When we publish our food listings magazine, Bites + Sites, the restaurant categories are always a bit of a conundrum. What do you do with a Russian-Turkish bakery or a French-owned restaurant that serves Virginia food or an Algerian-Mediterranean fusion joint or a Nepali-Indian place?
When I was growing up in the ’80s, the Cold War meant the world had clearly defined boundaries, even if they were artificial (perhaps because they were artificial), and the food world mimicked them. In the sprawling immigrant neighborhoods of New York and L.A., you could find specific cuisine sold under its own name, but in most places restaurants contorted themselves to fit American expectations, even if it meant crossing loyalties in a way that would have been unthinkable at home.
A Ukrainian might be content to run a Polish restaurant, a Dominican could sell Cuban food, a Pakistani may run an Indian buffet, and a Greek would turn Sicilian if that’s what it took to make money. The food landscape has undergone successive revolutions since then, spurred on by the fusion frenzy of the ’90s and succeeded by the taste for regional authenticity of the 2000s.
Now we’ve pushed both frontiers to the point that they’re folding back over on themselves in an attempt to source ingredients closer to home (and make new TV shows). It may be harder than ever to label what we’re eating. New American is as lame as Continental used to be; Southern is very close to becoming more vague than useful; and Fusion makes me think of Bobby Flay in sunglasses playing a conga for Carlos Santana. Welcome to the pervasive power of convergence.
This week’s feature introduces the first of two Charlottesville Restaurant Weeks, chances to explore (maybe even label) some of the best restaurants around town in a way that benefits the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank. Consumption and charity go hand in glove in support of a nonprofit that helps the people who most need it at a time of year when it’s most needed. It’s not a bad chance to remember that our little town has become a port of entry for immigrants from all over the world, from Myanmar and Bosnia to Somalia and Kenya, to a large degree because of the efforts of another nonprofit, the IRC. More flavor for the melting pot, so let’s make sure everyone gets enough.