Lunch at large

“Steak pizza,” reads the sign outside of Carmel's.

“Tourist food,” I think: approachable, nearly absurd and totally decadent. Heck, who wouldn't want a steak pizza?

But I have a different meal in mind. I want to understand the tourist appetite, and what better classroom than a food tour? A jaunt around town with eight visitors, a small cross section of the 3 million tourists who visit Asheville every year, according to the Convention and Visitor's Bureau. While they're in town, they drop big money: collectively, about $2 billion.

Considering that the average visitor spends 2.8 days in town, out-of-towners are eating tens of millions of meals here every year. I want to find out who they are and what they eat when they come here.

I feel nervous, approaching the group. The anxiety that I won't discover anything to write about is always with me, and it's stronger in this instance. You see, the average tourist isn't exactly a classical muse. The CVB profiles its “typical visitor” as a solidly upper middle class, over-50, empty-nester traveling with a spouse or partner.

Is the typical visitor a pedestrian obstacle, a blur of khaki with an exceptional interest in antique furnishings and locally made tchotchkes?

At the Grove Arcade, where Chris Ortwein, owner and leader of Asheville Food Tours, meets his guests, I find that both these profiles were accurate, at least at first glance. The group consists almost exclusively of retirees: four ladies from Wisconsin, in town to see the Biltmore House (who had just eaten lunch at Carmel's, incidentally) and two couples from the Northeast, who often travel together.

As we amble down to the first stop, Mela Indian Restaurant, the men from the Northeast tell me about their trip. Stuart towers above us, while his friend, Phil, chats through a thick Massachusetts accent.

“I've known Stuart 35 years, almost as long as I've known my wife,” Phil says, and gives his friend a whack on the back. The couples have always traveled together, he explains. Some friends of theirs who retired to Asheville helped them plan their visit.

At the restaurant, the smell of korma and curry hangs in the air like a baited line. But the women from Wisconsin dab at their plates timidly. They don't like spicy food, they explain. In fact, none of the visitors seem to know what to make of Indian food. Most of them have never eaten it before.

I clear my plate, and we head toward Pack Square. The sun has started to come out, and we stop to take off our jackets. If we hadn't, we might not have noticed one of the women from Wisconsin struggling up the incline.

“Knee replacement,” the straggler explains, noticeably flustered.

The tourists joke with one another about the perils of artificial joints as we arrive at the next stop, Blackbird. “Shouldn't have gotten the econo-knee,” chides one with a laugh.

Blackbird serves New Southern cuisine, our guide says. Stuart's wife is eager to explain what that means. They have a timeshare in Charleston, and she's big into New Southern. She likes McCrady's, Magnolia's and the biscuits at Poogan's Porch (all New Southern stalwarts in that town). She's not a foodie, she says, she just likes to eat out.

“Old South,” as she calls it, is chitlins and fried foods. “New Southern” is farm-to-table and heirloom ingredients. It's a working definition.

We eat graceful dollops of heirloom grits topped with boiled shrimp, tails aloft, and drink deeply hued blackberry cocktails. The drink makes everyone more talkative, and when we depart, the woman with the bad knee tells me about her morning in the River Arts District. She was not impressed. “A lot of it is warehouses and classes,” she said. “Not a lot to see.”

We head back up the hill to Vincenzo's, and I trail behind Phil and Stuart. Phil is flushed, maybe from the cocktail, and talking enthusiastically. He wraps Stuart in a bear hug.

“I wish I'd done this 30 years ago!” he exclaims, grinning widely.

“What were you doing 30 years ago?” I ask.

At first, he looks like he can't recall. “I was having kids,” he says. He looks troubled for a moment.

I revert to polite remarks. “Well, I'm sure you wouldn't give that up,” I say, and he agrees.

As we eat our way through Vincenzo's, Strada, The Social and Farm Burger, I wonder about why people travel.

If it's difficult for the woman with the knee replacement, why does she do it? Do people like Phil, who start traveling later in life, really wish they could change their situation? And if you don't care about food, what's the appeal of a food tour? After all, it's essentially a $50 lunch.

