F-Mart’s Mural Provides Beacon for Asian Community in Lawrence

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Being noticed is different than being seen. More than a year ago, F-Mart’s south-facing gray concrete wall wasn’t worthy of much attention. Passersby saw nothing eye-catching about the East Asian food market’s nondescript building located next to Hertz Car Rental. Now the wall is covered with a mural featuring renderings of local landmarks and Kansas sunflowers alongside images of Taiwanese bubble tea, Korean gimbap, Chinese moon cake, Japanese mochi, and other food iconography.  

Japanese-American graphic designer and illustrator Emmi Murao created a digital layout of the mural in the summer of 2022. Her sister Juna Murao, also a graphic designer, teamed up with other artists to bring it to life, painting the wall white to create a blank canvas. Then they added the colorful imagery using blue, green, yellow, orange, and pink paint.

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Owned by Endi Shengcao Chen, F-Mart sells an array of fresh vegetables, meat, fruit, live seafood, spices, dumplings, snacks, beverages, noodles, vinegars, soy sauces, seaweed, and other goods to customers like the Murao sisters. 

Meant to be noticed, F-Mart’s mural is one of five public art projects in Lawrence that are part of the People’s Market Program. Kansas Healthy Food Initiative and other area partners developed the program under the purview of the Kansas Department of Commerce’s Ethnic Markets Initiative. The city-wide project paired different local artists with five culturally specific food retail shops. Beyond adding aesthetic value, the program highlights ethnic cultures, local food policy, and the effort to strengthen equitable food systems in Douglas County through the lens of art. 

Connie Fiorella Fitzpatrick, a community-based public art organizer and muralist, invited Emmi to create the mural. Fitzpatrick served on the Douglas County Food Policy Council for four years and has been actively involved with local mural projects. 

“Connie and I were vendors at a craft event in Lawrence several years ago and kept in touch through social media,” said Emmi. “When Connie approached me about the project, I was still living in Kansas but knew I would be moving soon. I asked Juna if she would be interested in painting the mural in my place.”

Born in Japan, Juna and Emmi moved with their family to Lawrence years ago when the sisters were children. Emmi now lives in Boston and works full-time as a product designer at Converse and illustrator. Juna studied typography at the London Royal College and graduated from the University of Kansas. 

F-Mart’s long wall inspired Emmi to design a horizontal landscape. 

“With uneven ground and deep textures on the wall, I wanted to keep the design pretty straightforward and simple to execute, especially since I would not be there to direct it,” said Emmi. “It was also my sister’s first time painting on such a large scale. I wanted the icons to be simple and do the storytelling.”

Inspiration for the food icons came from data collected by surveying people in the community on their favorite East Asian food and dishes. 

“Overall, I wanted the colors and theme to be happy with all the icons and elements working and co-existing,” said Emmi.

Co-existence underscores an important aspect of the People’s Market Program. As the only East Asian supermarket in town, F-Mart serves as more than a destination to purchase weekly groceries. Standing out from others shapes one’s outlook and existence, internally and externally. 

“Whenever we feel homesick, we would go there to shop. I believe grocery stores like F-Mart are important for immigrants to feel at home in an unfamiliar place through food and community,” said Emmi. “It’s also an accessible place for people to explore and learn about cultures they did not grow up in.” 

Sustainability and Community

The 2019 Ethnic Food Retail Study, prepared by the KU Center for Community Health & Development for the Food Policy Council, reported on “the place of local ethnic food retail stores in Douglas County and helps inform priorities for promoting a sustainable food system.” 

Findings from the report helped shape the People’s Market Program and Ethnic Markets Initiative. The report indicated that regular customers shared details about ethnic store locations, goods available, and other information with other potential customers in their community. 

F-Mart image by Chikara Hibino

Ethnic businesses must spread awareness through personal networks if they hope to sustain growth. These stores typically lack an advertising or marketing budget. They cannot compete with national grocery stores and retail chains that advertise weekly promotions and offer coupons in local newspapers. Instead, they must rely on word of mouth and social media to attract customers and build community. 

