By Jason Bell
Soul food is in its old age-it rests on stoops and gentrifying street corners, fragile and fading-because it is built to last only so long. Like storytelling, soul food is an imprecise art, one founded in an oral tradition. At the finest soul food restaurants, the recipes stretch back into an unfathomable well of wisdom. The food is historical by virtue of its age: it reflects a fragment of time relinquished to memory. But the problem with this type of food is that it must be transmitted along the family line. As recipes pass from one generation to the next, daughters and sons lose interest in their parent's cooking. Rents go up and restaurants shut down, and then the treasures of a culinary tradition begin to vanish.
Margie's Red Rose Diner opened in 1979. And like so many of its soul food brethren, it shut down after its owner, Margie McCray, passed in 2009. Fortunately, Margie's daughter, Ayoka Bell, decided to keep the restaurant. "After my mother passed in 2009, the restaurant closed for a while, but I reopened it," Ayoka says. On a Saturday morning in late May, I took the one train to 145th Street and walked through Jackie Robinson Park. Past Melo & Falcon Deli Grocery and a Popeye's, Margie's Red Rose Diner squeezes in next to a hair braiding salon Camouflaged with fliers and a brick red paint job, Margie's is easy to miss. Inside, Ayoka presides over a short countertop, taking orders and slipping into the kitchen every few minutes to check on progress.
Here, slow food means more than Margie's heritage recipes-everything comes cooked to order. Smothered pork chops took Ayoka over an hour, since she ran out of gravy and had to make a new batch. Her instructions to "Taste everything! Take a spoon and taste this gravy, see if it needs more salt," drifted out of the kitchen along with the sound of sputtering fat.
I am not from Harlem, and Ayoka outed me without hesitation. With a side-splitting grin she said, "the tea comes sweet, you know." "I can handle it," I replied. I'm from Missouri, so I know enough about sweet tea and thin-cut pork chops to get by. That didn't stop her from asking again, "the tea isn't too sweet for you, is it?" I assured her that it was just sweet enough.
After apologizing for the wait-the flow of customers over the Memorial Day weekend surprised her-Ayoka offered me the Daily News. "I need to read my horoscope first," a woman warned, picking at her salmon cake. After she paid the bill, she asked for the salmon cake to go, and Ayoka looked a little worried. "It wasn't fried too hard, was it?" Judging from the woman's satisfied smile, it was fried just right. When a tattooed man with Usher on his iPod finished his buttered grits but left a sausage link on the plate, Ayoka again looked concerned. "It was cooked alright?" He simply rubbed his stomach and settled the bill. "We're clean," he said, pushing the change back at Ayoka and taking a peppermint for the road.
Eventually, my smothered pork chops arrived, thoroughly drenched in smooth brown gravy. Candied yams, cinnamoned up like a Thanksgiving belly bomb, and porky collard greens came on the side. And two slices of heavily buttered toast, to mop up the leftovers. This is not restaurant food. Margie's serves food from the home, the kind of cooking you wish populated your childhood memories. Eating at the counter is like relaxing in a neighbor's kitchen, a place of incredible generosity and welcome. While restaurants like Margie's survive, soul food can stand soundly on its own two legs. For Margie's is no museum, but a living space that continues to educate and nourish strangers outside the soul food fold.