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Food Issue - The effect of migrants on Atlanta’s cuisine

Immigration, food, memory, and authenticity

"So," I said to Aldo Ramirez, owner of the Crazy Cuban on 14th Street, "I'm writing about refugees and food, and I'd like to know —"

"First of all," Ramirez said, interrupting, "you don't say 'refugee.' It's politically incorrect, especially in Miami. Never say that."

Ramirez, an assertive and funny guy, woke me up to something I hadn't been able to put a finger on. After a week of random visits to restaurants operated by Cuban, Vietnamese, and Middle Eastern immigrants and their American-born children, I'd listened to people talk in circles, always brushing aside the word "refugee." In fact, many people seemed very disinclined to talk to me at all when I told them my topic. Others would talk off the record only, as if I were whistleblowing (indeed, the New York Times, in an Oct. 9 article about the enormous increase in Cuban emigration by boat to America in the last year, used the word "refugee" exactly once).

I concluded that their reticence relates to the volatile status of our national discussion on immigration. America was once renowned for welcoming "your tired, your poor,/your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" to our shores. Now we warehouse thousands of migrant children from Central America, deport migrant workers to the detriment of our own economy, and imagine that every foreign accent reveals a terrorist. Nobody — no Republican, no Democrat — offers any viable solutions. Who would want to be called a refugee in such an environment?

Ramirez was born in Miami in 1960. His father came to the U.S. as a teenager in 1956. That was three years before Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. "He came here to find work, not to escape Castro. He returned to Cuba in 1961 and brought back his parents, and later, his aunts, too," Ramirez says.

I asked Ramirez if he remembered hearing about Cuba around the dinner table when he was a kid. "My father didn't talk much about Cuba," he said. "He had nothing there, and there was nothing to return to. Why would he talk about it?"

That shocked me. When I was 20 I married a Cuban woman whose parents sent her to the U.S. after Castro seized all of their assets. They joined her a few years later. This was the '70s, when there was an enormous surge in immigration. Many Cubans settled in Midtown, which was still inexpensive at the time. A huge number moved into apartments in the Lindbergh-Piedmont area, which came to be called "Little Havana" by some folk.

My clearest memories of those times pertain to food. There were no Cuban restaurants in the city then, so that cuisine was totally new to me. My wife's mother cooked constantly, as did her grandmother. At most of the gigantic meals, the discussion always turned to what life in Cuba had been like, what they had lost and sacrificed. Granted, they were relatively wealthy in Cuba, but the loss seemed far deeper than financial. I was a 20-year-old socialist, a true believer. But seeing the pain they experienced wore at my idealism. I learned a lot. Exposing yourself to the experience of people outside your immediate culture broadens and enhances your view of yourself, as well as others. That's just one reason I encourage people to eat at restaurants where they think they won't be understood culturally as well as linguistically.

"Now, it's not like I wasn't part of Cuban culture," Ramirez says. "I grew up in Miami eating Cuban food. My mother, a gringa, married my father when she was 15. She learned to cook Cuban food. I was managing sandwich shops by the time I was 18."

Ramirez eventually moved to Atlanta to work for AT&T as a project manager. Other gigs followed. In 2010, he opened the Crazy Cuban, two years after the closing of the legendary Kool Korner, a Cuban sandwich shop also located on 14th Street that was popular with Georgia Tech students and became a citywide destination. Every critic in town loved Kool Korner.

But I noted something early on about the place that baffled me. It related to authenticity. The owner of Kool Korner, Ildefonso Ramirez (no relation to Aldo), heaped lettuce, tomato, onion, and jalapenos on the classic filling of ham, pork, Swiss cheese, mustard, and pickles. He basically created a Cuban submarine — a completely inauthentic version of the classic Cuban sandwich. The Kool Ramirez suggested the Crazy Ramirez do the same. "He said it would become my best seller," Ramirez says. "He was right." If Ramirez suspects a customer is Cuban, however, he always points to the menu's traditional sandwich made without the rabbit food.

Substantial deviations from traditional recipes — the loss of authenticity — are a frequent complaint of immigrants when they sample mainstreamed versions of their food in the United States. In part, this phenomenon is the usual nostalgia for mama's food (nothing ever measures up), but in the case of migrants, there is arguably a deeper disappointment. The more difficult a loss, the more we tend to form an attachment to the memory. We want to taste what was true then. With each succeeding generation, that desire, of course, becomes less an issue.

One of my favorite restaurants these days is Babylon Café (2257 Lenox Road N.E., 404-329-1007), a new Iraqi restaurant opened by Saad Marwad and his American wife, Kelly Rafia. It offers one of those rare opportunities to savor a cuisine not much known in our city.

Marwad was granted political asylum in 2001, when he was living in Jordan. He had moved there to escape Saddam Hussein's regime. Besides studying art and working as an actor and designer, he wrote newspaper columns critical of the Iraq regime, which had seized his father's restaurants.

After about five years in Chicago, he moved to Atlanta in 2007 to work in various fields of the arts. "Acting is what I most love," he says, "but I've always loved cooking too. My father taught me, and I wanted to open a restaurant for a long time, but money was a problem, of course."

Marwad is the best example I've encountered in years of someone who retains complete fidelity to his homeland cuisine. If you mention another Middle Eastern restaurant in town, he will immediately speculate on the way they are cutting corners. I laughed when he did so and noted that it seems to be a habit of all immigrant cooks. "Have you received any criticism from other Iraqis about your own cooking?" I asked.

"Well, of course," he said. "Sometimes I hear they don't like the food, or they ask why I don't do this or that, but I know it's really about politics and money."

Marwad's English is good but hard to follow when he launches a discussion involving complicated Iraqi politics. He told me, basically, that there are quite a few Iraqis living in Atlanta who supported Saddam Hussein. They sought political asylum, pretending to be opponents, he said, in order to leave the country with their money. "They may not like my food," he says, laughing. "I recognize them."

And yet they still eat there.

The world has seen few refugee spectacles like that of 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon. In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese crowded into boats that carried them to other Asian countries. From there, the "boat people" emigrated under sponsorship of worldwide organizations to other countries.

One of them was Lisa Phuong Vo, who works at Saigon Basil on Piedmont Road. In 1983, she joined 24 others in a boat that carried her to Thailand. "I did it when I was 15 because my mother told me to!" she says. "I had to escape the communists. There was nothing to eat. The boat trip cost $1,000!"

She landed in Bloomington, Ind., with foster parents. Within a few years of finishing high school, she moved to Atlanta to work for Suzanne Bojtchewky, owner of Bien Thuy, which became my favorite restaurant in the city in the '80s. Bojtchewky immigrated to Atlanta with the American soldier she met in Vietnam and later married. Her restaurant's name referred to the demilitarized zone that separated North and South Vietnam. As such, it was a perfect metaphor for the way good food can transcend political and cultural difference.

Saigon Basil prepares Thai as well as Vietnamese food. I asked Lisa if she found the food different from her memories of Vietnam. "I'm just glad to eat," she said, looking around.

"But it's a good memory?" I asked.

"Sometimes it's very salty."



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