Community Potluck; diasporas and generations brought together by food

A story about a grocer, a butcher, a priest and one Mister Softee.

By Deanna Hirsch and Hiba Dlewati

Crunched between tight deadlines, mercurial trends and corporate recipes, daily life in New York can be an isolating and rootless experience. Food in the city, however, is an anchor holding together communities in diaspora and throughout generations.

“…stop and smell the peaches.”

“Go back to Mani. The most beautiful place in the world,” said Tasos Mastakouris on what he’ll do when the time comes to finally close up shop. Mastakouris immigrated to the U.S. from Mani, Greece when he was 15 and has been working in the grocery business ever since. Photo by Deanna Hirsch

For many immigrants, owning a successful business in the U.S is the American dream. But owning and keeping are two different things. Brothers Tasos and Taki Mastakouris have owned Mani Marketplace on the Upper West Side for more than 25 years and Wild Olive Market in Harlem for seven. Their UWS shop has succeeded thanks to fresh Amish produce, Greek family recipes and a loyal clientele. They survived when Whole Foods opened down the block in 2009 thanks to regulars like Brigitte Ortner who’s been shopping at Mani since day one. Yet, Mastakouris doesn’t know if the Ortner’s of the world will be enough to keep the market going once Trader Joe’s opens in 2018.

“These guys are so nice you can’t help but come back. You know, we all love them. We have from the beginning and we will ’til the end, no matter who opens up here,” said Brigitte Ortner, Mani Marketplace customer.

While a consistent community has been a saving grace for the brothers on the Upper West Side, they’ve struggled to make that same magic happen in Harlem. “There’s a faster turn around of people. You don’t get the chance to build the same relationships,” Mastakouris said of their Wild Olive clientele. In addition to customers moving out, they’re dealing with yet another Whole Foods moving in. Harlem Whole Foods opened this summer and has made matters worse. “They say they want small business but then you see them lining up at Whole Foods,” Mastakouris said.

“A butcher is like a barber.”

At Balady Foods supermarket in Bay Ridge, Mahmoud Darslami from Jerusalem found a new career, as well as a community. The 34-year-old moved to New York City 10 years ago, leaving behind his native Palestine and a career in computer programming. “It’s 180 degrees different from how I used to live,” Darslami said.

Moving deftly between Arabic and English as customers step up to the counter, Darslami exchanges lamb shanks, and pleasantries with his clientele. Some are from out of town and make the long trek for more than just the food.

“You feel you’re at home,” said Amal Sokkar, who drives 50 miles every week to stock up at Balady’s. “Except you’re in America.”

“God has an incredible sense of humor…”

"She [God] created us black, latin, gay, trans because she likes diversity. We're the ones who have a problem with it," said Luis Barrios, the lead priest at Holyrood Church. Photo by Deanna Hirsch

During his six months as the lead priest of Holyrood Episcopal Church in Washington Heights, NY, Luis Barrios has tackled everything from LGBTQ rights and immigration, to what it means to truly be a community. While Holyrood claims to be one church, Barrios said, in reality, it functions as two, with separate services in English and Spanish. So he decided from his first day that a bilingual service was needed in order to bridge the gap between older Spanish speaking congregants and the younger generation who prefer English. Barrios used the promise of a potluck at the end of mass to keep reluctant members in the pews. So far, his bribe has worked. Holyrood now hosts monthly bilingual services where members end up staying hours after lunch is served.

Video by Deanna Hirsch

“And that’s how I started. I followed a truck.”

The jingle of a Mister Softee truck led Juan Barrera to the Bronx warehouse eight years ago, where he asked for a job. Photo by Hiba Dlewati

Known to many as Mister Softee, 33-year-old Juan Barrera has been driving the prominent ice-cream truck in East Harlem for eight years. Originally from Ecuador, he switches between English and Spanish as he makes his rounds through the Barrio.

Video by Hiba Dlewati

From his sugary vantage point, he’s watched a generation grow up, and a neighborhood change. Harlem — and the ice cream — are getting expensive as the neighborhood gentrifies, which has affected his customer base, Barrera said, but he sometimes makes exceptions and allows old customers to pay the same price.

“The best thing in this job is you make a lot of friends,” he said. “They invite me to parties, baby showers, I get a good relationship with the customers.”