Putting the Soul in Soul Food
It was a weeknight when my husband and I drove from south central Pennsylvania to southern Maryland. We parked at an indoor garage and hopped on a train heading to Washington, D.C. We disembarked at the U Street station, and with empty bellies, navigated our way to 1100 Florida Avenue NW., the home of the oldest surviving soul food restaurant in the world, the Florida Avenue Grill. Located in the equally famous Shaw/U Street neighborhood, the area is known for Howard University and numerous African American legends. Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington, Madame Evanti, to name a few, walked the streets of the neighborhood once dubbed “Black Broadway” for its jazz clubs and the Lincoln Theatre.
Florida Avenue Grill opened it's doors in 1944. The dream of Lacey C. Wilson, Sr. and his wife, Bertha, came to fruition after much hard work and saving tips from shoe shining on Capitol Hill. The couple stood the test of time. They made it through the start-up phase, early financial struggles, and literally put out a fire and stood guard during the King Assassination Riots. As the years passed, their clientele and space grew.
When you walk into the narrow restaurant you are immediately immersed into another time. Interactive patrons, who all seem to know one another, give life to the restaurant. Groups huddle in the walkways. Laughter spills out filling the limited open space. Walls are covered from one end to the other with framed photographs of famous people who have eaten here.
We each order a trio of sides, my husband adding corn muffin to his order. When the food arrives, we dive into an array of samplers. Green beans, baked macaroni with cheese, collard greens, okra and tomatoes, Miss Betty's potato salad and corn bread dressing. We kept tasting each one, alternating between both plates, determining which of these simple, yet mouth-watering foods was our favorite. Only after half our meal was consumed could I declare the victor as the okra and tomatoes, with Miss Betty's potato salad coming in a close second.
The more I thought about it, the choice was easy. Every year my husband grows okra in our garden. Every year I choke it down when he makes a special dinner he wants to share. My husband would cook with okra several times a week for our daughter, always working on new recipes. When one came along that was his piece de resistance, I would be served okra. When you grow okra, there is a never ending supply. I never enjoyed it. I barely could get it down.
At Florida Avenue Grill, I loved it. I found myself cherishing okra! Maybe it was the magic of the place. Maybe it was because the tomatoes added something my husband was missing in his recipes. Most likely, it was the fact that a long line of incredible cooks had been through this historical place and each one took it to a new level. Florida Avenue Grill didn't seem like a place where food was just cooked. We were sauteed into a lineage of fine people and family recipes. Good vibes were infused into the food.
The restaurant offers not only a meal, it is an experience. It is going back to a time where people spoke to one another. People know your name. Groups relish in sharing stories. Everyone is on equal footing. As current owner Imar Hutchins says on his website, “Where else in D.C. can you go and see a congressman sitting down and having a meal right next to a garbageman?” I would add, “What other restaurant can you go to and find community?”
Susan Kiskis is the publisher for Freedom Journal and author of memoir, Born Fire Dragon. She has a deeply seeded case of wanderlust.