I have been accused of enjoying soul food an inordinate amount, and of this I confess that I am guilty, but I have my reasons, and they are manifold. I am a huge fan of the history of soul food. Like jazz, musical theater and the cocktail, it is one of America's rare, wholly American contributions to the cultural fabric here and beyond. It was born out of necessity and harsh, unfair conditions, but also out of familial love and the unwavering, in-the-bones belief that feeding others is a greater good, perhaps the best way we humans can not only express affection but actually transfer spirit from one person to another. To cook soul food is to immerse oneself in an act of deep, determined patience truly the most important virtue there is, and one I appreciate more and more the older I get.
I also think of soul food as a big, wool-over-the-eyes gastronomic magic trick. Without consciously doing so, soul food thumbs its nose at textbook cuisines. Other culinary genres, especially those that have been derived in modern times from Western-world, white-hat professional kitchens, are considered at their pinnacle when they present on the plate as architecturally grand and aesthetically austere. Soul food is better the messier it looks; vertical arrangements of ingredients and little asides like a floreted radish or drawn-on zigzags of sauce are not only impossible to achieve with soul food, but unwelcome and ultimately detrimental to the food itself.
There's no such thing as bad soul food, I firmly believe, only good soul food and great soul food. In fact, the only thing harder to make than bad soul food is great soul food. It's difficult to tell just by looking at it which you've got in front of you, good or great. Sometimes you can figure it out by seeing how much grease it's swimming in going all lardacious on soul food is an easy cheat, a shortcut around the slow-cooking approach. But really, you've gotta taste it.
Robbie Montgomery, the proprietor of Sweetie Pie's a venerable soul-food restaurant in north county and, as of two months ago, a second outpost in the city's Forest Park Southeast neighborhood doesn't need to be told anything by the likes of me. Soul food courses through her veins. Born in Mississippi, she was a child of soul food and gospel (another American creation), singing in church and grade-school talent shows and learning to cook from her mother. In Montgomery's first life she was an Ikette, a back-up singer for the native-to-St. Louis Ike and Tina Turner Revue. She also performed with voodoo-music artist Dr. John, the legendary "Night Tripper" whose roots, like Montgomery's, extend southward along the Mississippi.
Thank goodness Montgomery decided years back to put down her microphone and pick up her mixing spoon. This lady can cook.
As is customary at soul food establishments, the grub at Sweetie Pie's is served cafeteria-style, and the offerings change from day to day; you pick and choose which main-course meats and which sides you want to make up your plate. There may be smothered pork steak, the slab of meat chewy and striated, falling apart in bits like pulled pork, with a melt-in-your-mouth pork gravy on top. There may be Salisbury steak, packed tight like a hunk of meat loaf but yielding and soft once your molars set to work on it. There may be baked chicken, a leg or a breast; the breast when I tried it was encased in a crusty, well-seasoned skin, while the leg tossed aside all that to glow unashamedly in cooking oil, almost as if it, too, were a smothered preparation. (Strange that the leg reminded me of the childhood summers I spent at the town pool, far from the South, when my mother would bake chicken legs and cart them in a metal mixing bowl covered with tinfoil to the snack-bar area; we'd scarf them down for dinner, then try to sneak one last frolic in the water before closing time.) A napkin proved no match for this chicken leg; I actually had to excuse myself from the table to go wash my hands halfway through.
As much as I love soul food meats (oh, Sweetie Pie's sometimes serves ribs, and catfish or jackfish), I'm really in it for the sides. In part, there's a perverse joy in loading up on vegetables and starches that aren't vegetarian. You've got to have the pork cooked in there, because pork's what puts a little English on it. I'm a fool for this stuff: loose corn, yellow as a sunrise, in a sweet, almost gelatinous syrup. The slippery delight of boiled okra which, OK, I mix in with some of the sturdier sides, because boiled okra remains an acquired taste that I haven't acquired, but I know I need to eat the okra. Cabbage and greens, in all their astringent, salt-and-peppered glory, which I should eat in discreet bites between the weightier, sweeter stuff but which I always seem to run out of too quickly. Sweet potatoes laden with cinnamon, nutmeg, butter, sugar and their own juices... Christ. I'm sure if Montgomery makes a sweet-potato pie it's ridiculously superb, but given how delicious her cooked sweet potatoes are, it'd also be superfluous.
I love Sweetie Pie's cornbread, because it's not overly crumbly. In fact, when you bite down on a piece, not only does it remain intact rather than fall apart, but you can hear the faint squish that can only come from a good dose of butter. There are bacon bits in the mac and cheese by which I mean real bits of bacon, and real cheese. The mashed potatoes got a mixed review from our party. Three friends swore they came out of a box of flakes. I thought they tasted great. Montgomery says she makes them from a combination of potato buds and potatoes. I forgive her.
The newer Sweetie Pie's took over the digs left behind by the Mangrove Café, a neighborhood restaurant/ice cream parlor that never quite found its footing in FoPo Southeast. While Montgomery left many of the previous occupant's fixtures intact the illuminated sign out front has been tweaked minimally, to read "Sweetie Pie's at the Mangrove" Sweetie Pie's inhabits the space comfortably, meshing well with the genteel look of the tall windows and the detailed moldings. (This is quite a contrast to the flagship Sweetie Pie's, a cozy, pink-hued lunchbox of a diner that proudly displays Montgomery's pop memorabilia.) The tiled floor and tin ceiling give rise to a lot of ambient din, but in a good way, like home: You can hear the TVs stationed near the front windows, kids calling out to each other, the clang of silverware. A white baby grand piano sits in one corner of the main dining room. I hear tell that impromptu sing-alongs sometimes take place. Magic, remember?