I detect in your recent demeanor, which I admit I only have access to through your Twitter feed, a certain melancholy. Not a downright sadness, but a mixture of homesickness and confusion, a kind of bewilderment about ending up here in Atlanta and what you ought to do with your newfound life. In fact, your oft-used hashtag, #mynewlife, is employed most frequently alongside tweets that exhibit ambivalence about this town, this region. On Saturday morning, an almost woeful tweet showed up in your feed: “Gotta get back to NYC soon for a food romp. Dyin' down here! #dontknowwhatyouvegottilitsgone”
To many Atlantans and Southerners, that tweet seemed a little harsh — not the longing for NYC, but the “Dyin’ down here!” line, which sounded a whole lot like you were saying that there’s nothing worth eating “down here.” I know it might not be how you meant it. But that’s how it sounded.
I’ll get to that part a little later, but first I wanted to share a bit. To commiserate. Because I, too, am an ex-New Yorker who left to come to the South. And I had very hard time with the change. In fact, for years I vowed to go back to New York at my first chance.
But not anymore.
Of course, I didn’t leave New York to become a bureau chief for the New York Times. Nor did I hold any particular position of esteem in the city before I left it. Nope — I was a 26-year-old waitress, and I left because I got knocked up. I couldn’t imagine trying to raise a kid in New York — not as a waitress, not as a $12-an-hour assistant to literary agents (my sometimes daytime gig), not living in a charming but scummy apartment a block and a half from the Gowanus Canal. So I left, moving to North Carolina where my husband’s family lives.
And it was hard. Oh God, it was hard. I missed the city, its tempo, its constant hum, the friends, the art, the fun. But mainly, I missed the food. When I left, I wrote a long essay — an ode to what I was leaving behind. Not for anyone in particular, because I wasn’t writing for anyone in particular at that point, but just because my anxiety and sorrow was so great, I felt a need to put it down somewhere, to chronicle it. It was like a love letter to the food of New York. It’s one of the most heartfelt things I’ve ever written.
In North Carolina, despite having quite a few friends and some family there, I was miserable. There were some concrete reasons for this — having come from an existence of Brooklyn and parties and music and never ending NYC life, I found myself living in a tiny house off a secondary highway outside Chapel Hill with a newborn baby, no real career prospects, and no heat apart from a woodstove. But more than that I missed New York with a ferocity I hadn’t anticipated. My heart broke for the life I’d left behind, and because my heart primarily speaks in hunger, much of that ache came in the form of longing for food.
I missed out on a lot in those two years I spent in N.C. And I pushed a lot of very nice people away with my incessant moaning about how much I wished I wasn’t there.
Eventually, I pulled myself up by the bootstraps, grew out of my homesickness and depression enough to make something of myself, and got this here job in Atlanta.
It took me a while to warm to Atlanta as well though. At first, I compared every restaurant here to New York restaurants. So believe me, I get it. I get how many of the places we count as favorites serve food you could easily find in some random Brooklyn café no one really cares about. How the car culture here seemingly removes the food from the street and life of the city. How — yes, the clichés are true! You can’t get a good bagel! What I’d give some days for a decent turkey hero. There really isn’t any restaurant in town that might possibly be in the running for 4 stars from your publication. Pizza? Forget it! (OK, don’t. New Yorkers ought to be jealous of Antico. But I digress…)
But here’s the thing. And it only dawned on me after you had a twitter exchange with John T. Edge regarding your “dyin’ down here” comment (do I seem like enough of a stalker yet?) where he implored you to “look closer.” And you said, “Ah, but even you must admit that despite the deliciousness of Southern food, there some itches only NYC can scratch.” The thing is: I think you may be looking for the wrong thing here, food-wise.
It’s your use of the words “Southern food” in your response that got me. And it reminded me of something that’s been bothering me for a while, something to do with the current trendiness of Southern food. People come here from New York, Portland, California, and get all excited about how Southern we are, about our fried chicken and our biscuits, and our cute accents and how authentic our love of bacon and bourbon is, and blah blah blah. Don’t get me wrong. I love these things. They’re a huge part of what makes the South the place I love and am proud to call home. But there’s a lot of bad fried chicken out there, and worse biscuits, and I think the barbecue in this town kinda blows. I’m just saying — to find the good stuff, you need to go beyond the obvious.
There are folks in Atlanta making teeny little tacos out of fresh tortillas that would make you cry. Our samgyupsal houses rival any anywhere in the country. There’s this guy in Marietta I could introduce you to who makes his own tofu, and to hear him describe it, and then to taste it, is like seeing something you’ve always taken for granted as brand new, revelatory. There’s this dude who illegally smokes ribs in a gas station parking lot up the street from my house, and some days he’s only wearing one shoe, but GODDAMN those are some good ribs.
I went to a supper club a few weeks back, these guys who call themselves Dinner Party, who do a one-night restaurant type thing, and the night I went it was with Dashboard Co-op, an arts collective that had a pop-up gallery in a vacant retail space. They set up tables and served cocktails among all the art, and the Dinner Party folks served a bunch of food, and there was a dance performance in the midst of it all, and I looked around the room at these young, amazing people who are really some of the most interesting people in arts and food in the city right now, and I just thought “That’s it. I’m in love with this town.” There was so little pretension there, so little artifice, and yet there were all these people talking about food and wine and art and life and I just kind of swooned. It’s like when I went to see Big Boi’s collaboration with the Atlanta Ballet at the Fox Theater. The performance wasn’t perfect, but man it was cool. It was something that would never happen in New York. You think the New York City Ballet is going to collaborate with KRS One? Um, no.
This is Atlanta. We’re scrappy. Some of what we do lacks precision, but we’re passionate and we try and we’re not held to this unrealistic expectation of CUISINE, big type. There’s a comfort in even our high-end restaurants, a sense of community, a sense of personality that’s hard to find in the high-stakes, big money world of larger cities. This is the South, where you’re most likely to find God (or whatever you want to call it) in a strip mall. The best of what we do, the best of what we are, is hidden in the nooks. It isn’t easily found. That’s what makes it so much fun. There are places in this town, to eat, to drink, to live, that make my heart ache with pride. I haven’t felt that way since…well, since Brooklyn.
I sincerely, truly, really hope you get to that with Atlanta. We don’t want you to die down here.
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