What is soul food? Ask 13 different people, you’ll get 13 different answers.
Remember the lyrics to the 1978 movie theme song, “Grease is the Word”? None of those words are about a quart of dense, black liquid manufactured by Pennzoil…and yet they are. It’s the same for soul food. It’s not just chicken, collard greens or sweet potato pie. Soul food is, indeed, a time, a place and a motion. A feeling.
In a nutshell, soul food is the cookery of southern blacks as they migrated from the post-Reconstruction south and set up home in other parts of the country. What were these folks feeling? A longing for the sense of home and community they left behind.
With every plate, that’s what Blondine Harvin delivered at her East Ferry establishment, Gigi’s. For 55 years, it stood as Buffalo’s undisputed go-to for soul food until a ruinous fire in the winter of 2015. Harvin humbly described the place as “nothing but black folks cooking like they used to years ago.”
After a two-year hiatus, Blondine’s son, Darryl Harvin, will soon take the reins when he opens a new Gigi’s in the $100 million Northland Workforce Training Center, currently under construction on Buffalo’s East Side. It’s scheduled to open this summer.
In the meantime, other soul food establishments have filled the gap Gigi’s left, as well.
Young upstart owner Richie Wagstaff of Richie’s Soul Food in University Heights pays homage to Gigi’s “etched-in-stone reputation.”
In true soul food fashion, yams are peeled and cut here, desserts made from scratch, cabbage is freshly chopped and boiled. True soul food restaurants would sooner give you the combination to their safe than frozen or canned vegetables.
Wagstaff’s goal is to create a sense of place: “Where you want to lick your fingers and wipe them on your shirt, put your feet up, and undo a button just like you’re in your mama’s kitchen.”
It is vital to the story of soul food to remember that in the antebellum south, teaching enslaved blacks to read was against the law. That means carting family recipes cross-country in a neatly arranged box of five-by-ten cards was highly unlikely – so recipes were handed down by teaching them.
Johnny Robinson, manager and head cook at The Oakk Room, was the oldest kid in his family, and his grandmother kept him in her kitchen fearing trouble would surely find him in the streets.
Robinson recounts afternoons at her side spent carefully picking through black eyed peas for rocks and debris, and mustard and turnip greens that took two and a half or three hours to cook just so. He says his grandmother taught him, most importantly, about the subtleties of both seasoning and patience.
Family and love — both are central to soul food. A grandmother expressing her intent to keep you out of harm’s way, dishes that take hours (sometimes overnight even) to prepare, and having people in your life to care about enough to put in that kind of time and effort.
“Soul food is something handed down and given to you as a gift,” said Robinson. “You can’t just teach it, it’s about love. You have to love it before you learn it.”
Craving soul food? Here’s where to find it:
1412 Fillmore Ave, Buffalo
Going strong for 45 years, super cheap prices, only open ‘til 2 p.m.
The Oakk Room
1435 Main St., Buffalo
Happy hour 4-8 p.m. every Friday, featuring free buffet of authentic soul food
Richie’s Soul Food
3199 Main St., Buffalo
Super reasonable prices, lots of vegetarian fare, jazz in the summer months
(Anticipated reopening this summer)
683 Northland Ave., Buffalo
The reopening of the beloved Buffalo eatery was announced last month.