Monday, January 30, 2023

Food for the Soul

It’s so routine that in Cleveland, two such soulful beacons lie less than a mile from each other on Highway 61 – The Senator’s Place and The Country Platter.

At the Country Platter, a memory of home cooking quickly comes to mind./Photo by Thomas Graning
At the Country Platter, a memory of home cooking quickly comes to mind./Photo by Thomas Graning

The sign in front of The Senator’s Place says it all: “Delicious Food for the Soul.”
Less than a mile down U.S. Highway 61 is another celebrated soul food place, The Country Platter. Having lunch at these two soulful beacons is a little like having lunch with the family — a very big family, except with an “all you can eat” buffet line.
Walk through the white wooden doors of The Senator’s Place and instantly, a memory of home pops into your mind. You are seduced by smells of fried food, fresh vegetables, “famous cornbread,” by the sight of busy waitresses, all wearing the same bright red shirts, black pants, and a black or blue apron.
And the sounds of conversations ranging from business deals, to golf in Shelby, to who pays the ticket. There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of smiling and shaking hands and slapping on backs and waving at each other. Aldermen make political rounds for the upcoming election.
If the proprietors are to be believed, soul food, long the dominant force in little eateries scattered across the region, does much more than fuel the body for the day.
“One of the great things about soul food joints: it’s a place where social distinctions are softened. You can see a working-class brother or sister next to a judge or an attorney or a doctor, just socializing,” said Adrian Miller, self-proclaimed “soul food scholar” and author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Miller, a lawyer by training, has been dissecting the soul food meal for the past 13 years.
In the predominantly black Delta, soul food has always been king. It’s the “indigenous food of that area,” Miller said. And anyone who has ever visited Cleveland knows just where to find it.
Ask Billy Nowell, Cleveland’s mayor, who has lived there his whole life, a devoted soul food devotee. About once every month, Nowell treats his secretary to a meal, and it’s always at one of two places. “It’s either the senator’s or Jimmy Williams,” Nowell said.
Two beacons for the soul
State Senator Willie Simmons “stumbled into the restaurant business” in 2003 and started The Senator’s Place. Jimmy Williams’ restaurant, The Country Platter, celebrated its 20th anniversary in July. But it’s not only their food that Cleveland relishes. They have an impact on the community apart from their role as soul food restaurateurs.
“Being in the restaurant business and serving in the Senate, they kind of supplement each other. We look at it and say we are serving in both situations,” the 20-year senator said.
In the same building that now houses the Country Platter, civil rights leaders used to plot their attack on local discrimination. /Photo By Thomas Graning
In the same building that now houses the Country Platter, civil rights leaders used to plot their attack on local discrimination. /Photo By Thomas Graning

Nowell chooses The Senator’s Place not only for “outstanding food,” but for his friendship with Simmons and, of course, for political networking. “He and I talk a couple of times a week about current events, things happening around here, what we can do for the best of everybody,” Nowell said of Simmons. “He said that the more we can communicate, the better off we will be.”
And then there is Jimmy Williams, who in 2010 became the first African-American elected king of the Junior Auxiliary’s Children’s Benefit Ball, Cleveland’s premier charity fundraiser. Williams regularly uses his restaurant, The Country Platter, to help those in need. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas,he cooks meals for the needy and senior citizen homes.
“This past Christmas we did about 600,” Williams said. “I do the bulk of the cooking. And they get a hot meal. They don’t just get something left over.” He also gives away toys, clothes, and window fans during sweltering summer months.
“I enjoy doing it. Feeding people. If it was the money, man, I’d be gone a long time ago.”
Williams was born and raised in rural Bolivar County. “Had very little. And I’ve always said that if I ever got in the position to give back, I would, because I know what it is not to have,” he said.
Coming from a family of 14, Williams was taught that hard work pays off. “I’ve been working since I was six years old. Mom taught me that growing up when we had to get up and go to the fields to chop and pick cotton. That’s just stayed with me,” said the towering man with huge, steely hands, the kind that have known manual labor. It was at home that Williams and Simmons both learned to cook. Simmons, raised on a farm in Utica alongside 11 siblings, loved to watch his mama cook in the kitchen.
Simmons will never forget those meals. Always, lots of vegetables. Butter beans. Okra. Rice and gravy. But his favorite was fried chicken.
The sign at The Senator's Place says it all. /Photo by Katie Williamson
The sign at The Senator’s Place says it all. /Photo by Katie Williamson

