We spent the last morning of our vacation in Wilmington, North Carolina which is both Michael Jordan’s home town and the site of the Wilmington Insurrection
of 1898 . The old town section is very scenic with the river and a row of pre-civil war red brick buildings. Like many families, it’s sometimes hard for us to agree on where to go to lunch because we often have very different taste in food. We happened into a place called Nikki's Gourmet
on Front Street which turned out to be one of the more eccentrically eclectic restaurants I’ve ever seen.
If it weren’t for the name, Nikki’s would look mostly like a sushi bar. There’s Japanese writing on the windows, a yellow sandwich board out front announces the specials, and one can see the glass-fronted sushi counter complete with two sushi chefs in robes from the street. The menu, however, not only included kobe beef (very Japanese), but cheese steaks, hummus, and french fries. The sushi chefs looked to be Japanese and the wait staff was largely white. Behind the sushi counter, there was a second kitchen where I assume they prepared the non-Japanese food that appeared to be a mixture of middle-eastern style vegetarian and fast food. The staff in that kitchen looked Latino. One of the many signs that blogging has changed me was that once I began to comprehend how weird the cultural mix of philly cheese steaks and sushi was my first thought was that I should send a picture of the place to Inkyhack at Teriyaki Donuts.
Actually, I even started to ask myself the mindbloggingly ethical question, “Is it okay for me to post something about one of these places since this kind of cross-cultural commercial curiousity is Inkyhack’s thing?”
Since I have no morals, I decided that Inkyhack specializes in finding these places when they’re along Highway 99 in California, the road that defines the unglamorous agricultural backbone of the state. In the last 150 years, a variety of ethnic groups have provided cheap labor for California farms. As groups like the Italians, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Fillipinos, Portugese, Armenians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Steinbeck’s dust bowl refugees, moved upwards and outwards, many of them opened small businesses that were bought from members of the predecessor groups. One result is that the flat expanses and drab architecture of highway 99 are culturally much more complex once you take a closer look.
If you look closely at Luke Skywalker’s home planet in the Star Wars trilogy, you’ll find that it’s a stylized science fiction version of Modesto ( I call it “Ralston” when I write about it) with a drab outer shell covering over an exotic mix of cultures and peoples with vague memories of lost forms of magic and power.
Back at Nikki’s and Wilmington, the four of us wound up taking full advantage of the multi-continent menu. I had sushi, my wife had a salad topped with seared tuna (more California cuisine than Japanese since they cooked the tuna ever so slightly), one daughter had a smoked chicken wrap with fries, and the other had hummus and falafel. Usually when you get these mixed-cuisine restaurants something suffers. It’s generally not as bad as those places that mix chow mein with glazed donuts and the oil from the two begins crossing in your nostrils, but the dishes lose their basic character.
For example, most Mexican food in North Carolina is pretty horrifying because they like to fry things in batter (imagine refried beans taken very literally). I also remember a Hindu friend who was working in Silcon Valley complaining that California Chinese food didn’t have any curry in it the way it did in Bombay. Sometimes food inter-marriage works very well. For instance spaghetti may have Chinese roots and biryani isn’t as “Indian” as most people think. New Orleans food, Vietnamese, and Thai are all culturally eclectic cuisines that took on an identity of their own over time. Still, the one good thing about ghettoes tends to be that it makes for much better ethnic food because there are fewer pressures to compromise the traditional ingredients and preparation. It’s one of the reasons, I think Chicago may have the best everyday food in America.
The really amazing thing about Nikki’s was that all the food was excellent. My sushi rolls tasted Japanese, fwiw the majority of sushi bars in America are Korean just like a large percentage of “Chinese” restaurants are Southeast Asian though many Southeast Asians are ethnically Chinese. There’s a similar thing with Italian restaurants run by Greeks and in a kind of worst case scenario we once made the mistake of eating at a “Thai” restaurant whose owners turned out to be Fillipino (my wife and I now predudge Thai restaurants on the basis of whether or not they have a photo of the king and queen on the wall somewhere as an assurance that it’s really Thai). The falafel was almost as good as the Palestinian restaurant we used to love in Burlingame, the owners called it the “Olive Tree” and everything was designated as “Middle Eastern” with little specific mention of Palestine. The chicken wrap and french fries tasted like first-rate Calvin Tirllin roadside food. I asked the waitress how Nikki’s had come about, but sadly or maybe not so sadly she had no idea and just said, “I tell people that I work at a sushi bar.”
It’s probably demonstrably false, but I have this theory that this is what “peace” between cultures looks like. Cultural understanding doesn’t necessarily come through the mind as much as it might be achieved through the stomach, touch, art, etc. It can be a very gradual process carried out by ordinary working people not diplomats, trade agreements, and treaties. In any case, it’s fascinating that a place like Nikki’s seems to be thriving in the restored waterfront area of Wilmington which is doing its best to evoke the ante-bellum town, one of the last Confederate ports to withstand Northern invasion.
I wish I knew how Nikki’s which is gastronomic testimony to multi-cutural America come to be sitting in the midst of the city that was the site of an event that crossed a race-riot with a military coup in 1898? (if you don’t want to trace the link, white supremacist’s seized control of the city in 1898 by killing at least 22 blacks and deposing the city’s elected Republican post-reconstruction leadership and simply taking over the city government by force. One interesting detail is that the White Supremacist Democrats of 1898 called themselves "Redshirts", just an odd detail given the current "red state-blue state" nomenclature)). There’s some mention of this event in historic downtown Wilmington,but not a lot. There’s also no mention that Michael Jordan’s father was murdered outside Wilmington in a carjacking. Instead, the historical restoration consists of a horse-drawn trolley, river boat rides, and restored brick warehouses- American history as told by Disney and the Chamber of Commerce. There is one fascinating symbol in Wilmington, one of the last bastions of the Confederacy. The largest building in the historic district is a Federal Courthouse that dates to the Truman era, a sort of message about who won the war.
All at once, these mixed cultural messages inundated me. There was the inevitability of cultural exchange embodied in our lunch. There was the way we tend to prettify the past and conveniently neglect its tragic side for the sake of economic revival embodied in the reconstruction of downtown Wilmington. Some would argue that Wilmington’s favorite son, Michael Jordan, is the personification of the emerging money first culture of tolerance and racial acceptance that tends to minimize the past and gloss over the imperfections of race issues in America’s present. In an earlier era, Jackie Robinson couldn’t get endorsements, but also insisted on being outspoken on civil rights matters.
I don’t question that this is progress, yet it’s vaguely haunting as if the things they’re leaving behind might come back to bite the city in ways that it can’t yet imagine. Can you leave behind the pain of the past without giving up some part of your national soul? If America is a place that constantly mixes cultures, what’s it mean to be American? What of our ethnic identities must we remember and retain?
Link to Alex Manly's editorial that may have helped set off the riot Manly was half black and half white. One of the central events of the Wilmington Insurrection was the destruction of Manly's printing press and the building that contained it-echoes of today's rhetoric against the "liberal" media.
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