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South and West 

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000
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"There is no soul food in San Francisco." The declarative sentence, crisp, flat, and final, was uttered with no little satisfaction by my friend and fellow omnivore Jesse, whose roots and taste buds are steeped in the rich red earth of Georgia and whose feelings for his homeland's victuals are affectionate and uncompromising. After two decades in the sultry languor of Fayetteville, Jesse followed the lead of many another Southerner and lit out for the territory -- San Francisco, that is.

"Don't get me wrong. I love the South," he says. "But I had to get out of there." He is reliving his culinary past over a platter of fried chicken and corn muffins at Powell's Place in Hayes Valley, and I'm keeping him company.

Like many another melting pot triumph (particularly that other great American improvisational art form, jazz), soul food evolved out of the traditions and raw materials of Africa, where tastes run toward the sweet, the hot, and the piquant. (One African proverb proclaims: "Life is a bowl of couscous that one has to season.") Six millennia ago millet and yams were being cultivated in southern Egypt; later on sorghum, turnips, black-eyed peas, okra, and all manner of leafy greens became important African crops. Fritters were a staple method of preparation, and peppery or smoky sauces were often used as flavoring. Many of these foods were used to feed half a million Africans as they were transported to the United States and enslavement.

Once here, the African foodstuffs mingled with American crops like corn and tomatoes, and such African cooking techniques as stewing, deep-frying, and ash-baking were used to create plantation foods as rich in flavor and ingenuity as they were lacking in acmic bounty: Table scraps like chicken gizzards and pig feet, snouts, and ribs -- everything but the loin -- comprised the slaves' dietary animal protein.

Following emancipation, soul food headed west with buffalo soldiers and African-American wranglers alike (viz., Texas barbecue and cowboy stew) -- all the way to San Francisco, where, by the 1920s, one of Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op stories would take place in the burgeoning Fillmore, and not one of the eateries mentioned in a 1936 Guide to San Francisco Restaurants served Thai food or Chilean sea bass, but there was corn bread, fried chicken, and mustard greens aplenty.

Nevertheless, something may have been lost in the long, dusty transition. "No one gets it right out here," says Jesse. "For instance, real soul food is cooked underneath the grease, where the flavor is, instead of on top of it. You gotta cook the food in a good old pan that's been used so often the flavor just seeps out of it. And you have to know what you're doing."

At Powell's Place 1 there's plenty of know-how behind the house corn muffins (55 cents each); they're light and moist and rich and crumbly all at once, and they come to the table drenched in melted butter -- one of the best examples of carbohydrate cookery west of the Mississippi. Powell's itself is run by local gospel singer Emmitt Powell, and the establishment's vintage jukebox is a blues-blasting wonder. The food is hit-and-miss, though, if not soulful. While the richly textured oxtails ($8.75) fall tenderly from the bone, and the coconut pie ($2.50) is dense and sweet, wrapped up in a buttery crust and topped off with a crisp meringue ribboned with coconut shards, the pork ribs ($10) are uninspiring and the fried chicken's ($8.75) superlative breading doesn't overcome the dried-out flesh within. Each entree comes with two side dishes -- usually corn, rice, mashed potatoes, red or pinto beans, and greens or green beans -- as well as two of those superlative muffins.

Jesse and I continued our hickory-perfumed quest at Mozell's Kitchen, a trim, tidy Hunters Point venue in violet pastels. Freshly cut flowers decorate all six tables and the four-seat counter, and homily-ridden signs ("The Older I Get the Better I Cook") hang on every wall. Kitchenwise, the meaty baby-back ribs ($9) are "damn good," according to Jesse. "But, again, it's not soul food. There's not enough flavor and it doesn't stay with you." Similarly, the catfish ($9) is nice and moist inside, but he judged the breading too dry: "If this were soul food it would just kind of drip off." Sidewise (there are two sides to the entree), the greens are pungent, if overly sweet; the mashed potatoes have a nice full-bodied oomph to them; the stewed okra is rich and slithery, with corn kernels and bits of sweet pepper adding some welcome texture; and the black-eyed peas, a usually bland concoction, are smooth and spicy "with something to 'em." As for the banana pudding ($2.50), "They used to serve it to us two, three times a week back in high school. Banana pudding with sliced bananas and Nilla Wafers." Pause. "This is the high school version."

But we did finally strike pay dirt: When I met up with Jesse at Brother-in-Laws Bar- B-Que, his hangover-creased face was wreathed in a beatific smile. "I could smell the barbecue smoke from a block away," he said. The look of the establishment met with his approval as well. It's a low-slung, ramshackle sort of a place, with two Formica tables and no plates whatsoever; you order your food at the counter, and if you don't want to take the stuff to go you snag one of the tables and chow down over a cardboard container, littering the table with sauce-soaked paper napkins as you go. "Every soul shack in the South looks like this -- inner city, small town, everywhere," Jesse said happily. The proof, however, is in the taste, and I very nearly heard a drumroll as Jesse sank his teeth into a pork rib ($6.50 half order, $11.75 full order) dripping with sauce. He gnawed, contemplated, gnawed some more, and lifted his eyes in amazement. "This is soul food," he whispered.

Why? "It tastes goooood. And it's nice and meaty and hot enough to make you sweat a little."

The sauce is available at mild, medium, and hot temperature levels; we tried the hot stuff on the tender, smoky chicken ($5.75/ $10), where it was a little too hot. But it wasn't too hot to interfere with the enjoyment of Brother-in-Laws' splendidly fragile brisket ($9/$16), or the supple, crackling-good hot links ($6.25/$11.50). The sides (again, two per entree) include smoky baked beans sweet enough to work against the heat of the barbecue; deep, pungent, intense, vinegary greens; and a potato salad that's a nice, soothing foil for the other, more intense flavors. The peach cobbler ($2), meanwhile, "ain't my mama's, but it's not bad; it's sweet like it should be, and the fruit's soft, like it should be. The whole thing's too watery, though."

Our last visit was to J's Pots of Soul, a small Hayes Valley hideaway of considerable spiritual warmth. Works by Henry Ossawa Tanner, Ernie Barnes, and other African-American artists decorate the walls, and the room's yellow hues accentuate the sunshine that streams in the windows at lunchtime. The staff bestows good fellowship on each and every customer, and by the end of the meal you're absolutely cheered. The food's good too. The meatloaf ($8.50) is as soulful as can be: dense, juicy, nearly rare, and latently powerful. "There's flavor injected in every ounce. That's soul food," said Jesse. "You've gotta sop up every last drop; you can't help it." The fried chicken wings ($8.50) suffer from uninspired breading, but the meat is wonderfully juicy, and the pepper-flecked corn bread that comes with every entree has a nice crumbly consistency. Other sides include humdrum braised cabbage; ponderous baked beans; rich, full- bodied, thoroughly satisfying mashed potatoes; and sliced yams glazed with cinnamon butter and grilled until hot and crisp.

"You're supposed to be able to feel soul," said Jesse, contemplating our culinary odyssey and his own far-flung heritage. "I'll go back to Brother-in-Laws because of the food and what it reminds me of, but I'll go back to J's for the food and how the place makes me feel now. I'll go there to feed my soul."

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Matthew Stafford

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