“We would have to sometimes fight over different pieces because Mama wasn’t gonna cook more than two chickens,” the senator said. Many of the recipes the restaurant uses come from those memories.
It didn’t take long for Williams to learn how to cook it all himself. He’s been cooking since he was 10. Now 66, you can taste that half-century of experience in his food.
Home cooking
When both owners constructed their menus, they knew just what they were going to be cooking — what people wanted to eat. “They come in looking for neck bones, looking for the collard greens and the turnip greens and the cabbage. They just, well, pig out so to speak,” Simmons said with a grin and soft chuckle.
For better or worse, soul food encourages you to do just that. Pig out. Plus, soul food evokes memories of home, especially in the South. People in the Delta grew up on this stuff.
State Senator Willie Simmons says at The Senator's Place, "if you don't like the food, we pay for it." /Photo by Katie Williamson
State Senator Willie Simmons says at The Senator’s Place, “if you don’t like the food, we pay for it.” /Photo by Katie Williamson

“Sometimes you go to a restaurant because you just want an experience and you want something you can’t get at home. But I think it’s the opposite with soul food,” Miller said.
Both men tell stories of people moving off and returning to the area. The first thing they want to do is eat a plate of good, home- cooked soul food. “I look at it as a service. And that service is to be able to provide an affordable meal to individuals that is going to allow them to reflect and remember growing up,” Simmons said.
“I have a lot of Delta State University kids, and boy they get up there and say it’s just like being at home. They’re crazy about it,” Williams said.
Both tell stories of people from all over the world stopping by to eat their specialties. The senator has had visitors from Chicago, St. Louis, Australia.
As Simmons spoke, Taylor Rollins of Chicago sat two tables away, chowing down on black-eyed peas. “We don’t have anything like this in Chicago. I come here every time I come here to see my grandmother. You can eat here and you can eat at The Country Platter, and you don’t have to eat again until the next morning,” he grinned.
Shooting for consistency
Simmons and Williams are very hands-on. When not dealing with legislation in Jackson, Simmons is at the restaurant, mingling and speaking to anyone who comes in. He’ll observe the spaghetti, barbequed baked chicken, fried catfish, turnip greens, green beans, and everything else on the serving line. Simmons can tell by sheer eyesight whether it has been cooked correctly.
Soul food has long been the dominant force in the little eateries scattered across the Delta. /Photo by Thomas Graning
Soul food has long been the dominant force in the little eateries scattered across the Delta. /Photo by Thomas Graning

