Monday, August 30, 2010

Camel Riders Welcome at the Whiteway

Whiteway Delicatessen
1237 King St.
Jacksonville, FL
Visited August 30, 2010

Beer Selection: None

Food: Deli style sandwiches served in pita bread

"Camel Rider.”

Well, I’ve been called a mackerel-snapper, paddy and bog-trotter.

Whether you’re Middle-Eastern or Irish. Catholic, Protestant or Muslim. Someone’s going to have a name for you.

But in our politically correct, post-9/11 America, calling an Arab “a camel rider” might get you a knuckle sandwich – or worse.

But not in Jacksonville, Florida.

You’ll get a different sandwich all together if you call out “Camel Rider” in the dozen or so competing Arab-run lunch spots around town.

The Whiteway Deli is the most famous of these, tucking salami, ham, bologna, cheese, lettuce and tomato into a pita for their version of the “Camel Rider”, something Sam Salem and his family have been doing here for over 80 years.

While it might seem strange to experience such a stab at culinary exotica (awkward though it may be) smack dab in the middle of the city most famous as the birthplace of Southern Rock, it actually all fits together nicely into a story about American success and assimilation when you think about it.

Arab Christians fled Muslim persecution in the Middle East and began settling in Jacksonville over a century ago, a city that takes pretty serious claim to being the most redneck metro area in the South.

So why Jacksonville?

I have no idea.

Maybe these folks figured handling pick-up driving good ol’ boys would be a breeze compared to the Taliban of the Ottoman Empire.

Now, obviously there is nothing exotic or remotely Middle-Eastern about salami, ham or bologna. And that’s the point.

These newly transplanted small business owners figured out quickly that if you want to sell lunch to the locals, sell them what they are already comfortable with.

Then stuff it all into some Mediterranean looking pita bread and call it a “Camel Rider”.

Hey, don’t laugh. Pita bread can be exotic if all you’ve ever eaten is fried catfish and hush puppies!

Then -- wink, wink -- all of a sudden the natives come to think that maybe that dark-complected lunch guy down the street knows what he is doing after all.

It’s been a formula for success, as the Whiteway has been the see-and-be-seen lunch spot for Jacksonville movers and shakers for decades.

Unfortunately, the Whiteway was evicted in a dispute with the landlord a couple years ago, so I missed my chance to dine in the old historic location a few doors down.

The new digs lack that nostalgic feel of weathered counters and worn stools that adds so much to the experience of dining in an eight decade old institution.

The new ambiance can be best described as recently-built-high-school-cafeteria. But the paintings of historic Jacksonville buildings decorating the pristine white walls lend a little local flavor.

At 11am on a Monday, I pretty much had the place to myself. But an hour or two later, I’m sure it was full of office workers and politicians.

Sure enough, there were pictures of Republican establishmentarians like Bill McCollum and John Thrasher decorating the cash register.

The Whiteway is a necessary photo-op stop for all pols trudging across the Sunshine State for votes.

Unfortunately for McCollum, who somehow managed to lose last week in the GOP primary for governor to a crook who oversaw the largest defrauding of taxpayers in American history, it wasn’t enough votes.

Maybe he should have ordered a few more Camel Riders.

But its establishment popularity is what makes the Whiteway such a perfect case study in American assimilation.

The affection between the Salem family and their customers is obvious and mutual, as evidenced by the boxes and boxes of photos of Whiteway customers Mr. Salem keeps by the front door and the fact that the entire place is basically run on the honor system.

No one brings a check to the table.

When I was done eating, I wandered up to the cash register and flipped through a few dog-eared pictures and waited for Mr. Salem, who was busy entertaining the two year old daughter of a regular customer.

I told him what I ordered. “Camel Rider.” He smiled, told me the price and thanked me for coming by in an accent that sounded more North Florida than North Palestine.

Simple, good quality, familiar food, served with a smile, a touch of non-threatening pita bread ethnicity and a just a dash of self-depreciation. It’s a recipe for success all newcomers could copy.

Even mackerel-snappers like me.

Rating: Would Wear Shirt If It Were Free

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