In return, ethnic retail stores play a crucial role in community food systems, helping to ensure food access, foster health, and reduce the likelihood of food deserts in underserved areas. 

Customers have a stake in these stores not only for easier access to food that’s connected to their culture, but also as community building blocks.  

Six local ethnic food store owners and regular clientele were interviewed about the retail businesses. Over 60 percent of the customers surveyed shop at these stores for daily meals that they cook at home. The report’s findings also confirmed that “the stores and the goods they offer are important to customers in supporting, celebrating, and maintaining their cultural identities.” 

Douglas County, the fifth-most populous county in Kansas, is predominantly white (83.4%). Asians comprise only five percent of the county’s population. Overall, nearly 6.5 percent of the population in Douglas County is foreign-born. Lawrence, the seat of Douglas County, is home to the University of Kansas. Whether or not community members are affiliated with the university’s diverse campus population, the city’s ethnic residents, Asian and otherwise, are a visible minority.

As the report points out, stores like F-Mart draw people who are looking for more than frozen soup dumplings, lumpia wrappers, or daikon. 

Customers “feel a sense of community and culture when they enter the stores.” They’re united by similar customs, language, values, and world views. The stores “honor the diversity and cultural uniqueness of their customers” and provide a safe space for Asian clientele “to celebrate their diversity, not just shop for the next meal.” 

Ethnic food retail stores function as a beacon for the Asian community. These stores are the modern equivalent of trading posts in the early 1800s. Westward-bound pioneers sought these outposts in Westport, Missouri, before heading to the Kansas Territory, home to many indigenous tribes before colonization, and upon arrival in frontier towns. For minorities, ethnic food retail shops offer their customers relatable identities, cultural touchstones, and goods that can ease existence in the Midwest without fully abandoning native customs and culture. 

F-Mart image by Pete Dulin
Photograph: Pete Dulin

The F-Mart mural is a lighthouse signal for new and returning customers who can “read” painted imagery that transcends native languages. It communicates what people of Asian descent in particular might find on the other side of that wall – food, culture, acceptance. F-Mart and other ethnic stores provide a hub of social, educational, and community services.

“I hope F-Mart will be a place for East Asian people and allies to meet, learn, and connect through food and culture,” said Emmi. “I hope this mural celebrates and energizes the cultures that F-Mart and the community represent.” 

To truly be part of a community requires more than being seen and noticed; it means being welcomed and accepted.

Creating the mural also offered Emmi an opportunity for introspection.

“I was surprised at how much I learned about myself. I realized I had a lot of unpacked trauma growing up as a Japanese-American,” she said. “This project helped me heal by confronting the past. I was able to make something fun with these sad memories. I’m so thankful to be able to work with Juna on a project in our community where we grew up together.”

This story was commissioned by the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission, Kansas Department of Commerce. Food and drink journalist Pete Dulin was one of ten writers selected for the 2022 Kansas Creative Arts and Industries Commission’s inaugural Critical Writing Initiative.

Photography by Chikara Hibino.

Raquel Pelzel, Cookbook Author and Former Senior Food Editor for Tasting Table

Raquel Pelzel small imageRaquel Pelzel is an award-winning food writer and has written and collaborated on more than a dozen cookbooks. Her work has appeared in Saveur, The Wall Street Journal, Cook’s Illustrated, Fine Cooking, and many others. At the time of the inteview, she was senior food editor for Tasting Table. She writes the blog raqinthekitchen.com.

Sofia Perez, editor-at-large for Saveur, recommended that I contact Raquel for the next installment of my series where I ask food writers, “What is Good Food Writing?” Sofia wrote the first thoughtful response. Stay tuned for more to come.

Since Raquel’s expertise and experience lies in cookbook writing and recipe development, she proposed discussing that area of food writing as an alternative to examining my central question. I gladly accepted her offer.

Food + Writing
Turns out that Raquel’s food writing career began in her hometown of Chicago with a few twists and turns.

“In college, I became a vegetarian. I didn’t know how to cook,” she says. “I had a college internship at an advertising agency for food-based businesses, but I spent more time talking to the house chef than writing copy.”

