Kill the body, feed the soul

Forget about all those modern dietary trends. Eat real instead.

COMFORT FOOD. IT’S a tiresome clich頴hat’s mostly come to mean home cooking. But it has other forms, like the foods our moms fed us while we sat in little chairs at little tables—mac and cheese, Jell-o, Campbell’s tomato soup. . . . These appeal to our Fulghamic neediness—All I Really Need to Eat I Ate in Kindergarten. It’s food as a security blanket. Another is 1950s diner food: burgers, BLTs, chili—nostalgic foods hearkening to a time before Miracle Whip was a sex toy.

Ms Helen’s Soul Food 1133 23rd Ave, 322-6310 Mon-Fri noon-7:30, Sat 1-7:30 no credit cards; beer, wine, full bar

But then the 1980s sat us down in Naugahyde booths and unapologetically served us lipidic lunch fare at dinnertime prices in rooms deliberately decorated like ’57 Chevys. To juke-boxed sound-tracks by the Dionnes (Belmonts, Warwick), we searched for the past and something new while eschewing the antidemocratic pretentiousness of “cuisine.” Nostalgia trumped taste as otherwise sensible restaurants offered peanut butter and jelly and put French fries in those little red stamped-out plastic baskets. Home cooking became yet another soulless theme presented by restaurants that knew the words but not the tune. Not to be left out of the sizzle, foodies upscaled the craze by putting avocados in the noodle salad, making bread pudding with Grand Marnier, throwing roasted garlic in the mashers, and “celebrating American cuisine” (why do foodies say “celebrate” when they really mean “eat” ?).

It took a while, but the meat-loaf-as-a-scene craze finally blew over; Buddy’s died a protracted death, the Beeliner Diner reformatted. Home cooking went back home—and to the working-class joints where it had been all along.

Which brings us to Ms Helen’s Soul Food Restaurant. I could get fancy here and portray this as an exotic ethnic cuisine—Helen Coleman cooks Southern, all right, and she’s definitely black—but what distinguishes her little kitchen from the spoon on the corner is her attention to flavor, her skill as a cook, and the saucer-sized corncakes that come fried-up crusty with every order.

The rooms are like your favorite aunt’s house—clean, but cluttered with silk flowers, poinsettias left from Christmas, and a big tank with Helen’s beloved fish (none of whom, I’m assured, would ever be fried up). On the walls are family pictures, posters, autographed 8×10 glossies of Bobby Blue Bland and James Earl Jones. Helen calls everybody “baby.” It’s homey. The menu has nine items and as many daily specials, plus burgers and sandwiches. I ordered the ribs ($8), with black-eyed peas and greens, foods with origins from way south of here—West Africa, in fact. The barbecue was in a thick, tangy, and smoky sauce, the meat tender but still gripping the bones. (By my lights, the worst sin committed upon the noble spare rib is preboiling, which leaches flavor and makes it too squishy. I like chewy resistance—besides, boiled pig fat is creepy.) The greens—collards, spinach, mustard, and turnip cooked in smoky broth—were highly flavored and wonderful.

My grandmother was a great cook and, though not a Southerner, was from the same school as Ms Helen. She’d say, “If you eat chicken on Thursday, what’re you going to eat on Sunday?” Chicken to her was the apex of the cuisine, and her favorite piece was the wing. She always claimed it had more flavor, but I think it appealed to her Kansas-farm frugality and motherly long- suffering. “You take the breast,” she’d say, “just give me the wing. . . .” Wings ($7.50) are the only parts Ms Helen serves and, true to her Oklahoma roots, they’re fried and smothered in gravy. They’re delicious and messy, as are the smothered pork chops ($8.50), which also are fried and drenched in gravy.

THESE DISHES ARE not for heart patients, weight watchers, or vegans, but rather for the legions of reactionary meat-of-the-succulent-kind freaks. Neckbones ($7.50) are just what they sound like, and Helen serves a meaty pile of this tender stewed pork on lickable, easy-going bones. They’re little known outside African-American and Asian neighborhoods. They’re inexpensive for stewing or soups and very flavorful (don’t bother with beef neckbones, though—they’re tasteless). Ms Helen also serves beef oxtails (known as “swinging tenderloin”), chunky vertebrae with plenty of long-cooked meat that’s sticky, rich, and falling off the bone.

Okra was introduced into our hemisphere by slaves from Africa. The edible pods, harvested unripe, are usually cut in little wheels with a seed nestled between every spoke. It has a clean taste, a little tart, but its outstanding characteristic is that it’s mucilaginous—some would say slimy, though the Southern euphemism is slippery. This makes it great as a thickener in gumbo but off-putting to people not raised on it. Ms Helen cooks it with corn, tomatoes, and Creole spices, something like succotash. I’ve always considered myself an okra hater, but I loved this.

Catfish ($8 filet or whole) is one of those things we in the north never knew we liked until recently. Traditionally, you had to be raised eating it to appreciate it, because these bottom feeders could taste muddy unless you got your hands on channel catfish taken from clean, moving water or lakes with gravelly bottoms. Nowadays, catfish are farm-raised, so they’re all channel cats with white, sweet flesh, best fried. Helen rolls them in cracker meal and fries them crisp and perfectly moist inside.

Some other comfy side dishes: The mashed potatoes are near perfect, creamy with tender chunks; the red beans are cooked in pot liquor then baked in a cup to order; and the corncakes—yes! Cornbread baked in pans can be dry or stale, but Helen pours corn batter onto the grill and fries it fresh to order like pancakes, fresh and frittery. As a silly token gesture to low cholesterol, she slathers them with margarine instead of butter.

Peach cobbler ($2.50) and sweet potato pie ($2) make up the dessert list, but frankly I’ve never had the capacity to even think about desserts after sitting down at Helen’s table.

This isn’t for everyone—only those who love great home cooking can set aside virtually all modern diet considerations, unless they work construction or something. If you can rationalize yourself into either of these categories, go see Ms Helen at once.