A couple of months ago several friends and I attended a conference on diversity at North Park University. If there's anywhere to have a conference on diversity, North Park has got to be the place. It's located in Albany Park, a neighborhood in the city with the third most diverse population in the nation. At least forty languages are represented in its public schools. Swedes, Lebanese, Koreans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Filipinos, Eastern Europeans, and many more rub shoulders on the sidewalks there every day.
Brenda Salter-McNeil, it wasn't the highlight for me. The best part of the day came at lunch, when two friends who attend North Park Theological Seminary took us to one of their favorite lunch spots, Dawali Mediterranean Kitchen.
The first time I can remember having Middle Eastern food was a falafel pita from a street vendor in New York City on a trip in high school. It was amazing, but I was hard-pressed to find much that was similar back home in Chattanooga. So the wealth of Middle Eastern options in Chicago has been a wonderful treat - from Pita Inn for one of the best short order traditional menus on a budget, to Noon O Kabob for Persian home cooking, to Roti Mediterranean Grill for a fresh Middle Eastern take on the Chipotle concept. Hummus has been one of my main staples for several years now. It's healthy, easy to make (though I'm still perfecting my recipe), and delicious, especially the roasted red pepper variety which I think of as a healthy, Middle Eastern version of pimento cheese. I spread it on toast for breakfast, eat it with carrots or pretzles for a snack, and spread it on sandwiches for dinner. Very few days go by when I don't eat hummus.
The great thing about Middle Eastern food is that at its heart, it's really just terrific home cooking. When it comes to keeping Southern, that's really what it's all about - not refusing to eat beans if they weren't cooked with a ham hock and served with cornbread, but relishing the simple, homey dishes that have been perfected by daily practice. If tradition becomes a boundary I won't venture beyond, life is small. I'd rather see keeping Southern as both a compass point by which I can orient myself on the journey and the tools that help me discover all the wonders to be found on the way.
Cheerwine. Yep. Cheerwine. It doesn't get more Carolina than Cheerwine, my favorite "coke"* for as long as I can remember. We used to bring it back to Tennessee when we'd visit family in North Carolina, because you couldn't even get it in Chattanooga.
And here, in a Middle Eastern restaurant in the middle of Albany Park in Chicago, was Cheerwine. I immediately took one over to the man at the register, put it on the counter, and just said "Cheerwine?!?!?!?" He just grinned and said, "We love it, so we had to have it!"
Chicago. I've gotta love it. Where else would I find a bit of Southern in a neighborhood with pretty much everything but!
*In the South, all soft drinks are "cokes," like all facial tissues are "kleenex."