Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Soul Survivor

At the Evil Corporation where I work, they have a dining facility run by another evil corporation. At lunch Monday, two people standing in front of me in the line to order were talking (people do that, you know). I wasn't eavesdropping, just listening in on the conversation. And I heard one of them mention "soul food." Now that's a phrase you don't hear every day. Well, maybe you hear it every day, but I don't.

I was odd, too, because the previous night, while the wife was deciding that we were going to eat Mexican, she had kicked some other possibilities around. In an attempt to thoroughly confuse the issue (I do that, sometimes; even on purpose, sometimes), I named every type of cuisine I could imagine or remember, including "soul food." Then I told her part of the story about the soul food restaurant in the town in which I grew up. I never finished the story, because somewhere along the way, she decided we'd eat Mexican, so we did.

Then, lo and behold, the folks in front of me at lunch the next day mentioned "soul food." Now's my chance to finish the story. But, first, I need to start it.

I grew up in a small town in southeast Georgia. When I started school, the schools were already integrated. Yes, Baptists and Methodists sitting in the same classrooms. But, that's about as far as it went. Blacks and whites? No way. At least not for a couple more years. But, eventually, the 19th century arrived in 20th century Georgia, and black and white children studied together, played together, ate together. Still, many parts of the community were segregated.

In the 1960s, a haircut for a young, white boy was a crew cut. I knew of nothing else. And, my haircuts occurred at a barbershop on the street that ran next to the railroad tracks, across from the train depot, and right down from the Western Auto. There were other barbershops in town, but they were all within walking distance of one another. This particular barbershop was your typical southern redneck barbershop. There were four chairs and two barbers, a father and son. In addition, there was a Coca-Cola machine. It had the Cokes in the 6½-ounce bottles. The 24-bottle crates were stacked next to it. And there was another stack of empty cases where you put the bottles when you were done with your Co-cola, as they were commonly called. There were wood-slat benches where folks sat while they waited their turn for a haircut, or just waited for no particular reason. Like I said, a typical southern redneck barbershop.

Now, in the late 60s/early 70s, the phrase "soul food" entered the vocabulary. It may have been a well-know phrase prior to that, but not to me. I first heard the phrase on TV, maybe on Laugh-In or Flip Wilson, I'm not sure. I had no idea what it meant. Best I could understand was food that was traditionally "Black," in the sense of food that's traditionally considered Japanese, Italian, Mexican, or whatever. Other than that, I had no clue. I never had Japanese, Italian, Mexican or any other particular cuisine, just what Mama cooked, and we called that "food." Then, one day, while we were riding down the same street as that redneck barber shop, on the very same block, we saw something called "The Soul Food Cafe." Think about that for a minute: a redneck barbershop on the very same block as a Soul Food restaurant. That's what it was like in south Georgia in the late 60s/early 70s.

Oh, and on the plate glass window of the Soul Food Cafe was a painting of a black family sitting at a table with fried chicken, peas, greens, cornbread, and the like. In other words, what we had for dinner the previous Sunday. So, that was "soul food." Or, as we called it, "food."

Maybe we were more integrated than any of us realized.

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