“You ain’t from these parts are ya?”. My admittedly stereotype-prone mind imagines this is what most folks would be thinking when a car full of my brown brethren roll into a Midwestern town. I imagined old farmers in denim suspenders and a Southern drawl (see? Stereotype). As a child I imagined their stares of mild curiosity and borderline suspicion. I remember family friends recounting how the patrons of a local bar would stare at them for being the only colored people around. I remember once walking into a small-town diner in northern Minnesota and having locals not-so-discreetly take pictures of us with wide eyes. All these small, local eateries that people spoke so highly of felt intimidating. Like somehow Guy Fieri forgot to tell me that I’d have to be either a local or well…at least look like them to truly enjoy these diners, drive-ins, and dives.
These thoughts flashed into my mind as we drove around a roundabout in downtown Indianapolis for the umpteenth time in search of a restaurant that would both feed us some happy food whilst being OK with a bunch of bedraggled, sleep-deprived, mildly hungover, vagrant, colored youth breaking bread. It took several minutes of Yelping (and taking yet another turn around the roundabout) before we finally found a spot. It had us sold the minute we saw the name. Kountry Kitchen. I mean, first of all, who replaces “C” with “K” besides the makers of the ridikulously epik Mortal Kombat? This place must be a temple of badassery. Second, Yelp classified it as “Soul Food”. Third, Obama licked his plate clean there. That’s all it took for us to forgo our 20th go around the roundabout and head straight for this dig for some soul-feedin’.
And feed the soul it did! From the large families of African-Americans dressed in their Sunday best, to the not-so-faint smell of frying chicken in the air, this place was as close to a Southern church dining hall as we could get. The menu was simple with most items being prepared with less than 5 ingredients. Fried Catfish, Neck Bones, Smothered Pork Chop, Homemade Meatloaf. Many dishes also had some unknown person’s name attached to it: “Greg’s Chicken Wings Seasoned Just Right”. Well…who is this Greg you speak of? And how did he learn how to season his wings “just right”? Does he own the place? How do I know that the fact that Greg made this recipe makes this particular dish better?
We ordered quickly, letting the smells guide us. Some opted for the Yelp-recommended pork chops, others were more excited about the sides of mac & cheese and collard greens (or is it…kollard?). I went for the neck bones and a mason jar of Arnold Palmer. What came next was a testament to the powers of comfort food.
You see…the food wasn’t that pretty, at least not by today’s social media standards. It was as if someone dropped the food from a ten-storey window for one of those science experiments and someone else caught it with a plate on the way down. It wasn’t pretty alright. Yet we immediately submerged our heads into the food and didn’t talk for several long minutes. That’s quite the feat for people raised on picture-perfect Pinterest posts and Food Network-level food styling! The neck bones were bare but succulent. The tender flesh gave way to the real prize: the buttery, rich, meaty fat. Now, most people would stop here, content to guiltily eat the fatty flesh. Such myopic eating! One must see more than that. In fact, as soon as the flesh had been all but picked clean and thoughts of dessert still a ways away, I kept going. Why stop at the fat when the bones held iron-y, nutritious marrow? Why stop at the meat when the tendons and ligaments could be eaten for satisfying crunch and texture? By the time I had gotten through all that was left were the polished bones devoid of meat, fat, cartilage and flavor.
I believe it was while chewing the last bit of meat between the 3rd and 4th vertebrae of the last neck bone when I had a discovery. I figured out what “Soul Food” really meant. See, it isn’t about rich flavors or large portions. It isn’t about cooking methods or ingredients. While the above can certainly play a role…I realized that Soul Food is called as such due to its ability to go beyond the taste buds and the stomach into the soul. It has the ability to take you back to those days when you didn’t have to worry about dishes or money or making small talk. Sunday dinners. Summer lunches. Soul food is the Proustian equivalent of a madeline. Soul Food, in all its unpretentious humility, seeks not for the eater to reduce his feeling of hunger, but instead to increase his feeling of life. It allows, even for one second, for the brain to forget its worries and burdens and for the soul to take over.
See…when I ate that plate of pork, the apprehension disappeared. It was no longer about being judged or who’s watching you eat or what you look like. That plate of Soul Food did what it was supposed to do: it took me home.