Small Ethnic Restaurants Hurt by Redevelopment
Marla Jadoonanan’s cooking is legendary. When her mother died suddenly when Jadoonanan, was just 8 years old, her father had no clue what to do with her and his six other children. So he would bring the girls into town each day and drop them off to cook with the old women. According to Jadoonanan, when fellow Trinidadian natives bite into her cooking, they say it tastes not like their mother’s, but their grandmother’s. That’s the era she cooks from, by memory. There are no recipes, and her own children have minimal interest in inheriting her business. As Jadoonanan puts it, “My cooking dies with me.”
That’s a fact that compounds the tragedy of the recent shuttering of her iconic, eponymous South Minneapolis restaurant, Marla’s. Hers is in-arguably the most traditional Caribbean food in the state. It’s a culinary wisdom that no millennial chef can copy nor master. And at least for now, it’s disappeared from our grasp.
True neighborhood restaurants and mom-and-pop shops are sadly becoming anachronistic as real estate prices continue to sail steadily northward all over the country, and fewer people who cook out of a labor of love can afford the price of even small commercial square footage.
Jadoonanan’s rent was poised to more than double, a figure she could not factor into her tiny family-run operation. Her style of running a business, one where she famously gifted plates of food to hungry individuals with no money, could not survive a $3,000 monthly price tag. Dan Coleman, the new landlord of the space, said in a Minnesota Public Radio story that taxes and inflation are driving up the cost of rent, and while he concedes that gentrification is occurring in Minneapolis, says that his actions are unrelated.
It’s unknown what kind of eatery will replace Marla’s, but it’s unlikely to be a family-run labor of love where only the matriarch knows the generations-old recipes.
As the phenomenon repeats itself in large cities all across America from Minneapolis to Chicago to Nashville, what does it mean for the dining scene, especially as food sections continue the steady drumbeat of what’s new, instead of what’s old and good? Another restaurant—hell, another three—will be along to replace Marla’s, and since they will be, yes, new, their stories will drown out the loss of stewed oxtails and callaloo. Where else can you get callaloo in the Twin Cities?
Meanwhile, in a rapidly gentrifying Nashville, Tennessee, the waitlist for Section 8 housing is 8,000 names long, but rents continue climbing. About one in five Nashvillians live at or below poverty levels.
Old-school restaurants like Cantrell’s BBQ Pit, a quaint family go-to for affordable smoked meats, are often in the path of the wrecking ball that comes around to make room for high-end, new-construction, high-density housing. To add potential insult to injury, food traditions once driven by African Americans and other people of color are being absorbed, co-opted, and rebranded in their stead. A famous example is Hattie B’s Hot Chicken, a small but mighty fried chicken chain, which slings the African American invention of cayenne-laden fried chicken to the tune of “eight-digit revenue range” (according to the article “Race, Credit, and Hot Chicken” in the Nashville Scene) in part by placing stores in trendy Nashville neighborhoods.
But as stated in a Huffington Post article, “How Soul Food Has Become Separated From Its Black Roots,” “. . . these foods have become less accessible in the spaces and neighborhoods established by the communities that invented them. ... It’s one thing to highlight the food, but when you separate it from the material, economic, social, political and racial realities that created it, things get dicey.”
Some good news
Some creative entrepreneurs are not taking the “dicey” laying down. In Nashville and Atlanta, three partners have created Slim and Husky’s, a chain pizzeria where they take the culinary boom back to the neighborhood. Sleek, hip pizzerias serving pies with locally sourced ingredients, plus beer and cinnamon rolls now dot some of Tennessee and Georgia’s most underserved areas, and staff are hired from within walking distance of their homes. With this, Slim and Husky’s is creating employment opportunities, and bringing craft-dining experiences to neighborhoods often ignored by trendsters.
If white people can take fried chicken and put it into gentrifying neighborhoods, then black people can take pizza and put it in the ‘hood.
Using the polar opposite gambit, Eldgridge Williams, chef-owner of The Delta Chicago, says he’s opened “the blackest restaurant in the whitest neighborhood,” Chicago’s Wicker Park. The Delta is a love letter to his family’s native Mississippi. The menu is anchored by hot tamales, a Mississippian African American delicacy that landed in Chicago during the great migration, and is now mostly produced in factories with white owners. The dish is difficult to find being made by black hands in Chicago these days, but Williams is trying to revive the tradition. People come from all over to get them, and he says, “black people are so proud to be here, and white people are so comfortable here.”
And yet, with $12 craft cocktails and $16 shrimp and grits at brunch accompanying those tamales, it’s difficult to say how many people who might be waiting on section 8 housing truly frequent a place like The Delta. Whatever the case, Williams has a second restaurant coming soon to another white Chicago neighborhood, Lincoln Park, though he does hope to open on Chicago’s Southside someday, a neighborhood that has lost many of its iconic soul food restaurants.
Back in Minneapolis, Soul Bowl, a longstanding soul food pop-up spot by chef Gerard Klass, just announced its brick-and-mortar location in the North Loop. Klass has been hosting his wildly popular pop-ups at North Minneapolis’ Breaking Bread for the past year, but his storefront will be in whitest, gentrified North Loop. Meanwhile, Breaking Bread has recently announced its (temporary, according to official word) closing, with no official re-opening date.
Both of these pieces of news mean a lot less soul food for the Twin Cities’ blackest and most distressed neighborhood, and arguably for the audience who want, and need it the most.