Lucky for me, there's another food tour in town, Eating Asheville. The concept is similar: It's a five-course walking tour with stops for historical interludes along the way.

The tour group meets at the Battery Park Book Exchange. This assembly looks much like the last one. Most of the visitors are retired. This time, they come from Florida, Ohio and New York City. Most of them mention owning second homes or multiple properties.

“Anything that's fish, tell Ron it's steak,” says one of the women. Her name is Susie, I find out later. She and her husband Ron are visiting their friends, Susan and Tom, who live in Asheville.

“Susie and Ron and Susan and Tom,” someone says, laughing at the rhyme.

Just as Susie says, Ron doesn't care much for fish, pork, mushrooms or shellfish. But Ron must feel adventurous on this day, because he reaches for one of the Book Exchange's hors d'oeuvres, which is topped with Sunburst Trout.

“I have friends who have tried to get me to try that repeatedly — I wouldn't go near it,” he says. But on the tour, “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

At Cucina 24, he samples a West Coast oyster, and remarks that it tastes simply of cucumber (it's dressed with a melon-cucumber mignonette).

Next, we hit The Imperial Life for a fried green tomato, and then make for Zambra. I walk with Patty and David, who drove down from Ohio for a couple of days to see the Smokies, where they both spent time as kids.

Patty explains that they aren't actually interested in food; they eat for their marriage.

“People our age, what do you do?” she says. “Go out to a dinner, maybe a movie. But as far as dating activities, it's really dinner. If you stick to steak, a baked potato and a salad, I think that's rather boring. In a lot of ways, if you stay in that area of food, your relationship is kind of boring.”

She says all this quickly, without stopping to think. “At this point in our lives, we've done everything we've had to do,” she says. “We're kind of looking for more adventure.”

They considered ziplining, she adds, but she has a bad shoulder.

I want to ask Patty more — what does she mean by doing what they had to do? — but the food comes, corned beef with house-made sauerkraut and confit potatoes. It's a step up from a steak and a baked potato, for sure, and I leave Patty and David to their task.

Next, we visit Strada, where the stuffed figs taste like dessert, as one of the tourist remarks, and then move on to the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for the official dessert, raspberry truffles. I decide to catch up with Ron and Susie. They haven't encountered any more shellfish, they are happy to report.

“We enjoy what we like, but I don't eat a lot of different things,” Ron says. Still, it interests him to encounter dishes he wouldn't normally seek out.

The whole point of travel is to do things you don't expect to do, he adds. “We make a lot of U-turns,” he explains. “We've found a lot of things that we never would have found if we didn't make U-turns.”

Like Phil and his wife, Ron and Susie have done much of their traveling as empty-nesters. They take trips with their hosts, Tom and Susan, a couple of times a year.

I tell them about Phil, and the moment in which he wished he had traveled 30 years ago.

“I don't think we can go back and say, 'I wish I had,'” Ron says. “I think if we'd done some of the things we've done in the last 10 years [back then], we wouldn't have appreciated it.

“It's just a different life,” Susie adds. “I'm glad for the progression of things.”

Not everyone realizes the freedom of getting older and retiring, Susie says. “People who don't travel do not understand why we like to travel,” she says. We have neighbors who are like, 'Don't you like your house? Don't you like your friends here? Why are you always leaving?'”

So I ask Susie: What does it really mean to be a tourist? The people who come to Asheville each year (who can be easy to mock or huff at when they block the sidewalk), what are they doing?

Susie says that I'm asking the wrong question. Travel isn't about doing something; it's about doing, plain and simple. “We have some very dear friends at home, but we can't travel with them,” she says. “They're too set in their ways.”

In this light, the tourists don't seem so indulgent. Instead of languishing at home, they're engaging. While CVB statistics and two afternoons of observation could only tell me so much — the rest is inevitably too complicated to sum up — here's what I could know about the tourists: They're here, not sitting at home, entrenched in their lives of 30 years ago.

“So what you're doing is brave?” I asks.

Susie nods. And I get it: They're here, and they’re going for it, even if they won't try the shellfish.

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