The tablecloths at Cora Faye's Cafe — heavy, almost like oilcloth but patterned with flowers — are a little sticky. And so is the air. It's close and warm in the cluttered front dining room, the atmosphere rich with smells that are both food smells and the smells of people on a hot afternoon. Damp cologne and scorching cornmeal, fryer oil, gravy and panting breath. The atmosphere is so thick that closing my eyes and gulping air feels like eating a meal, my every inhalation infused with the ghosts of pork chops, the spirits of catfish hitting the pan, the memories of bodies passing through the door.
In heat like this, everything seems to have a smell. Looking at a pitcher of iced tea sweating on top of a cold case, I think I can smell the beads of condensation that slide down its sides — an odor like blue ice, Freon and diamonds. And every time the front door opens, a bell tinkles and the stew grows thicker, adding a shot of furnace heat, car exhaust, voices passing on Colorado Boulevard.
"I remember..." I start to say to Laura, then lose my train of thought. I wish I had a hat — a fat man's white borsalino — with which to fan myself. I wish I were dressed in seersucker and linen. I wish that along with ozone and the hot blacktop outside, I could smell the honey sweetness of bougainvillea flowers and jasmine, that there was an ocean nearby. Laura sips her Coke from the can with the lethargy of a hothouse flower gone to seed. She is wilting. Even her blinking is slow.
I remember a place like Cora Faye's in Memphis, where a traveling buddy and I stopped for cheeseburgers and icebox pie, both of us sagging over a rickety picnic table, our thin Yankee blood just giving out in the heat. I remember eating pork chops and frogs' legs at a place like Cora Faye's in Little Rock, on a Sunday afternoon when the whole city smelled like baking river mud and sweat, drinking cold beers like water at a corner table under the spinning fans, unable to get drunk no matter how hard I tried and finally having to get up and go outside to piss. When I stepped out the door into the heat, all the beers quickly piled up, leaving me suddenly and slobberingly hammered, barely able to walk. I remember dozens of places like Cora Faye's across the Southern latitudes of this country, but what I remember most about all of them is the heat, always the heat. It's not the food that links these places together in my dim, jumbled recollections, just the sensation of being cooked myself.
Cora Faye's has been open since November in this corner space pressed right up against the sidewalk on Colorado. There are flowers in the window boxes out front, sheer curtains, a sign offering the comforts of "home cook'n" and "soul food" — which was code for "comfort food" long before the term was invented, before "comfort food" was co-opted by restaurants serving up-from-frozen chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes out of a box.
But soul food is more than that, too. Not just comfort, but a highly specific, regional comfort. Priscilla Smith was a baker once, a caterer — she did scratch pies and cakes, big trays of food for family, friends and paying customers. Though she'd never owned a restaurant before, her family had: a burger joint in Alabama called Henry Burgers. It was a neighborhood place in a small town, but folks would come from out of state just to eat there. When Smith got it in her head to open Cora Faye's, she took some of the recipes her mother and father had used — ones they'd gotten from their parents, who'd gotten them from their parents. Some of those recipes date as far back as the 1700s.
"Brought to you by generations of Southern inspiration and love" is what it says on the menu — which is code, too, for sweet tea, fried chicken, fried catfish, fried pork chops and macaroni and cheese done not always well, but always right.
Service here is not fast. Nothing here is fast. After I ask twice, the waiter comes by with yellow plastic cups of cold water and red Kool-Aid. I peek my head around the corner and into Cora Faye's other dining area, called "Grandma's dining room" and decorated accordingly. It seems cooler in there, the walls a gentle seafoam green, lace on and under everything. The main room where I am sitting is darker, almost deliberately rattletrap, with old-timey signs on the walls, pictures of African-American cowboys, samplers of varying sizes. It looks like a sitting room hastily set for guests who are perpetually late, and I stare longingly at the table near the register where the cakes are kept, tempted to skip supper entirely, to go right for dessert. There is a half a caramel cake bleeding melted sugar under its glass dome, a chocolate cake so dark it seems to shimmer, a red-velvet cake almost sluttish in its garish, spongy colors.
