The Belly of Soul
On a small country highway, about 40 miles outside of Memphis, in western Tennessee, sits a jaunty shanty of a restaurant called Gus's Fried Chicken. A yellow sign with a black chicken painted on it, surrounded by multicolored blinking neon, announces the name of the place. The few cars and pickups parked out front are the only hint of the vibrancy hidden inside, where owner Gus Vanderbilt cranks up the volume on the jukebox and lets the sounds of Dr. Feelgood shimmy through the smoky, nine-table joint. Meanwhile, his customers chugalug cold beer from quart bottles as they wait for Gus's wife, Gertrude, to cook up a fresh batch of the best fried chicken in the world.
With one hand in a yellow Playtex glove, Gertrude turns chicken pieces in their milky, saffron-colored marinade—whose secret ingredients are the pride of the place. Then she picks up the pieces with tongs and lowers them into skillets filled with roiling peanut oil. At precisely the right moment (when the chicken comes to "a certain float", as Gus explains it), she lifts the golden pieces out of the oil and transfers them to dinner plates.
My platter of chicken arrives at the booth where I sit chatting with Gus. The coleslaw is lackluster and the baked beans sugary; the bread is supermarket-bought white. But the chicken is perfect: piping hot and peppery, crisp-skinned and succulent. I know my chances are slim, but I try to charm the marinade recipe out of Gus. "That's a dead man's recipe," he responds, with a cagey smile. "I ain't telling." As I take another bite of the crunchy batter and the warm, moist meat, he prods, "But ain't it good?"
Memphis soul food connects me deeply and immediately to my past. Though I grew up a child of privilege in a small town outside of Memphis, I was formed by food like this and the people who cooked it. We had an enormous vegetable garden with two mules to plough the rows for planting (haw and gee were my first left and right), chickens in the barnyard, even hogs—which we slaughtered every fall. I was raised, in large part, by Georgene Hall, our family cook. I spent hours at her side in the kitchen, watching her pluck, cut up, and fry home-raised chicken, clean turnip greens fresh from the garden, shuck corn for buttery corn puddings, knead dough for fluffy rolls. She'd let me dip sliced green tomatoes in cornmeal before she slid them into a skillet of bubbling bacon fat. And as I sat at the kitchen table, dunking my corn bread into thick buttermilk, we'd talk of the world. I didn't know it then, but I was eating soul food—and I was learning the haw and gee of the rest of my life.
Memphis, a sprawling riverfront city with a population of 610,000, is the belly of soul, where food and the blues have been linked for almost two centuries. Memphis barbecue, a hallmark of soul food, was born in the cooking pits dug by slaves—where they'd first roast choice cuts of meat for the people in the "big house", then cook leftover pig parts (feet, snout, and ribs) for themselves.
Though good barbecue is now often cooked at home on store-bought grills, the best kind still comes from a deep, smoldering pit. And in Memphis, the moistest, spiciest, and messiest pork ribs and pork shoulder come from the pit manned by Raymond Robinson and his son Ray at the Cozy Corner. Though it's tucked away in the middle of a shopping strip in a decaying part of the city, the Cozy Corner, with its 1950s decor and fluorescent lights, draws a varied crowd—truckers, Rotarians, suburbanites, and carpenters. The decor doesn't draw them in, the smoky ribs do.
"Memphis barbecue is different than any other," the elder Robinson states proudly from behind the counter where he takes customers' orders. "Hell, in the north, they'll do beef. And they cut their pork up in chunks," he adds scornfully. Sometimes, he says, they even mince it before dressing it with sauce and piling it into a white bun. In Kansas City, beef brisket and spareribs, both cooked with assertive, tomato-based vinegar sauce, are the specialties. Here, at the Cozy Corner, Robinson coats pork shoulder and ribs with his secret rub, a dry mixture of various spices that probably includes a ton of red and black pepper and at least some garlic salt. I suggest this, and, true to the Southern cook's way, he doesn't confirm or deny a thing. But, over the strains of Aretha Franklin, he does tell me, "We cook it real slow." The true secret, he says in his low Memphis drawl, is in the smoke that comes from the meat juices dripping onto the hickory coals in the pit. "That's where you get your flavor," he adds. "That flavor was put in by our ancestors—and that's the flavor we look for."
At another table, I notice a couple bowing their heads in prayer before tucking into the platter of meat set before them. I, too, am thankful for the pile of substantial ribs and the side of tangy tomato-vinegar sauce in front of me.
