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 is 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 corn meal, 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, 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 feel like 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.
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What with last week’s heat and the interminable lethargy bred of same, I spent altogether too much time thinking about (and eating) soul food. Really, I didn’t do much else other than fill my belly with oxtails and collard greens, cornmeal-fried white fish, sweet tea and barbecue -- which is different than a normal week only in the single-minded way in which I kept to one particular cuisine (American Southern) and the sheer number of hours I spent sitting and sweating in doilied dining rooms, waiting for salvation to be delivered in the form of fried chicken and lemon cream cheese pie.
It began with Cora Faye’s Café, continued on to the new suburban outpost of the Yazoo Barbecue Company, then headed further into the unusual take-away territory claimed by Slaton & Corine’s. I swung by Ethel’s House of Soul (only to find out that it was closed) and stopped just short of booking tickets to Memphis or Mississippi to relive some of the high points of my gloriously misspent youth. The bad news is that my heart is now pumping 50 percent lard. The good news? I’ve never felt better. And y’all can read all about my adventures south of the Mason-Dixon this week, just as soon as those papers hit the stands. -- Jason Sheehan