Lilburn has become incredibly diverse—and that’s made its food scene better

Before I traveled the world, I experienced it right here in Lilburn

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Jerk chicken, rice, and vegetables
A Taste of Paradise serves homestyle Jamaican food like jerk chicken (pictured), oxtails, and curry goat.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

In November 1994, my family moved from our sunny, two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles into a gray, two-story house in Lilburn. At the time, the neighborhood looked like your average suburb, with modest homes on half-acre lots winding down the street from soccer fields and public schools.

We made friends at our church, through our homeschool network, at taekwondo classes. But the basis of every social gathering for my family always has been food. And we were lucky enough to grow up in Lilburn, with a close-knit group of friends who would gather to cook together on a regular basis, each bringing a taste of their home: Greek, Lebanese, and Filipino recipes and flavors.

“Sometimes that’s where true progress starts—with a seat at each other’s table.”

As a kid who became accustomed to kibbeh and quail-egg soup, I was comfortable not just with a diversity of flavors but a diversity of people. As a journalist, including my years as a photo editor and writer at CNN, I’ve spent a lot of time traveling and reporting stories around the world—but I owe my appreciation of diverse cultures to my own hometown.

Our Eritrean neighbors would bake himbasha (a delicious bread flavored with crushed cardamom) and leave a fresh loaf in our mailbox. We’d celebrate iftar dinners with our friends, refugees from Iraq who’d settled here, spreading a blanket on the floor and arranging fruits and vegetables, hummus, and lamb. These memories became even more precious to me as I got older and put into context what was happening in the county at large. In 1990, Gwinnett County was 90 percent white. Today, it is 37 percent white (Lilburn itself is 31 percent white)—and nearly one in four residents was born outside of the U.S. Gwinnett has not been free of racial tension; many white residents opted to leave rather than embrace their new neighbors. But I feel lucky to have grown up in a place shaped by people from so many different backgrounds, and I am not alone.

The exterior of Nam Dae Mun
In a sign of the times, Nam Dae Mun replaced the Winn-Dixie in Lilburn.

Photograph by John E. McDonald

My parents now have lived in that gray house for 25 years, and we’ve watched the city grow into the beautifully diverse and culturally rich place it is today. One of the largest Hindu temples outside of India is five minutes down the road from where I attended Sunday school. The Winn-Dixie where my family once shopped is now Nam Dae Mun Farmers Market. The JoAnn Fabrics first became a Wu-Mart and is now Talpa, a supermercado. The Outback Steakhouse where we fought over the last spoonful of “Chocolate Thunder From Down Under” reopened as Rohan, an Afghan restaurant. (It’s now closed, but another Afghan spot is set to open in its place.) Nearby, A Taste of Paradise serves Jamaican oxtails so good they would’ve warranted a visit from Bourdain.

The local Vietnamese restaurant we frequented kept a separate menu for its limited white clientele, but my mom managed to persuade the staff that we really did want the regular menu. And it was just as important to us to get to know our neighbors beyond those restaurant visits, to invite them into our home to share a meal in the same way they shared their cooking with us. Sometimes that’s where true progress starts—with a seat at each other’s table.

This article appears in our November 2019 issue.

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