Following her instincts, she decided to attend culinary school and headed to the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado. She learned about cooking healthful whole foods to sustain a vegetarian diet. Afterward, she returned to Chicago to finish college and then landed a job in publishing as an assistant editor at Consumers’ Digest Magazine where she wrote about health and travel. She met her future husband and they moved to Boston, his hometown on the East Coast.

While working for a healthcare newsletter, Raquel nursed second thoughts about a baking career. She worried about earning enough money to make a living, but decided to go for it anyway.

“I kept having a romantic vision of being a baker or pastry chef. I quit my job in publishing and started pastry school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. I worked as a baker in a kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts from six in the morning until noon, then drove an hour to Rhode Island where I was in school until seven at night. I’d drive home, eat a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and pass out from exhaustion!”

She left Johson & Wales to take a job at a small artisanal bakery in Brookline and then moved on to work in pastry at Barbara Lynch’s No. 9 Park. “It was hard and the pay was dismal, and soon enough I began to miss my old life as a writer with semi-sane hours, vacation time and holidays off. While I loved cooking and working with food, I missed writing.”

Raquel wanted to marry her interest in food with writing. Opportunity knocked when she saw a job opening at Cook’s Illustrated. She wrote a story and made multiple versions of a dish for the interview. Tuna noodle casserole, no less. She got the job and began her career as a professional home cook, developing and testing original recipes and cross-testing and vetting recipes from some of the best chefs in the world.

Developing Recipes
The process of writing recipes and developing a cookbook is complicated and involves several areas of expertise. Raquel offers several pieces of advice for aspiring cookbook writers or anyone writing a recipe for publication.

Consider the audience. “Speak to the audience and lifestyle. Is it urban, hobby, cooking for a family, working parents, or casual?” she asks. “The audience and lifestyle affects the ingredients, writing tone, and cooking techniques.”

Have the recipe(s) tested. “At Tasting Table [where Pelzel currently works], we prepare recipes from chefs and cookbooks constantly. It’s pretty amazing how many recipes don’t work—it’s my job not just to fix them, but to make them an accurate representation of the chef and the food he or she serves,” says Raquel.

Have a keen eye. “Hire a copywriter. Small typos and details can destroy a lot of hard work. Watch the process during the book’s layout and pay attention so instructions don’t drop off the page.”

Lessons Learned

One of Raquel’s first cookbooks was a project for Williams-Sonoma, Williams Sonoma: New Flavors for Dessert (Oxmoor House, 2008). She was hired to develop the recipes and write the book. The publisher was very involved as were the executives at Williams-Sonoma, and before going into the kitchen, Raquel had to have all of the ingredients and techniques for her recipes approved. She learned to be flexible with recipe development.

Always be flexible. “”There’s always something new to learn and consider. Be adaptable and nimble to requests,” she advises. “I was pushed to come up with more interesting ideas and learned a lot that way. Plus, as a freelancer, it’s a good thing to be easy to work with if you want to get hired again!”

Originality. “”To truly develop an original recipe, you have to start at ground zero with an idea. ”Think about possibilities and flavor combinations and sketch out a recipe. I consult other recipe sources, take notes on interesting details and techniques. It’s a lot of research, and not just switching out an ingredient here or there.”

Test and experiment. Raquel sketches out a framework for the recipe. She cooks it and changes out ingredients while testing at the counter. “Then I put the ingredients and method aside and just cook. Paper can tie you down,” she says. “Cooking is unique to you. What makes it interesting is that it speaks to your style.”

Cite sources and inspiration. “Give credit where credit is due. I know people spend lots of time developing recipes,” she says. “If inspired by something someone else has done, say so as an acknowledgement.”

Keep trying. “If you have an idea, go for it. You will have failures. Cook through all of the possibilities.”

Check out Pelzel’s other work including Masala Farm, a collaboration with Chef Suvir Saran (Chronicle, 2011), and Preserving Wild Foods with Chef Matthew Weingarten (Storey, 2012).

Preserving Wild Foods