At least a few times every summer my dad would convince me to take a break from the delinquent activities of my misspent youth to do a little fishing. Along the way we would inevitably end up stopping in some small country store to stock up on worms, Cokes and Town House peanut butter crackers. These stores usually had a little restaurant in the back where regulars would linger over plates of comfort food and bark friendly insults at each other while we laughed and paid for our day’s supplies.
When you travel around the country, or even just the rural areas around Chattanooga, it’s easy to think the tradition of the small country store is disappearing. While many small, family run markets and stores are dying in the shadows of the Bi-Marts and Mega-Los, the country store tradition is still alive, well and hiding in plain sight. Dozens of small, family-run ethnic markets around the city are carrying on the traditions we grew up with. Andy and Aunt Bee are there, too—they just may speak with a Polish or Arabic accent and offer you lamb and lavash instead of fried chicken and a biscuit.
International Market, formerly known as Family Food Mart and located next to Tuesday Morning in Eastgate Town Center, is a great example of how the traditions of the American country store are not unique to reruns of “Petticoat Junction,” but are found in almost every culture in the world.
International Market’s owner, Dana, seems to know everyone who comes in, and welcomes those she doesn’t with a big smile. I’ve been coming to this market for years, so she’s gotten to know what I like and will sometimes emerge from the back with a spoonful of something she says I “must try … you’ll love it.” And she is always right.
Recently she brought out homemade Polish borscht, which had a smoky, unctuous, sausage flavor that will make you cheat on poor Aunt Sally’s soup with this deep-red Eastern European beauty.
The front of the store is a well-stocked international market with a focus on Middle Eastern and Eastern European foods. I usually pick up some tahini, olives, dates, flatbreads, tea and Greek or Bulgarian feta cheese, but I always get some of the sausages and dried beef. (On a side note: Never, ever eat one of those greasy tubes of questionable animal protein from Swiss Colony again. If the demo girl can talk you into parting with your hard-earned cash with a smile and a pole-shaped log of questionable animal protein, I suggest you stay far away from adult establishments where the girls, poles and smiles are demonstrating much more expensive products.)
Make your way to the back of the market and you’ll find the archetype of the country store restaurant with a post-modern, multi-cultural twist. Wooden tables with brightly patterned tablecloths, a vase of flowers on each and a menu of homemade, inexpensive, Middle Eastern and Eastern European food served in family style portions.
Sometimes I just stop in for a shawarma, which is like a Middle Eastern burrito filled with your choice of chicken, beef, or lamb, onions and spices. If I’m a bit hungrier I’ll sit down for a plate of hummus, baba ghanoush, marinated feta, lavash or whatever meat is being served that day. The last time I was there, Dana had made chicken maklouba, a dish made with rice, chicken, eggplant and Middle Eastern spices teeming with flavors that are familiar but are paired together in ways we don’t normally encounter in the South.
Before you leave, check out the case of fresh-baked sweets like kataifi (shredded phylo, pistachio’s, sugar and orange blossom syrup) baklava and halva (think peanut butter fudge, but with sesame or pistachio’s instead of peanuts). Or sample a lahmajun, a Turkish pizza-type dish with meat or cheese. If you are a coffee drinker get a shot of Turkish coffee while you’re there. They keep some brewed in the back.
That’s the wonderful surprise of visiting a store like International Market. It’s familiar in that it’s a friendly, down-to-earth store where you can hang out and linger over a plate of delicious food if you want. But it is also a treasure trove of ingredients and flavors that you would pay through the nose for at a chain store, if you could even find them.
I’m not sure if my dad would pick shawarma over Town House crackers, but I know whenever I’m in Brainerd with my sons we always make a point to stop in, grab some comfort food and chat with Dana. The only things missing are the insults and the bait.
Mike McJunkin is a local chef and foodie. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.