Last year, I did a three-minute radio piece on my deep and abiding love for barbecue. I'd been asked to do it by Jay Allison, who was producing a show for NPR called This I Believe — a resurrection of a project originally started by Edward R. Murrow in the 1950s, which asked people to crystallize the beliefs that define and border their lives. Everyone was welcome to have their say and, both in the '50s and today, many people did. My little ode to slow-smoked pork took its place alongside pieces written by nurses, presidents, housewives, scientists and teachers.
Funny thing was, after my essay aired, I got a few e-mails from folks who wanted to use it — in whole or in part — in a variety of ways. There was a preacher who wanted to work it into a sermon on belief in the Almighty (which I, as an agnostic, thought hilarious). Another guy tried to sell "I Believe in BBQ" T-shirts (without my permission, but I didn't mind). And a couple of different people said they wanted to use it as a teaching tool about Southern culture and foodways. Invariably, their messages would start out asking where in the South I hailed from, who my family was, and what, exactly, I was doing all the way out in Denver.
I think they were disappointed when I told them I was a Yankee (bad enough) originally from New York (even worse). And I know it bothered them to learn that my time in the South was both brief and scattershot — a year in the very ripe hell of central Florida, a few days in the Carolinas, a few more in Georgia and Alabama, Memphis one year, an afternoon in Kentucky years later. They wondered how I'd come by my tastes, my language — which I've been told can sometimes have the rhythms and slurred cadence of a besotted Southern gentleman wistfully discussing the ponies and his squandered inheritance — and my appreciation for Southern culture, in particular that part of it having to do with the consumption of hogs.
By eating, I told them, and by my close association with the French — which was usually enough to end most conversations, toot sweet.
For those who stuck around long enough for me to elucidate, I would explain my ideas of the proximity between French cuisine and the varied grubbin' done south of the Mason-Dixon. Soul food, Southern food, American low-country cooking, obviously Cajun and Creole, all the odd little regional cuisines of the backwoods, the bottoms and the shore — each had its own similarity to the poverty-stricken, podunk cuisine that all of haute French grew out of and wants desperately, in its best expression, to get back to.
"Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." It was Brillat-Savarin who said that (or something close to it), and he was right. Eating, I would tell people who questioned my tenuous connections to the Southern tradition, is the best, fastest way to get to know a place and its people. No one can lie in their appetites, in their deepest wants and needs. And to me, nothing is quite so telling as walking into a joint so out of place in terms of geography and culture — be it a soul food restaurant in Denver or a Thai food stand in Burbank or a French brasserie in Altoona — and tasting for myself what its owner and its cooks have chosen to bring with them whence they came.
I discuss the French connection to Alabama soul food in this week's review of Priscilla Smith's combination restaurant/catering operation, Cora Faye's Cafe (see review), and the draw of the deeply Southern barbecue at Yazoo BBQ in Second Helping (page 62). But perhaps unsurprisingly, oxtails and sweet tea, fried chicken, greens, potato salad, pork sandwiches and a rack of ribs weren't quite enough to cosh my own appetites last week, when the temperatures seemed stuck in the 100s, and I wanted nothing so much as the comforts of a cuisine designed for hot, sticky, slow afternoons in the sun.
Which is how I ended up waiting in the foyer of the McKinley Mansion (950 Logan Street) last Friday afternoon, sweating though my shirt and waiting on an order of fried tilapia, green beans and potatoes, cornbread, lemon cream-cheese pie and a tall traveler full of iced lemonade.
In my review of Cora Faye's, I said I didn't like anything that comes crusted in cornmeal — but I wrote that before I had the pleasure of the tilapia fillets as done by Slayton and Corine Evans at their eponymous "restaurant" Slayton & Corine's. The fish was amazing — spongy, soft, full of flavor, crisp on the outside, steaming and juicy inside and so fresh from the fryers that I burned my fingers picking at it. Apparently, I disliked cornmeal crusts just because I hadn't ever had anything done well in cornmeal. Now I have, and I am a changed man.
Slayton & Corine's opened last year on the first floor of this beautiful Capitol Hill mansion. It isn't really a restaurant, because there are no tables, no waitresses, no dining room or counter. The closest thing I can compare it to is a house restaurant — like Mama's House, the secret Ghanaian restaurant once run out of an apartment in Aurora ("Mama's House," January 5, 2006). Here, there's just a door that opens onto what was probably once a sitting room. Orders are taken over the phone or in person (but over the phone works better) and passed back to a small kitchen where everything is cooked. All the boxing and bagging and assembly goes on in the sitting room, atop one large, round table, and is then handed off — either to a delivery driver or to whomever has come to pick up the grub.
The menu is short and sweet. For the mains, chicken wings done three ways, catfish or tilapia, and pork chops, fried or grilled. But there are also candied yams, collard greens, macaroni and cheese and mashed potatoes, cornbread and dinner rolls, four kinds of salad and four choices for dessert (all excellent). Most of the recipes come from the Evans family down in Mississippi — "a legacy of excellent cooks," according to Slayton and Corine — who had such an effect on the eating habits of people living in and around Meridian, Mississippi, that Slayton's lemon cream-cheese pie and Corine's frozen fruit salad and lemon-pepper chicken are still made there to this day.
My only problem with Slayton & Corine's is the hours: It's open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays. That's it. The kitchen and assembly operation get slammed during those hours, and unless you're very quick on the phone, most of the menu can sell out before noon. I'd originally come in looking for pork chops, but they were gone. So were the catfish and the collard greens.
When I asked if the kitchen had been busy, I was told, "It's always busy. Phone's been ringing off the hook." And though I only grudgingly said okay to the house's suggestion of that cornmeal-fried tilapia, the minute I tasted my first bite, I was glad that I did. You learn something new every day, I guess. Me? I've learned that next week, I'm going to show up at Slayton & Corine's a little earlier.
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Leftovers: After eating at Cora Faye's, I decided it was high time to return to Denver's best-known repository of Southern food culture, Ethel's House of Soul (at 2622 Welton Street). Unfortunately, when I showed up looking for lunch, Ethel's was closed. Not permanently — Ethel's is just taking a summer vacation. A long summer vacation. According to the sign posted on the front window, Ethel's won't reopen until August 3.
And speaking of vacations, those of you who can't imagine going a week without Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's food will have to buck up, because Frasca has closed for its annual summer vacation. Lachlan and co-owner Bobby Stuckey (along with much of the staff) are in Friuli — the Italian region that was Frasca's original culinary inspiration — and the restaurant won't reopen until July 17.
Finally, Yvonne Lo — formerly of the restaurant Y.Lo Epicure in Cherry Creek — is now giving Asian fusion cooking classes at the commercial kitchen at 3462 Larimer Street where she runs her Y.Lo Epicure catering operation. Lo was born and raised in Hong Kong, came to the States about twelve years ago, and has been cooking for more than a decade. "I'm not a chef," she told me, "but I've been in the industry a long time. I'm really concentrating on the food here, not all the fluff around it."
The hook for her classes is that every recipe she uses — from black-pepper beef and Peking duck wraps to candied and caramelized sesame bananas — is constructed from ingredients that can be found in a regular grocery store. "Approachable" is the word Lo uses, describing her food as "American cuisine with an Asian influence." Right now she's offering one class a month, on the second Wednesday; details are available at www.yloepicure.com.