For a taste of home, and an echo of the kitchen Georgene and I shared, I make a visit to the Four Way Grill, a Memphis institution since 1946, in the heart of the inner city. I knock, speakeasy-style, on the restaurant's studded-vinyl back door, and I'm welcomed by a waitress who leads me inside. The Four Way's front room is homey, and the food is just as good—and authentic—as Georgene's ever was. Simmered pig's ears and boiled hog necks are served with black-eyed peas and cabbage. Earline Hairston, the restaurant's legendary cook, stirs up a batch of the stewed apples that are renowned in Memphis for their simple goodness. Her fried chicken rivals Gus's. Chitterlings, pronounced "chitlins"—a soul food specialty made of pig's intestines—simmer in vinegar-spiked water atop the kitchen's black stove.
As I walk through the room, Dot, a tall, angular waitress, greets me with her usual "Hi, Darling," and asks about my family. I stop, we chat for a moment, then I make my way through the kitchen to the restaurant's more formal back room, where I join some out-of-town friends I've invited for a taste of the kind of soul food I grew up on. As the six of us are seated at a large table, I hand our waiter the bottle of white wine we've brought along. Though many diners who come here prefer iced tea over alcoholic beverages with their meals, our waiter treats our bottle with knowing ceremony: He deftly pulls the cork, calls for six empty tumblers, pours the ice water already in glasses on our table into the tumblers, then pours the wine into the perfectly chilled water glasses. Then he lays paper napkins on the table, places the simple flatware on top of each one, and gently places a second napkin on top—precisely so. The stately presentation transforms our paper napkins to damask and our glasses to chalices. Our simple meal of fried chicken smothered with thick, peppery gravy; rich, creamy mashed potatoes; and crisp, cornmeal-coated fried okra is better than a royal banquet.
The history of soul food is written between the lines of family recipes, and the real soul food experience lies in the communal events at which those recipes are made—for, and with, loved ones. The reunion, one of the central celebrations in black family life, brings past and present together through the cooking of handed-down traditional recipes and the retelling of common stories. Beneva Mayweather invites me, along with other "play relatives", as she calls close friends and neighbors, to partake in her family's annual festivities. When I arrive at her red-brick house, she greets me from behind an armful of turnip greens. "Come on in," she calls. The kitchen is filled with "family", and we all work together, cubing potatoes for a salad, washing the turnip greens, rolling out dough for cobblers. Smoke from the barbecue pit outside, tended by the family patriarch, 70-year-old Twillard Mayweather, carries the aroma of ribs into the kitchen where we cook.
After a busy morning in the kitchen, we set up the buffet table in the outdoor courtyard, carrying more than enough food for the 30 or so guests. I follow the excited children and the adults in line, then pile my plate high with Twillard's charred and smoke-scented ribs, his daughter Emma's crisp fried catfish filets, potato salad, pungent turnip greens, and a round of the chewy cornmeal fritters the family calls "dog bread". I join some cousins at one of the white-draped tables set up in the courtyard. They're already in the midst of recounting family lore and I laugh along as I listen to all of the stories—of the many times, for instance, that Twillard turned away those of his daughters' suitors who dared to come calling without neckties. Later, we get up and serve ourselves dessert from the groaning table—fresh peach cobbler, homemade vanilla ice cream, and the family's vinegar pie. We visit and eat and laugh some more, until there is nothing but crumbs left on our plates.
Just as reunions bind families with their collective pasts, the church brings the community together in shared history and beliefs. I join my friend Debra Mathews for a service at the simple, brick Olivet Baptist Church, whose fellowship is predominantly black, and I witness the powerful connection between music, religion, community, and food. The choir sways as it sings "Tell it to Jesus" for the faithful who fill the sunny sanctuary. Pastor Kenneth Whalum Jr. delivers a passionate sermon to an enrapt following—but I, for one, can't help thinking about the meal that will follow, prepared for the congregation by members of the June birthday club, a group of churchgoers born that month. Eventually, I sneak out of the church and head downstairs to help in the kitchen, where the service is piped in through loudspeakers.
Erma Jean Quinn, who's always in charge of the fried chicken for the June birthday lunches, stands with hand on hip as she turns the pieces in boiling oil. "I always use peanut oil," she explains. "It heats up better than the others." Beef tips stew with noodles in the oven; homemade coconut cakes and freshly baked, thickly iced cupcakes wait on stands. The music from upstairs seems to infect everybody, and the tempo downstairs picks up as the service comes to an end.
As we wait in the kitchen for the church members to descend, finishing up last-minute tasks, I feel as if Georgene were here with me, watching over my shoulder. I recently talked with her; she's now 70 and living in Chicago. Before we hung up, she promised to come back to Memphis to visit me this spring. I look forward to it. I know that, together, we'll cook green tomatoes, fried chicken, and her fluffy rolls in the kitchen—the spirit of which we've always shared.