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VOL. 126 | NO. 45 | Monday, March 7, 2011

Home-Cooking Options Dwindle as Times Change

FREDRIC KOEPPEL | Special to The Memphis News

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Is meat ‘n’ three on the skids in Memphis?

Melanie and Ben Waye eat lunch with Donald Forbus at The Cupboard restaurant in Midtown. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

George’s Coffee Shop, a mainstay of Downtown home-cooking since 1978, served its last meals on Feb. 18. Owner George Vergos, 82, who catered to a cadre of lawyers, bankers and other businessmen and women from an out-of-the-way location in the Dermon Building, 50 N. Third St., had been bedridden for more than a month and could not keep the restaurant going.

The closing of one establishment does not forecast the demise of a whole genre of cooking, but it appears that Southern home-cooking is gradually disappearing from Memphis.

“It seems like they have been dwindling over the years,” said Charles Cavallo, owner of The Cupboard. “Buntyn’s, The Cottage, Ferguson’s. They’re gone. There’s just not as many as there used to be.” To that list he could have added The Yellow Rose, another Downtown mainstay that closed in 2002.

Cavallo, a produce purveyor, bought The Cupboard in 1992. The restaurant was founded in 1943 and had a prime location on Union Avenue next to Kimbrough Towers, but it was seized by the IRS for nonpayment of taxes. In 2000, Cavallo moved The Cupboard two blocks west and to the other side of the street to a former Shoney’s, more than doubling the space and providing patrons with more parking.

“I know a lot of restaurants have been in trouble recently,” Cavallo said, “but we’ve done fine, in fact, we seem to do better every year.” His lunch crowd is mainly doctors, lawyers and politicians, but at night, he said, “it’s more of a neighborhood situation.”

A Southern style plate meal at The Cupboard Restaurant at 1400 Union includes fried chicken, fresh turnip greens, fried green tomatoes, macaroni and cheese, corn bread and rolls. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Perhaps this is the time to define “home-cooking,” which, as it has come down to us, is essentially farm and small-town fare, hearty food, rich in protein and fat to provide energy for field-labor and other forms of outdoor work. For the meat factor, chicken and pork, often, in the past, available right out the backdoor, dominate, while vegetables are long and slow cooked with bacon or fat-back to provide nourishing liquor. Farmyard vegetables like turnip, collard and mustard greens and a variety of peas and beans are commonly used because they’re commonly found.

Though the years have seen additions to and variations on the repertoire, home-cooking hasn’t changed a great deal since America was largely a rural country. Take, for example, this recipe for “Pork Fritters” from a cookbook assembled by “Women of Pine Bluff and Other Arkansas Towns for Benefit of The Womans Hospital Association” in 1900 (we have a small collection of old regional cookbooks):

“Have at hand thick batter of meal and Horn’s Best flour. Cut few slices of pork (salt) and fry until fat is fried out. Cut a few more slices, dip in batter and drop into hot fat, cook until brown; eat while hot.”

This, readers, is what home-cooking menus call “country-fried.”

Home-cooking, along with soul food and barbecue, gives Memphis a share of its authenticity. We mustn’t forget, with the new industry and commercial enterprises that dominate the local economy, companies like FedEx, AutoZone, International Paper, Sharp and so on, that Memphis is (or was) the center of an agricultural region that created fortunes based on cotton and hardwood.

Many times when we have visitors from out of town they ask to be taken to eat barbecue and home-cooking, especially breakfast; they love country ham and eggs and biscuits and red-eye gravy! What are they looking for, aside from some delicious food? The touch of authenticity that makes the city what it is and connects it to its funky, free-wheeling past.

Yet as cultures change, their foods change. Home-cooking is cheap to produce and cheap to sell – though not as cheap as it used to be – but fast-food is cheaper, more widely available and completely uniform, and customers can drive through. More than any other factor in late 20th and early 21st century America (if not the world), the fast-food industry has contributed to the demise of vernacular cuisine.

Another factor is that the category of cheap restaurant food has been deeply encroached upon by Asian and Mexican, offered by the demographic groups that have contributed so much color and flavor to our region over the past 20 years.

Not that those who desire a plate arrayed with country-fried steak, greens and purple-hull peas with a basket of biscuits or cornbread can’t find a restaurant to fill that need. In addition to The Cupboard, Alcenia’s in The Pinch and The Little Tea Shop on Monroe Downtown still thrive – Roadfood.com classifies The Little Tea Shop as “Legendary” – and the Barksdale in Midtown turns out breakfast and lunch after all these years. In East Memphis you sometimes can’t find a parking place at Blue Plate Café.

Ideas about food change, however, populations shift, priorities get rearranged. Southern home-cooking is increasingly thought of as a vestige of a rural past that no longer has bearing on how we live and eat today. Let’s face it: Southern home-cooking contains amounts of fat and salt that would make a cardiologist, well, have a coronary.

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