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Tienda Time in the Triangle

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People driving down the curvy stretch of Mt. Carmel Church Road near the Governor's Club about five years ago were doubtless curious about the Mexican flag fluttering in front of the Britz BP station. At the time, the owner simply intended it as a sign to say "Mexican products sold here," but it also was a harbinger of the future. Then there were only a few feet of shelf space stocked with beans, peppers, tortillas, Jarittos brand fruit-flavored sodas, and maybe a few chicken scratch and Latin pop cassettes by the cash register. Now, less than half a decade later, numerous stores recognizing the Triangle's new demographic dot the landscape. Each is a tiny swath of Central America. These tiendas carry products that make Latinos feel at home, while providing access for the rest of us to our neighbors' exotic cultures.

Lunchtime gets a little hectic at El Mercado Central on Main Street in Carrboro. People float up and down its two aisles; some stand around by the front door talking with their hands folded, and others congregate by the grill. The grill has four bar seats, and on the far one sits Jim. Although Jim stands out because he is a rather large Caucasian, he is a regular here. He looks perfectly at home eating his torta, a sandwich on grilled bread with marinated steak and vegetables stuffed into it and falling about its sides. He chooses the end of the bar because there is a nearby trash can into which he can throw the many balled-up napkins his juicy torta requires. Jim eats slowly, with considerable method and rhythm and well-spaced breathing, sopping and swiping with the stoic fluidity of a Southern man who knows how make a meal taken alone a ritualistic, meditative event.

"This is the real thing," he says, fingering the edge of his goatee. From a ceramic ramekin he pulls a bisected jalapeno from its brine and, cleaning it of seeds, he explains how the heat of the peppers no longer torches the roof of his mouth, how he now enjoys the richness of flavor that waits beyond the heat.

The tiendas that have sprouted in the Triangle are rooted in a long and savory story--one that stretches over centuries and continents. It is a tale of ingenuity, success, hardship and despair, and its leading man, from start to finish, is that seedy little Don Juan, the chili pepper. His story begins more than 2,000 miles away, more than 1,000 years ago, and it continues still, here in Carrboro, with Jim and all the rest of us who've been seduced by the amorous pepper.

The tale begins with the prehistoric populations of Central America, who were a transient lot, moving seasonally with the hunting and fishing, and the fruit and vegetable harvests. Their bands were small, thinned out now and then by hunger and sickness, and they traveled light. When they left a campsite they tended to leave their pots and things behind them as refuse, and they certainly didn't have elaborate garbage-disposal arrangements. They must have thought about how nice life would be with a steady food supply. But how to achieve that? Well, our story tells us, they discovered how because they, like Jim, neglected to eat the seeds of the chili pepper, opting instead to toss them over their shoulders as they sat around the campfire. This went on for centuries until one year, someone noticed that just on the periphery of last year's campfire--for they tended to return to the same spots annually--young pepper plants were thriving in the very spot where the seeds had been thrown.

A mental connection with infinite implications was made between the seed and the new growth, and people began to experiment with planting the seeds. Soon they noted that corn and beans tended to grow naturally together. To make a long story short, from there they quickly realized that they were well on their way to achieving the world's first seven-layer dip, and perhaps a whole lot more. Suddenly there was so much work to be done that they had to give up roaming and settle down. Soon enough came the exciting business of making a civilization--planting crops, then building permanent houses. Markets, churches, centralized government (taxes!), schools and monetary units soon followed, and hard on their heels, corrupt bureaucracy which tended to make the peoples' lives a misery.

Were the major players in this drama only beans, corn, peppers and burgeoning native tribes, then it would be a rather short story with a premature climax. Jim would be left to scrape together a bland lunch without jalapenos. But here, enter the Spaniards, intent on New World conquests. The Spanish, seeing what a good thing the Aztec kings had going for them, struck down the monarchies of Central America so they could subjugate the peasants themselves and implement their own regime. Eventually, of course, nations like Mexico and the chain of countries to the south would form their own governments, but still the few families at the top grew fat off the farmers' sweat, while the campesinos struggled to survive. Many now choose a new struggle and have joined the vast migration across the Rio Grande and over the Gulf of Mexico of people looking for livable wages.

So here they come, from Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and from all over South America. It would be an oversimplification to say that all Latin Americans in the Triangle are financial refugees, but this migration toward prosperity is largely the reason there are enough Latinos here to support all the new tiendas.

