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Thursday, October 7, 2010

Creating my own ethnic cuisine

I have no ethnic heritage. My parents grew up poor and white in the rural South, born into families with no discoverable history prior to the early 1920s. No one remembers a homeland. Being "American" and "Southern" should be enough, and it is enough, but I long for connection to an Old Country, to know traditions and recipes that have been kept alive, lovingly tended, across geography and time. Denied that connection, I console myself by visiting the ethnic markets that have sprouted up in our modest-size town.

Visitors to the Gulf Coast of Florida are often surprised by the diversity of our population. In the mid-1970s, thousands of Vietnamese refugees were relocated here. Military installations dot the coastline and the interior, and servicepeople returning home from foreign assignments often bring families from overseas. We have large Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino communities, and smaller groups from England, Turkey, Germany, Italy and Japan. Following the run of hurricanes a few years back, Mexican workers poured in to replace blue tarps with new roofs, and stayed for the construction boom. Once that passed, many moved on, but some have settled and opened restaurants and markets.

I like to browse the Mexican market, pick up bags of glossy dried peppers, inhale their smoky bitterness. I buy a new variety each time and experiment. The outrageously expressive man who runs the deli counter says, "Mamita linda! What do you want today?" If he has something new, he is insistent that I try it, and I oblige, always nodding my approval effusively enough to make him smile in satisfaction. In an invented familial history, he is my brother-in-law. One who delights everyone with his extravagant gestures and compliments, and who will surely -- we all see it coming -- break my sister's heart.

(This originally appeared on Bellwether Vance's Open Salon blog)

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