflex.

The Carolina hills are also alive with the sound of Gospel. Billy Graham, who lives here, moved his headquarters home from the more secular-humanist Minneapolis and preachers intoning Jeeeeee…sus crackle from radio towers as surely as muezzins do from the minarets of Riyadh. We met a young man who was starting a church in his small hill town. “The old boys who run local church will give you the shirt of the back if you meet them in town,” he said. “But if you are an outsider, and you mistakenly sit in their pew, you will suffer the pitchforks of the devil.” We met one man who called himself “Yoman”, using yo-yo tricks to recruit souls, and another fellow who ran a racetrack ministry. His troops occupy towers at NASCAR races spotting drunks and offering instant counselling and rehab. They hold prayer meetings in the pits and sell baseball-style cards featuring Christian drivers with their statements of “witness” printed on the back.

Aside of NASCAR races, for which the elixr of auto fumes, roaring engines and demolition derbies featuring city busses draws believers from all over the world, Charlotte is really not a tourist town. It wouldn’t be my first stop on a tour of the Old South. But, interestingly, I could almost live there. I like the people. I love the smell of cut grass and the name” Magnolia” on streets and businesses. If I ever go back on on business, I will certainly get out of the overly-planned, corporate culture of Uptown at the end of the day and steep myself in the un-globalized, more serindipitous South…where the culture is humid and the vowels are endless.

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