Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Grits Ain't Groceries

Memphis is an infamously divided town. Geographically and philosophically distant from the other large cities of Tennessee and yet also distinct from our adjacent neighbors in Arkansas and Mississippi, Memphis is a study in separatism. Even within our own city borders, most of us live in our own little subcultural zones. Downtown, Uptown, Crosstown, Midtown, and “out east” doesn’t begin to cover all the neighborhoods and pockets of identity we’ve constructed.

One of the things I’ve always found notably odd is how closely Memphians restrict themselves to their own defined categories. Race is the most obvious identifier, but it’s far too broad to accurately describe how we cordon ourselves off. There are also elements of class, education, politics, theology, and income potential at play. And I’ll admit, I’m not immune to it. Does being a working mother in my mid-30s make me identify with other working mothers in their mid-30s? Depends on how they feel about Obama or breastfeeding.

I appreciate that I’m raising my children in a city where they are surrounded by diversity, but I lament the fact that it’s something they observe rather than participate in. I’ve often wished that our regular, everyday activities gave us a more accurate picture of our city. It’s not simply a matter of going new places and doing new things. Leaving one pocket to enter another wouldn’t solve the issue. What I always hoped to discover in Memphis is a place where all of our citizens feel welcome and comfortable, a place that isn’t claimed by or associated with any one group, a place where our city of outsiders can feel like insiders.

It took me over a decade, but I think I’ve finally found it, the true melting pot of Memphis. Ladies and gentlemen, if you want to know who we are, join us for lunch at a Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet.

It doesn’t matter which one. I’ve been to half a dozen around town and the scene is the same. Just take a seat and look around. Young mothers with babies taking their meals next to a table of retirees. Nurses and construction workers, IT geeks and realtors. Patrons in headwear required by distinct and often conflicting religions. Native Memphians who were born down the road, and Memphians native to at least three continents and a dozen countries. It may not be an exact representation of our demographics, but it at least touches every slice of the pie chart.

Mmmm, pie.

Wait, maybe that’s it. Food is the soul of the south. Regardless of other particularities, Southerners cook and Southerners eat. There may be distinctions in recipes, but everyone in Memphis was raised on some form of pork and greens and fried whathaveyou. And even if you’re not born to it, you take to it like … well, like a Yankee to barbecue.

What does this have to do with Chinese food? Frankly, I’m not sure, but I offer you exhibit A: the egg roll. Ingredients: pork, greens, and fried whathaveyou.

And also? Everyone likes Chinese food.

Because we live in a city with so many divisions, we unconsciously adjust our bearings to being Us or Them. But this self-awareness seems to melt away somewhere between the cashew chicken and the banana pudding. It’s strangely calming to be in a place where there is simply no Them, and only an All Of Us.

And man, are we all full.


  1. Enjoy your take on us....and by us, I mean you too. I have been here 46 years now....