A Mission To Make More Neighbors, Not More Enemies

Chef Martha Lou Gadsden, center. Photo copyright 2013 by Zachary D. Lyons.
Cynthia Pristell and I with Chef Martha Lou Gadsden, center, at Martha Lou’s Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina. Photo copyright 2013 by Zachary D. Lyons.

At a time when it seems our president is trying to make as many enemies as possible, it occurred to me that now is an excellent time to make more friends. I’ll be damned if I’ll let anyone convince me that I should be afraid of anyone without a really good reason, and the color of their skin, their religion, who they love, or the fact that they are desperate for a better, or safer, life for themselves and their families is not a reason at all to fear someone, let alone a really good reason. Some of the most wonderful experiences of my life have happened because I have ignored someone else’s fears and decided to go to that place — to meet the people there anyway. From the south side of Chicago to the 69th Street Station in West Philly; from Rosedale, Mississippi to Central Kentucky; from the South Bronx to Macon, Georgia, I have had people tell me I should be afraid — that I shouldn’t go there — and I went anyway, only to enjoy some of the richest experiences of my life.

James Robinson and I with Ms. Izola White, owner of Izola’s Family Dining, known to locals as “Ms. Izola’s,” on South 79th Street in Chicago’s South Side. Photo copyright 2005 by Zachary D. Lyons.

Now, our president wants me to fear anyone from six predominantly Muslim countries for no other reason than he says so, and, I guess, because these countries lack Trump hotels. He wants me to fear undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and he calls them rapists and murderers without foundation. He wants me to fear refuges fleeing their war-torn homelands in places like Syria, Somalia and Yemen because they are Muslim. He wants me to fear these people and more without a really good reason, while he wants me to trust him without a really good reason either. But I prefer to subscribe to the sound words of the man who pulled us out of the Great Depression, won WWII and invested in America’s infrastructure on a scale the likes of which we had never seen, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Not just a timeless quote, these words represent a way of thinking that is a polar opposite to what we see coming out of Washington, DC at present.

The Todd Brothers playing “Rook” at the Block House in Hernando, Mississipp. Photo copyright 2014 by Zachary D. Lyons.

Instead of succumbing to fear of these people, then, why not embrace them? Why not befriend them? Why not reach out to them, like good neighbors, and share with them, learn from them, and enjoy them? What have we got to lose, but a few more enemies? And one of the best ways I’ve found to make friends over the years is to break bread with people. Few things are more powerful bridge building tools than food, and where there are immigrants, there are not only new foods to be tried, but also new friends to be made.

Chef Tamara Murphy (right), server, Hassan (center,) and I at Juba Restaurant & Café, a Somali eatery in Tukwila, Washington. Photo copyright 2017 by Zachary D. Lyons.

My friend and neighbor, Chef Tamara Murphy, had expressed a similar feeling in a New Year’s resolution in the Seattle Times at the beginning of this year in which she said she would like to “experience at least one new ethnic restaurant per month, and get to know the owners and learn more about their food.” So I reached out to her to see if she wanted to join me in exploring the immigrant communities in the Seattle area. Our first adventure was on Friday, February 24, 2017, to a restaurant in a Somali immigrant community in the city of Tukwila, just south of Seattle. This would serve as the genesis of my series here, called Making Neighborhoods, because after all, that is what are doing.

An Unholy Breakfast at Philadelphia’s Temple of Produce

Matzo brei with a side of scrapple at Norm & Lou’s Cafe in the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. Matzo brei was the Passover breakfast special in April 2016. Norm & Lou’s has been serving homestyle comfort food to hungry Produce Market workers since 1961. When the Market moved to its new, state-of-the-art facility in South Philly in 2011, the various produce wholesalers insisted that Norm & Lou’s be given space inside it. Photo copyright Zachary D. Lyons.

Happy Passover, all y’all. Last year, Passover came very late in the year, at the end of April. I was in Philadelphia at the time, a place renowned for its wholly un-kosher culinary specialties like roast pork sandwiches, cheese steaks and scrapple. Heck, I’m sure Philly has figured out a way to make even its famous large, soft pretzels unclean. So imagine my surprise to find matzo brei on the menu of the blue collar cafe, Norm & Lou’s Cafe, inside the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. But there it was, the special of the week, in honor of Passover.

Of course, I had to try it. Matzo brei is a childhood seasonal favorite of mine. Matzo brei is sorta like French toast, but instead of using a nice loaf of challah, you break up several sheets of Passover matzo, soak it in warm water or milk, and then mix it with eggs and fry it. Top it with some nice maple syrup and some cinnamon powder, and boy, howdy, you are good to go!