The question is, "why the Triangle?" Putting it simply, the success of the Research Triangle Park has set in motion a white-collar migration, and that influx of highly paid workers has created other economic opportunities. The growth spurt that has attended these white-collar arrivals has attracted other immigrant workers as well. Which brings us back to the gas station on Mt. Carmel Church Road. The store manager there saw the Latino crews who were building the Governor's Club for the starchiest of our white-collar arrivals and realized there would be a demand for Latino products for this new population. That prescient manager, Tim Johnson, now co-owns El Mercado Central, the Carrboro emporium where we found Jim relishing his feisty torta asada.

Four years ago Tim Johnson and his wife, Susan, opened El Mercado Central in a small location, and they moved into a slightly larger space on Carrboro's Main St. this past year. Susan explains that, when trying to decide what items to carry, they just asked people what they wanted. If that was king-sized chicarones (fried pig skin snacks), or tamarind soda, fresh tomatillos, dried hibiscus plants for making tea, or any number of bagged mixes for baked products not available in American grocery stores, then that was what they went about finding. Susan, who has, as she puts it, "eaten my way through Central America several times," discusses El Mercado's sundry selection with a smile. She finds the variety delightful. "I didn't even know you could buy corn silks, that they even packaged them," she says, "and I'm not exactly sure what they're used for, but here they are."

The tienda's name, she hopes, connotes the Johnsons' mission. "El Mercado Central means 'central market' in Latin America, and there's one in every city. It is a number of stores where you can get most everything, so this is not just a convenience store with just Mexican products. There are people around here from all over Latin America, and they all eat differently."

At El Mercado Central and other area tiendas there are goods special to Venezuela, Colombia, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Mexico, and items typical of other countries as well. There is nothing quaint about these places; you won't find a lot of Central American style hoop-de-doo. No giant sombreros. No dusky stucco murals. The velveteen bullfighters have been left out, and there are no maracas crossed on the walls. The target audience is not the gringo mainstream; rather, it is people like Jose Martinez.

Martinez was a construction worker by trade in his native Guanaguato, in central Mexico. He came to North Carolina to earn U.S. dollars, which, when he wires them to his family back home, stretch much further than pesos. On a dishwasher's wage here, he hopes to send enough money back home that his children will be able to attend college someday. He has been here 10 years and can remember the days before there were tiendas to give him a taste of home. He now shops at El Mercado Central for the produce necessary for so many homemade recipes, things like chiles poblanos and tomatillos.

Although Martinez missed the natural items the most, he can also find many of the packaged items from home here now. These include things like atole, a thin sweet breakfast pudding, and the bright and sweet sprinkles-coated pan dulce to dip into it. The Central American sweet tooth is attracted to flavored gelatins--coconut, banana, tamarind and lime. These mixes are packaged in cute little baggies, as are all manner of spices and herbs.

To reach the El Dorado of these cute little baggies of rich flavor, we walk past Jim, who, with a slight sheen of sweat on his brow is still wrestling with that torta. Along the back wall of El Mercado Central are the dried herbs, spices and peppers. These ingredients are the very soul of Central American cooking, and through them we come to the final chapter of this epic story.

Long before the Spanish came conquering in the New World, they themselves were conquered. When the Moors, coveting a trade lock on the Mediterranean and the fertile valleys of Spain, invaded the Iberian peninsula, they did quite a bit more for Latin culture than just hipping up Spanish architecture. The Moors were the descendants of the world's oldest civilizations, had been farming for a long, long time and knew a thing or two about getting dinner on the table. When they came into Spain, the Moors brought all their favorite foods, along with the other aspects of their culture.

The Spaniards ate it up--the saffron, the coriander, the lime--and even after they threw the Moors out, they remained dependent on trade with them for these items, which they had incorporated seamlessly into their own cuisine. That is, until they themselves conquered Central America, which had a climate similar to that of North Africa. Here their Moorish predilections for spice and fruit flourished and intermingled with the native ways with peppers, corn and beans, blending to create the most densely layered cuisine in the world. That explains why the Triangle tiendas stock all these little baggies. There are spices galore, leaves of various plants, dried hibiscus and other flowers, whole salt-dried shrimp with heads intact, flavoring mixes for menudo, dried nuts and fruits, and, of course, peppers--habaneros, serranos, poblanos, jamaicas, pullas, anchos, pasillas, yusillos and chiles.

Jim, just wiping up the shrapnel of lettuce and peppers from around his plate, says that he is a big believer that chili peppers are good for you. Like many norteamericanos, he's joined the horde of the faithful who think that for every food there is a pepper. Jim gestures at the ice cream freezer next to the bar, stocked with chili-flavored popsicles. Has he tried one? Not yet. But it's probably only a matter of time. EndBlock

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