Liza, a native of Lexington, Kentucky, said that Mama’s Kitchen served the most authentic Southern food in New York. To me that meant things would be fried, greased, and doused in gravy but a whole new type of eating awaited me inside the red screen door of Mama’s.
I had already been waiting for ten minutes when Liza arrived and although I’m sure she would love to blame her perpetual lateness on a childhood spent next to winding rivers, sipping sweet tea and chasing chickens, my friend had always been just a little flakey. It gave me time to notice my new surroundings. True to the name of the restaurant, there were pictures of “Mamas” lining the walls in cheap wood or gold picture frames. I doubted that anyone could tell me whom these Mamas all belonged to but I liked to think that the owner of the restaurant had scoured through Southern thrift stores in order to keep things authentic.
That was a word that sat well here. Mama’s was Soul Food and it was Southern from the industrial microwave in the back (to heat up the “everything’s room temperature” food), to signs asking customers to “scrape your plate” and “deposit dishes here.” Even the cook had something of the Deep South about him in his thinning and stained white T-shirt. The tables were uncovered, not even a bottle of ketchup sitting on top. If a diner sat in the right spot, he might be lucky enough to nab small bottles of salt and pepper. The food was meant to be eaten as-is.
Poets and authors have paid homage to Southern food in mass quantities. John Lane, a South Carolina native, has written an entire poem devoted to the goodliness of what many consider the epitome of Southern beverages: “For God so loved the world,” he writes, “she made sweet tea.” I don’t believe there is another region of the United States that has the rich food tradition of the American South—the place and the food are inseparable. This does not seem to be as much the case up here in the North and as families become increasingly mobile it is rare to find people who have a real connection to one region.
When she arrived, Liza and I walked up to the counter and pointed at the dishes we wanted to put on our plates: a heap of beets and chopped onion, meatloaf wrapped in strips of bacon, and—of course—caramelized sweet potatoes. It didn’t take long between loading the initial bites onto our forks and swallowing that meat and caramelized vegetable and the slight brine of a beet for Liza to kick back into a nostalgia that I have seen few Northerners work up about their food. “They let the vegetables be vegetables,” she said. “Let food be food. If it’s good and organic, you don’t need to do shit.”
Liza told me one of her best food memories from growing up in Lexington happened one summer at her sister’s house. They were close to a river and there was a pack of stray dogs running around—dirty mutts splashing with Liza in the water—and “chickens scratching up everywhere.” Liza’s sister who she had always described as a true hippie, down to the metal bells she wore on her ankles, had been preparing a feast all morning. “When I came home there were biscuits on the table, bison burgers—which I guess aren’t really Southern but so good anyway—and homegrown vegetables from my sister’s garden.” She paused to chew. “To this day the highest compliment I can give someone is to tell them that they are worth a bushel of homegrown tomatoes.”
“How many people have heard that one?” I asked.
Not many. Liza had been slightly displaced in childhood, staying in the houses of her friends along with other half-orphans splayed out on the couch. Even in New York, Liza dressed in layers of bright colors as if to more easily differentiate herself from those around her. Though many people considered themselves Southern, Liza was pure Kentucky; it was the region itself—not a family or even a home—that had pulled her childhood together.
Still, Liza was able to toss the word “homegrown” into our discussion multiple times even after the bushel of tomatoes. It was like a word from another language—as far as I was concerned, supermarket produce might be “organic” or from a “local farm” but nothing more. I was struck by the idea of it, interested even more so in how this one type of tomato could be so good that for Liza it came to epitomize the best in people as well. It was the ultimate compliment a person could receive.
M.F.K. Fisher may have explained the true inextricability of food and people when she wrote, “It seems that our three basic needs, for food, security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” For Liza, food and the few people she was able to depend on became not just entwined but actually the same—“as good as a bushel of homegrown tomatoes.” Because of this, I have to doubt Liza’s idea that in Southern or any other kind of cooking, food can just be food.
Food creates a sense of home. This is the case in the restaurant where I work anywhere over twenty hours a week or in my own apartment cooking for friends. There is a moment in the creation of a meal when suddenly even a can of soup is transformed from food into something that feeds.
The experience of eating with other people could be seen as decidedly strange—staring across the table as your company puts food in his mouth, breaks it down by chewing, and then swallows to allow digestion to take its course. Eating has always seemed like it should be a private experience—hunched over a plate of filet mignon as if we were wolves protecting the kill. Food is the language in which many of us rely on for communication. Why else would so many first dates take place at restaurant tables?
I will never find the same comfort with the concept of food as soul that Liza has. Home is not a place that I left years ago, searching to return to through how I eat. Home is something I am still learning how to create, looking to find. And when I arrive at this home, it will not be the home of my ancestors, the foods of a history I had no part in making. What I create in this home will be good—original to me and left well enough alone.