You know what else is a favorite from my youth? Scrapple! If you are unfamiliar, it is exactly what it sounds like it is — pork scraps (ears, noses, lips, liver, etc.) and corn meal cooked down and mashed together and formed into these one-pound loafs that look like small bricks. These are cooled so they set up firmly, and then you cut a three-eighths-inch or so slice off and pan fry it until it is golden brown, like in the picture above. It, too, was on the menu at Norm & Lou’s, so I figured, why not order both? I was sure it would be delicious, and it might even be worth the risk of being smited from on High for having the audacity to offend the Creator with such an unholy combination.

A pallet jack operator moves out a produce order at the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in April 2016. Opened in 2011, the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market is considered one of the most state-of-the-art produce distribution centers on earth. Photo copyright Zachary D. Lyons.

Norm & Lou’s Cafe originally opened in a shack at the first location of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market in 1961. In 2011, when the Market moved to its current location in a new, state-of-the-art facility considered one of the best produce distribution centers on earth, the various produce wholesaling companies that call the Market home insisted that Norm & Lou’s be given a space inside. They had come to rely on their great food in the otherwise remote warehouse and industrial district in SE Philly. Now a 95-seat restaurant, anyone can enjoy a great breakfast or lunch, all in a space with a modern thing called indoor heating, something that is not offered, by the way, in the rest of the facility.

Walt’s Fish Market & Restaurant – Sarasota, Florida

4144 S Tamiami Trail
Sarasota, FL 34231-3608
(941) 921-4605
Open Weekdays 9am-9pm

I went to check out the Siesta Key “Farmers Market” on Sunday, April 10th, but like most “farmers markets” in Florida, it seems, I could not find any farmers there. How is it that the #2 (behind California) specialty crops (fruits, veggies, stuff you can eat with being processed by Cargill or ADM) state sucks so bad at this whole farmers market thing. I mean, #1, 3 & 4 (CA, Washington & Oregon, respectively) kick bottom at farmers markets.

Okay, that said, I did meet a fishmonger there from a place called Walt’s Fish Market & Restaurant, and his fish looked pretty good, so I grilled him a bit. The salmon was wild king from five or six boats the market’s owner knew from Kodiak, Alaska, and the rest of the stuff was local Floridian seafood, like yellow-eye snapper, swordfish, Key West pink shrimp and stone crab. He told me to go check out the storefront on US-41 (a.k.a., South Tamiami Trail), just south of Bee Ridge, on the west side.

This market made my northwestern heart proud. These fishmongers spoke, believe it or not, FISH! They knew not only about the species, but they knew where it came from. And not just the port — the boat! Beautiful, fresh stuff, and almost all local to Florida. (Try finding that in, well, just about any grocery store in Florida. Oy!) They had shrimp in like 10 different forms, only one of which was farmed crap from SE Asian, hidden in the back of the case out of disgust and apparently only carried because some folks just have to have their “normal” tasting, mangrove forest destroying, tsunami accelerating, pumped full of drugs and eating too much processed feed made from perfectly good seafood we could be eating directly farm-raised shrimp. (Why? Because when it comes right down to it, humans is still stupid animals.) The rest of their shrimp were from the Keys and the Gulf of Mexico.


They also have a restaurant there — mostly chowders, salads and fried stuff. I decided I needed a snack. They really pushed their fried shrimp. Being from Seattle, where we eat the local sea insects either raw or lightly steamed, and in a real pinch, sauteed, I balked at this, but their insistence, and the fact that they had already impressed me with their fish market case, won me over.

These were the best flippin’ fried shrimp I have ever had! Seriously. Delicate, crunchy crust had a light flavor that did not overpower the shrimp, which were sweet and tender and perfectly cooked — unheard of normally with fried shrimp. And they used just the right amount of breading, too, instead of serving me shrimp fritters — all bread, little shrimp. And the cocktail sauce, too, was perfect, complimenting and enhancing the shrimp, not covering up a lack of shrimp or shrimp flavor, or simply serving as a means of moistening the lump of breading.

I also got a little container of their freshly-made conch salad — basically, a conch ceviche with orange and yellow bell peppers, some onion, and a hint of Scotch bonnet chile. Lovely!

If you are ever in Sarasota, go here. Make your ancient relatives shop for fish here. Support a great local business with great local fish and great local food. Don’t waste your time at Publix, and cut out the three-plus middle men between you and the boat at Whole Paycheck (I mean ‘Foods’).

And skip the Siesta Key “Farmers Market”. Visit us in Seattle for the real thing until Florida gets its act together.