Pass the Nutmeg: On Neighborhood Cultures and Thanksgiving

I'm last-minute Thanksgiving shopping at my local grocery store, wheeling a plus-size basket through the aisles even though I only need a hand-held basket for the few items I've come for. But there aren't any more of those small baskets -- they tend to be in short supply generally, this being a grocery store/warehouse hybrid where people tend to buy a lot at once. Superior has a full-service bakery and meat counter, but overall a no-frills, bulk-oriented inventory -- no organics -- and checkout lines where you do your own bagging. It's what replaced a succession of traditional grocery stores like Ralphs, which left this part of Inglewood about a decade ago as grocery stores everywhere were consolidating and making life miserable for its unionized workers. Unions are one of many things Superior doesn't offer. The best thing about it is that it's walking distance from my house.

One of the more interesting aspects of the store is that it's both a come-together spot and contested space for local black and Latino residents. Before it opened, blacks were wary about a store that would cater more to Latinos and less to them, not just in terms of merchandise but in terms of employment. The Korean owners of Superior compromised by hiring a mix of folks and by stocking things (bread, cornflakes, etc.) that are aggressively non-ethnic. But the black/brown reality is demarcated in other ways: a produce section featuring jicama and plantains, bilingual signs advertising daily specials. In one of the more intriguing demarcations, the piped-in music is usually vintage American pop and R&B, while the magazines at the checkout line are Spanish-language. Old school versus what's happening now.

Customers seem more or less fine with all this, or fine with operating in their own spheres while being amongst other people. But there are occasional rumblings. In the spice aisle I struck up a conversation with a black man who was searching vainly for nutmeg. We wound up in line together with the same big baskets that held the same small bag of sugar and a few other items. He was friendly but seemed a bit disconsolate. "I'm not trying to be racist, but I can't find any Negro things in here," he said. "Can't find ingredients to make what I want. It's not right."

I knew what he meant, but I was curious. What were Negro things?

"I don't know, just...everything. Shoot, at the Superior down on Western they got rabbit, squirrel, quail. Southern things. Used to be I could go in there and order things and they'd have them. Not so much now. Not here for sure."

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I don't think nutmeg is a Negro thing -- certainly not cream tartar -- but the man explained that he had used nutmeg to improvise a dessert last Thanksgiving that his family was clamoring for this year. All he could find at Superior today was pumpkin spice. That's not a Latino conspiracy, but the fact that the man couldn't get what he needed in his neighborhood was all that mattered. In the end, he had lost ground. "And I'm not going to drive somewhere else and use up more gas to go find nutmeg," he added. "That's it. I'll go with what I got."

I understood about not driving anywhere to keep looking. I had abandoned my own mission of baking a lemon pie based on my mother's recipe and bought a very Southern sweet potato pie instead -- courtesy of Superior. They were piled neatly near the entrance, the label translated in Spanish. In a second act of triumph, I walked back home.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. Read all her posts here.

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