“When I look at it, I’m going to the kitchen and I want to know, ‘What did you do to that batter?’” he says, cackling.
He strives for consistency. Customers know when something doesn’t taste the same. They know when a new cook is in
the kitchen or when too much pepper is being added. “It may be Mary cooking today, and Sally tomorrow. But we
want Sally food to taste just like Mary food,” he said. “We want The Senator’s Place signature on all our food.”
The Senator’s Place has a policy: “If you don’t like the food, we’ll pay for it.”
In the 10 years the restaurant has been here, it has paid only three times. One day, two ladies ate several plates of food, but then told the waitress they didn’t enjoy it. So the manager, Simmons’ daughter, called and told him of the situation. His response: “What is our policy? So pay for it.” The ladies then took two to-go plates home for their husbands.
Williams is more involved in the everyday operation of his restaurant. “I’m here every morning by 3 a.m. Depends on what I got to do, really. But I’m usually in bed by 6:30 p.m.,” he said, chuckling. “I have a prep crew that comes in and preps. So when I come in the morning all I have to do is start cooking.”
Unlike the senator, The Country Platter serves “a real country breakfast” with country ham, biscuits, grits, hash browns and the like.
Mindful of the Delta’s statistics on obesity, both restaurants try to be health-conscious. The senator uses turkey necks or drumsticks to season his vegetables instead of the more common fat back. Williams doesn’t use a lot of grease or salt and peels his own sweet potatoes. Both try to use fresh foods when available. They use some frozen food, but try not to use canned foods.
“Peaches and green beans are the only things we use out of the can,” Williams said. “That’s the problem with a lot of these schools — the obesity problem — because they are just dumping all this crap out the can.”
Simmons hired one of the cooks from a previous owner’s staff. She told Simmons’ wife that she was working much harder than under the previous owner because back then, “she didn’t have to do all that cooking of vegetables.”
The senator offers healthy alternatives to traditional soul food dishes, such as smoked or baked chicken. There are always at least four different vegetables on the line every day. “You can come in here and choose a non-fattening menu to put on your plate. It’s up to you.”
The iconic buffet offers guests a traditional soul food experience that includes southern classics like cornbread, turnip greens and fried chicken. /Photo by Katie Williamson
The iconic buffet offers guests a traditional soul food experience that includes southern classics like cornbread, turnip greens and fried chicken. /Photo by Katie Williamson

Filling up
Have you ever wondered why you feel so full after eating a soul food meal?
“Junk food will fill you up, but the next hour you’re ready to eat. Soul food stays with you,” Williams explained.
They can tell when their customers enjoy the food. “When you serve someone a plate of food, and I pick the plate up off the table and it’s clean, then that makes me know I’ve done a good job,” a grinning Williams said.
Both restaurants draw a diverse clientele, which is not unusual in the Delta. Stop by most fast-food places and many restaurants and you will see something similar. It is not unusual, however, to see black and white customers eating at the same table in The Senator’s Place and the Country Platter.
“When white customers come in here, they aren’t coming because Willie Simmons, senator, owns the restaurant. Or because Willie Simmons is black or whatever the case may be. They come because they have heard there is some good food here and they came to check it out,” the senator said.
While racial separation still marks significant parts of Delta life, food is one area where people generally agree. “People walk in and they just say ‘Hi’ to everybody. It’s not uncommon to eat beside someone you don’t know at a place like the senator’s or Jimmy Williams. “It’s the company and the connectivity that happens around those meals” that makes them so special, Miller said.
Plantation days
“Soul food” first appeared on plantations in the Old South. Black slaves working in the kitchen to prepare a meal for their white owners had to make do with whatever was available to them.
Miller said that blacks were supremely celebrated for their culinary abilities. In the 19th century, the standard of cooking was French cuisine. America’s response to this standard?
"I enjoy it," says Jimmy Williams of his hard work running a soul food place. "If it was the  money, man, I'd be gone a long time ago." /Photo by Thomas Graning
“I enjoy it,” says Jimmy Williams of his hard work running a soul food place. “If it was the money, man, I’d be gone a long time ago.” /Photo by Thomas Graning

“Well, take a look at our black cooks … They were often put on the same level as French chefs,” Miller said. White people praising black cooks for their food in a region that has been racially torn for more than a century. This, in part, is also what soul food is all about.
Soul food didn’t die with end of slavery. Blacks and whites alike loved it too much for that. Black women often worked as “help” for white families, cleaning, taking care of children and cooking meals.
The name wasn’t always soul food. The term was popularized with the advent of civil rights and a desire by black people to protect their own culture. Just as “soul brother” and “soul music” emerged, so did “soul food.”
Today, you get the feeling here that the name doesn’t really matter. It’s the food that counts.
As Taylor Rollins put it, “I don’t know about bringing people together and all that other stuff, but I do know one thing: It’s my food, brother. I couldn’t live without it.”
– Story by Bowen Thigpen, University of Mississippi, Meek School of Journalism and New Media magazine, The Land of Plenty