I'm 28 and, in this world, not surprisingly, a virgin at pretty few things, except probably paying retail for anything and soul food. While researching the difference between soul food and barbecue, I came across the following helpful clarification courtesy of the Learning Channel: "not all Southern food is soul food, but all soul food is definitely southern."
Having never lived south of Philadelphia, I really wanted to avoid any Edward Said-in-the-Northeast-style Americanist moments. By eating at a barbecue place in my quest to learn about soul food, would I committing some atrocious sin of ignorance? Was it like eating Japanese and Korean for the same article? I couldn't be sure, and finally, I just decided to accept that I didn't know anything and get down to the bones of it and eat some pig, and some cornbread, and some okra, and maybe drink some moonshine out of a dixie cup in the back of one the fine BYOB establishments I visited.
Uncle Willie's BBQ, serves up fried okra (see the picture here of what I mean) in massive quantities on a great big paper plate. Actually, everything comes on paper plates, garnished with waxed paper. It rules. It's like the restaurant is telling you, hey, make a mess. The combination plate of ribs, pulled pork, and a half chicken paired well with the many, many sides we ordered – collard greens, mashed potatoes, jalapeno mashed potatoes (which I don't think are traditional soul food by any means, but were also delicious), cornbread, and more – two of which were included, the rest of which were extra. Uncle Willie's is the kind of place that makes me wish I had a car, so that I can go to there whenever I like, kind of like Trader Joe's or the outlets, but then I remember how much damage I could really do, and then I think, maybe it's better that I have to make a friend take me there.
In contrast, Mama Mary's is always right there, around the corner from me, with its fried catfish and peach cobbler, telling me that catfish and fries is something on the "lighter side." Whatever, Mama Mary, I'll take it. Your fried catfish is crisp where it should be and tender where it ought to be, and if that is good for me, then I want to believe.
Mama Mary's Soul Food
372 Whalley Ave. (203) 562-4535.
Southern Hospitality Soul
427 Whalley Ave. (203) 785-1575.
Sandra's Next Generation
636 Congress Ave. (203) 787-4123.