Soul Food Light
Two Sister’s Kitchen still operates out of the Big House – literally.
The two-story house, dating to 1903, is nestled beside a patio near the Mississippi Capitol on Congress Street and features jazz music three days a week.
“And we serve food like you get at grandmamma’s house,” said owner and manager Diann Alford.
Two Sister’s serves what Alford calls “soul food light,” that is, down home Southern cooking – fried chicken, country-fried steak, red beans with Cajun beef sausage, and all kinds of greens and grits – but not the true soul food classics like oxtail and neck bones.
“People come from up north and don’t really know the distinction,” Alford said, “But as far as style and atmosphere, we’ve got plenty of soul.”
Alford worked as a legal secretary before opening Two Sister’s in June of 1989. She and her two sisters started learning their way around the kitchen in third grade under their mother and great grandmother. Alford’s siblings live in Kosciusko, but the three still share and collaborate on recipes.
“The thing about this kind of food is that just because you follow the recipe doesn’t mean you’ll get the result, because a lot of the recipe and seasoning is improvised, so you have to play with it to get just right,” Alford said.
The real uniqueness to soul food lies in the family, she said. People leave feeling like they’ve been to eat at a friend’s house, not a restaurant. Yankees go wild over the delectables because of their warmth. Even if you didn’t grow up eating it, Alford said, you can feel the love in the dishes.
“I just think mothers don’t cook like that anymore,” she said. “When we get up in the morning, we don’t get ready for work, we get ready for company.”
The kitchen has won its share of awards and has been featured on “Man vs. Food,” but the highest praise of all comes from the woman who taught Alford everything she knows.
“My mother will only eat my fried chicken. She says, ‘If I can’t have yours, I don’t want it.’ That’s more than I could ask for,” Alford said. “It really is.”
Chitlin’s and Pork Chops
On a Saturday evening around 5 o’clock, the sun is sinking slowly into the asphalt of Medgar Evers Boulevard as Serderick Lawson and Val Lee pull up to an orange-painted brick building. The parking lot is a meager patch of gravel. A banner advertising chitterlings rustles in the breeze. Lawson unlocks the iron screen door and the two step into the dim dining room of Sylvia’s Restaurant and Lounge.
Lawson eases into a seat at one of the round tables next to the old-school jukebox, opens a takeout container of macaroni and takes a moment to enjoy the stillness.
“This is the calm before the storm,” he said.
Sylvia’s is one of the only soul food restaurants in town open for dinner. Lawson isn’t exaggerating. The doors open at 6 and stay open until the last person is fed.
“Yes sir,” he said. “It’ll wear you out.”
But the soul food – the fried catfish, the chicken wings – that Lee helps churn out of the kitchen hits the spot for the after-hours crowd. And of course the chitterlings (Southerners call them “chitlins.”)
“What’s a chitlin? Hog guts. Intestines,” Lawson said. “You ate porkchop? Pig ear? Chitlin beats all of ’em. We can’t keep enough in here.”
Soul food, he said, is food like you get at big mamma’s house on a Sunday after church or at a family gathering. Lawson learned to cook from his mother, the restaurant’s namesake, who has been in the business more than 50 years. She started over on Mobile Street and had a grocery over on Livingston.
“Of all my siblings, I was the only one who took an interest in cooking,” he said. “Mrs. Silvia is 76 and still kicking. She still comes up to the restaurant from time to time. I run it, and someday it’s going to be mine.”
Lee also has some serious kitchen time under her belt. The Jackson native started cooking at 15 under the tutelage of her mother and grandmother and has been with Sylvia’s for the past 20. She, too, said seasoning is crucial, but freshness is a must.
“Ain’t no half-done food in here,” she said. “My life story is cooking. To cook a meal, it’s just like a painting, you know? I still think about my mamma and grandmamma when I cook. Especially when I mess up.”
Neckbones and Oxtails
Nearby on Livingston Road, Bully’s Restaurant works the same small-kitchen magic to whip up neck bones, pigs feet, ham hocks, smothered oxtails and succulent fried chicken. Brought to customers on a cafeteria tray, the main meat is accompanied by a choice of yams, black-eyed peas, rutabagas, okra and tea as sweet as candy.
Bully’s moves as much out the door in carry-out orders as they do for the dine-in crowd, a truly amazing output for a staff of eight. They call the kitchen “the matchbox.” Owner Tyrone Bully arrives around 6:30 each morning to organize the groceries, wash and peel the greens.
“Soul food is cooking from the heart,” Bully said. “It started in slavery, cooking the scraps that the big house didn’t want – the ham hocks, the pig feet, the chitterlings – and they made what best they could out of it.”
“And now it’s the food of the South,” said his wife, Greta Brown-Bully, Bully’s crucial other half who helps keep the restaurant running like a well-oiled machine.
“Soul food is unique because there’s no particular recipe. Everyone kind of figures out their own way,” Brown-Bully said. “Soul food came along by adding a little of this here and a little of that there.”
Bully’s sits at an odd intersection of railroad tracks and non-perpendicular roads. Across the street sits the old manufacturing district. Weeds grow among the concrete foundations of former factories, wiped clean as a dinner plate except for the lone cylinder of a brick smoke stack. For Tyrone, it’s a reminder of the future he could have had, as well as of the importance of family.
“My dad never worked in the restaurant business,” Tyrone said. “He laid brick by hand, and I did, too, until I was 26. But he wanted better for me.”
Before the market fell, manufacturing plants ruled the land, Bully said. His father didn’t want his son laying brick as a career, so he started Bully’s as a sandwich shop, serving cold-cuts to workers on their lunch break. Soon it became apparent that sandwiches weren’t enough and that laborers needed a full meal.
“These two ladies who stayed behind the restaurant asked if they could come work, and they taught me how to cook,” Tyrone said. “Maw Pearl could cook anything, wild game, you name it.”
Brown-Bully said the dishes that make the menu, and the food that comes out of the kitchen, represent nothing less than the restaurant’s best effort. It shows, too. Bully’s has collected numerous awards on the local and national stage. Their daughter, Tyrea Bully, helms the register like a champ.
“We’re all about a good time,” Brown-Bully said. “But we’re perfectionists. I couldn’t tell you what my favorite dish is, because if each of them weren’t great, they wouldn’t be on the menu. I tell people this is a place where your family and ours meet. And I really feel that’s true.”
Story By Riley Manning – Photography by Michael Barrett