When I ate here two days ago, I'd ordered the fried chicken and potato salad, butterflied shrimp battered in cornmeal and fried hard. I don't like shrimp battered in cornmeal (or anything battered in cornmeal, really), although I recognized that these shrimp would've been right at home on a table 2,000 miles to the south and east of Denver, where milled, dry corn is available in abundance and "shrumps" once thrived in such profusion that you could catch them in your hat. But I loved that chicken the way anyone who cares a whit about food must love nearly any iteration of fried chicken — Kansas City-style pan-fried, Southern deep-fried, crackle-battered mid-Atlantic fence-sitting chicken, and anything in between. Fried chicken is one of the neatest tricks of kitchen transposition, of taking an animal and turning it into food. There's nothing hidden in a fried chicken leg; you know exactly where it came from, what it was not too long ago. Eating it, therefore, is a little like a communion — recognizing that on a farm somewhere, a chicken died just for you. And at Cora Faye's, every order is presented like you were the lucky one who got to the buffet table first, picked the best, biggest leg (drumstick and thigh, expertly trimmed) right off the top of the pile, and retreated to eat your prize before any of your relations could complain. Crisp skin, a little pepper, the difference between tender white meat and blood-dark flesh near the bone; the leg was excellent in its simplicity. I also loved Cora Faye's potato salad, because I dearly love any potato salad done in the Southern Baptist church-picnic tradition — which is to say, with pickle relish, mustard seed, boiled egg, stiff, starchy potatoes and no celery, suspended in the sort of thin, creamy mayonnaise that, after being left in the sun for a couple of hours, will just about kill anyone not acclimated to its lukewarm consumption.
For another classic side, the kitchen makes powerfully cheesy mac-and-cheese, casserole style, in big pans, held in a warmer and served by the spoonful. The french fries are disappointing, going limp and greasy almost instantly; the cornbread is dry, burned around the edges. But the greens — I figure they must've been cooked about a week to make them so soft and melting, with just a bitter whisper of pork fat and verdant leafiness on the tongue. They need salt, but salt I can add on my own. There are also whiting fillets, pork chops over rice smothered in gravy, hot-link sandwiches and, for the health-conscious, "plain lettuce salad" — which lives up to its billing.
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On this hot, damp Saturday, though, I want something different. I want oxtails — a rarity on restaurant menus here, an acquired taste, like trotters, like snails. American soul food and classical French cuisine have much in common. Ingredients, preparations, a duality of influence (the French influenced Caribbean cuisine, and Caribbean cuisine, in turn, formed part of the basis of American soul food) — there are many interconnecting paths, but the biggest and most noticeable is thrift born of poverty, the notion of nose-to-tail eating. The French eat frogs because frogs are available, protein that's easy enough to catch (all you need is a sharpened stick and good reflexes) and requires only some basic cooking know-how to make palatable. Similarly, frogs are everywhere in the South and are no more wily than French frogs. Pigs' feet and chitlins, chicken necks (which are served at Cora Faye's, just not on the days I've been there) and foie gras? All come from the same impulse toward frugality and conservation — a goose is delicious, but its liver is junk until stuffed and fattened and seared and served with a little sour-cherry reduction.
An oxtail is exactly what its name implies: the tail of a cow — the last thing anyone in their right mind would want to eat — made edible (and occasionally delicious) through skill, long practice and stark necessity. When the plate comes to my table, the steam of it is slightly sour, meaty in a dank sort of way. Served over rice with just a little pit of pan juice, the meat is ugly as anything — chopped at the joints between tailbones, each lump looking like a skeletal fist wrapped in a rind of white fat. And yet the meat is delicious, with a texture like fatty stew beef and a flavor that is strong and dark and powerful like beef heart or beef shank. I dig in with a fork and, when that doesn't work, pick up each gnarled knuckle one at a time, stripping away the meat with my teeth.
And for a minute, I forget the heat, the damp, still air. I forget Memphis and Little Rock. I forget everything except the achingly sweet rush of sweet tea over my teeth and my hungering for a slice of caramel cake before I leave. For a minute, I am happy — comforted in body and soul by the echoes of Burgundy and Dixie that have brought a place like Cora Faye's to my Western home.