For some, comfort food means a great aunt’s hearty stew or dad’s special enchiladas, dishes that evoke the familiarity of home and meals shared with family. But I have spent a good chunk of my life away from the places and people I call home, eating by myself in unfamiliar locations, so I’ve had to learn how to make myself comfortable in places where I don’t necessarily feel at home. 

This is why I love the mall snack. Hot, buttered, large pretzels, satisfyingly over-salted. Sticky cinnamon rolls smothered with cream-cheese frosting. Hot dog on a stick. None of these constitute a balanced diet, and all are unnecessarily, sickeningly indulgent. They are the kind of food one would only eat at a mall where lavish consumption is not just permitted but mandated. But they are treats one can eat just about anywhere in the world.  

Malls, the modern inheritors of marketplaces, bazaars, and mercados, exist across the globe. Even as we regularly read stories about the closures of malls across the country—20 to 25 percent are projected to close in the next five years, according to Credit Suisse—these news stories are paired with others about Dubai outdoing itself to build the largest mall in the world, American developers moving abroad to build malls, and Chinese shoppers going wild for outlet malls

When we think of global food brands, we tend to think of KFC, Hard Rock Cafe, or Starbucks. Not as much attention has been paid to the food companies who have globalized through malls, like barnacles on the skin of a whale. Auntie Anne’s and its pretzels exist in South Korea, Turkey, Cambodia, and Brazil. More than one thousand Cinnabon stores operate across forty-eight countries. And mall locations are the crux of their businesses. 

Once, I was working in Swaziland and eating a diet comprised almost exclusively of stewed meat and mashed corn. I worked and lived in a context where I was barely functional in the dominant language. And I spent most of my free time watching The Wire while bundled up in layers of sweatshirts. On a free weekend, I drove a few hours to Johannesburg and visited my first mall in months. In that mall, I saw the gleaming logo of a Cinnabon, and my heart leapt. I ordered a classic roll with a side of extra cream cheese frosting. I promised myself that I would savor it, but I am pretty sure I gulped it down in three whole bites. The indulgence felt like a homecoming. 

In Dubai, I took refuge at an Auntie Anne’s; in Istanbul, at another Cinnabon. Less obvious than a McDonald’s, these spots offered me a taste of home without the white flag of surrendering to tourist hot spots. 

So, it’s no surprise that the Northgate Mall food court has become one of my most cherished refuges in Durham. It has pepperoni pizza, hard-shell tacos, orange chicken, lamb gyros, and miso soup, each at fast food spots with generic names like Chopsticks or Greek Cuisine. Like the cover of a textbook from the nineties, Northgate’s food court promises diversity and blunt stereotypes.

But Northgate Mall has its own local charm. Absent are most of the department stores that define a luxury mall like Southpoint; instead Northgate boasts a DMV, a second-hand clothes store, nail salons, tailors, a shoe repair shop, and even a branch of the Durham Public Library. 

And once you get over the post-apocalyptic eeriness of walking past a row of empty storefronts, the mall feels communal and inclusive in a way that so few places in this corner of Durham do anymore. 

There is a weekly walking group that strides purposefully as they make their laps. Children ride a miniature carousel outside Sears. Sweets ‘N News offers the equivalent of a bodega with a clerk who knows my order (Reese’s and a People magazine). 

Northgate feels like one of the last puttering heartbeats of Durham of yesteryear. With two new food halls set to open in the next year, it may feel like public dining options in Durham are at their all-time best, but prices at these new food halls will likely exceed the cost of a food court meal. Not to mention they exist in gentrified neighborhoods, host to luxury apartment buildings and residential high-rises. 

Northgate, meanwhile, draws in the cross-hatched locales of Walltown and Braggtown. On a recent Sunday afternoon, the food court was full of families, young professionals, and retirees, all sitting down to eat pupusas, teriyaki chicken, and pizza. 

But no Northgate attractions are quite so popular as the Cinnamonster and Pretzel Twister. I have yet to walk around the mall and not see a shopper savoring a cinnamon roll or a teen couple ripping bites of a large pretzel to feed each other. 

Recently, I watched a toddler hoist a pretzel the size of his head high above his shoulders like a prelude to a body slam, grinning evilly. And I’ve been known to indulge in a cinnamon roll if I need a pick-me-up.