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Home Cookin

by Angela Lindsay

August 4,2005

At the centerpiece of a family get-together at my grandmother’s house recently was an enviable menu of soul food. Coming from a family of cooks, the spread was nothing new to me. In fact, the tradition of food, especially in the South, has been simmering since the beginning of time. But lately, interest in all things culinary seems to be boiling over around the nation. And Charlotte is no exception.

Like any other city, if you’re here long enough, you will learn where to go to get everything from the best onion rings (Clock’s Restaurant) or the most delectable crème brulee (Providence Café). Much of Charlotte’s culture and history rests squarely with its cuisine. If the walls of mainstays like Mr. K’s Hamburgers could talk—what stories they could tell, having survived throughout decades. And attending Johnson C. Smith University’s Homecoming is unimaginable without a pit stop at the legendary Chicken Coop in South End.

The Queen City’s unique ability to cultivate metropolitan progression while still maintaining that ‘down home’ atmosphere is the perfect draw for the food industry. Charlotte has amassed an impressive array of restaurants from glitzy dining places to chain establishments to the eclectic mix of eateries on East Boulevard. Even the charismatic hot dog vendors in Uptown know how enticing the aroma of the southern concoction of chili, slaw and onions wafting through the air at lunch time (or at midnight) can be. This growing interest in food is evidenced every year by the increasing attendance at Taste of Charlotte, which drew about 100,000 patrons this year. But it extends beyond just the eating part.

The fascination with food translates into exciting career opportunities, lifestyle changes, and big business. It has inspired a new generation of serious chefs and curious cooks, as evidenced by the waiting list to get into the Johnston and Wales culinary school in Gateway Village. It has led to national exposure with the wildly popular Food Network, on which the bistro formerly known as Bijoux Bijoux (now Zink) and the annual Mallard Creek Barbeque—which no local politician worth his salt would miss—have both appeared. The Coffee Cup, the soul food landmark near Bank of America Stadium, recently drew the patronage of world-renown celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and was the backdrop for an interview with Grammy nominated soul singer, Anthony Hamilton, for Black Entertainment Television.

Just a couple months ago, celebrity cook Paula Deen made an appearance at Sur La Table in South Park Mall and caused such a raucous you would have thought Julia Child had descended from the heavens with a new recipe. For food aficionados and the lifestyle savvy, there has been as influx of gourmet, specialty and organic food stores encouraging us all to expand our palates. Personally, I am planning a daylong excursion through the Earth Fare grocery store in Ballantyne very soon.

A healthy culinary atmosphere only adds to the appeal of a city and, in fact, can be very good for business. The other week while at Capital Grill, our waiter mistook my companion for a Bank of America executive. When we kindly told him he was mistaken, he chuckled and replied, “Oh, I’m sorry. We ne-e-e-ever get them in here.” Amidst his sarcasm—an element of truth. Countless business deals have been closed over nice meals and such environments make schmoozing important clients comfortable. It’s harder to be uncompromising with a belly full of goodness.

Also, there is arguably no better way for imports to Charlotte to make new contacts and get acclimated to a new environment than through experiencing its cuisine. Questions about food are always the first ones I get from people who have relocated to here. And for the vast number of singles in the city, going out to eat transcends being a necessity to being a pastime, and cooking—a bona fide way to spend an evening with friends.

So even if for some folks the idea of food never rose above mere sustenance and the tradition of cooking never constituted a rite of passage into adulthood like it did for me, if you’re interested, Charlotte offers a bounty of opportunities to take a bite out of both.

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