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In my former life, my wife and I traveled — to Paris, Glasgow, San Juan, Tofino. We went where we could and experienced wild spices, ancient catacombs, impenetrable accents, and filthy metro systems.
Now, we have kids. Though they’ve diverted our time and resources, they are totally worth the sacrifice. But I feel badly for little people; they deserve diverse and unfamiliar experiences, too.
So I hatched a plan to spend several Saturday outings discovering the many cultures of Memphis. Ultimately, our experiences were more diverse, interesting, and easier than I imagined.
Week 1 • Shop for foreign fruits
Way out on Winchester is a Memphis that was; the empty shell of the Hickory Ridge Mall, and a giant Statue of Liberty holding a cross to the heavens. On the north side of the street (in a former Schnucks) is the Winchester Farmers Market — the Memphis that is.
With my 10-month-old seated in the kiddo spot of the shopping cart and my trusty 3-year-old helping me push, we step into an international showroom of oddities.
The produce section amazes first, with piles of exotic vegetables and fruits filling dozens of bins. Grouped by continent, my older daughter studies tubers and leaves from central Asia, colorful chilies of Latin America, enormous fruits from the South Pacific. “Daddy, what’s this?” she asks, amazed by a knobby, monstrous jackfruit. I’d never had it before, so we bring some home, along with dragon fruit and bitter melon.
Other families fill their carts with familiar foods wonderfully strange to us. A group of women in beautiful saris select fruits as my daughter walks over to their youngest and asks what they are buying. The girl answers, saying a word I don’t recognize. My daughter nods in the gentle way she does when she’s trying to play it cool, but inside is bursting with curiosity.
Week 2 • Explore North African cuisine
Our new neighborhood isn’t far from Summer Avenue, so we often hit the weird and glorious mom-and-pop stores and tiendas that line this gloriously old-Memphis strip. This week, however, we bypass our go-to taqueria, La Guadalupana, and head instead for the Jerusalem Market.
Our Caribbean friend mentioned the store, saying it was her favorite place to purchase goat meat for curry goat, a gem of island cooking. I’d also heard the market had a slightly secret restaurant that served Middle Eastern and North African dishes. Just blocks from our house, we had to get in on that.
The woman at the checkout counter, splendidly dressed in the fabrics of her Muslim tradition, seems thrilled to see us, a brass bell tinkling over our heads as we enter. Cans of ful medames line the shelves, stacked beside tins of stuffed grape leaves and jars of pickled labna. In the back, we watch a hulk of a man in a blood-streaked apron hacking apart an animal.
“Dad, is that a butcher?” asks my 3-year-old, fascinated but perhaps unaware of how graphic this scene might be.
“What do you think?” I reply.
“Yeah, he’s a butcher. You said we get lunch here?”
From a menu packed with colorful descriptions, we select chicken shawarma, falafels, and tabbouleh, everything fresh to order. While we wait, my daughter and I talk about the photos of Egypt that line the walls featuring beautiful mosques, mysterious pyramids, statues of people but with heads of jackals and water birds, and camels — lots of camels.
Minutes later, a wondrous aroma greets us. “I smell delicious,” says my daughter. “Do we get to eat it?”
Yes, indeed. And it is wonderful.
Week 3 • Picnic with international pals
There’s a couple we socialize with, good friends who like talking about the same stuff we do. The woman, who works with my wife, is Turkish; the man is Indian. To round out our diversity adventure, we invite them to join us at our home for a picnic.
Since I let the guests in on my exercise, they bring foods they loved as kids growing up in their homelands: Dishes of dates and olives, tangy hummus, seasoned yogurt with cucumber, simit (a coil of bread peppered with sesame seeds), and gulab jamun, little balls of milky stuff with a sweet sauce. It is quite a spread.
“I used to look forward to these all week,” our Indian friend tells my 3-year-old, popping a morsel in his mouth. “Definitely worth eating the healthy stuff to get a treat like this.”
My daughter pops one in, too, and that same small smile curls the corners of her mouth. She is playing it cool, but her mind explodes with Memphis’ diversity — and like me — she loves it.