If you grew up with it, you get it – catfish and hushpuppies resonate with sultry heat, weary fields and the rhythm of a languid drawl. Fried chicken and candied yams tell of family gatherings and potlucks. Homey dishes are the treasure of the rural South, and that’s where its heart is.
Thin filets of catfish, rolled in cornmeal and fried until golden and curled are like brittle, wispy wafers. They anoint your palate with an idle sweetness and a trace of rugged earth that complement each other in such a pleasant way you can’t help but grin – and reach for another piece. Hushpuppies crackle on the bite, revealing a delicate cornmeal center with pops of natural sweetness from whole kernels. Only after you finish do you catch a hiss of green onion.
These are deep fried, yet somehow delicate and alluring. Fried chicken offers a lean, nutty crunch and the compelling savor from cooking oil that has been flavored by use, but not worn out. It’s hearty and soulful – and it suits the rustic setting inside the Retired Men’s Social Club, where Michelle’s Soul Food Kitchen sets up twice a week.
All of this comes with a twist. Michelle Brooks, who does the cooking, grew up in Seaside. But she gets it, cooking by feel instead of measurement, lending each dish the essence of recipes taught and passed down through generations, swelling mystic chords of memory.
“Just putting your heart in your food,” she says, explaining the enduring appeal of soul food.
Brooks puts more than heart into her collard greens. There is a heft to them that mutes the greens’ notoriously bitter jabs, but leaves just enough fight to balance the equally infamous tart edge. Shards of bacon contribute a gentle drift of smoke, but there’s more depth to the collards than bacon can account for.
To prepare the greens, Brooks starts with a hamhock and neck bones. Then she pours in the juice left from boiling oxtails. And, she adds with a smile, “that secret will cost you a million dollars.”
Brooks learned such tricks from her parents, both originally from the South. Her mother’s New Orleans upbringing shows in the cornbread, which is airy and mild, with a sweet touch like golden honey. She gets this by dropping in a little vanilla to soften the sugar.
Everything is made from scratch and the kitchen is small, so Michelle’s does run out of some menu items. Smothered pork chops were gone before 5pm one Friday. It took three trips to finally be rewarded with hushpuppies and cornbread. And on one of these, an order of catfish had to be finished with a couple tilipia filets – thicker, but wan and undercooked.
Sometimes the menu includes gumbo. Brooks will grill up burgers, too. “But,” she adds, “there’s always the yams” – peeled hours before and cooked down to a molasses-like depth.
Once you get it, you crave it. Michelle’s generally opens just two days a week (she pops up occasionally at the Moose Lodge in Seaside). But soul-stirring meals are something to look forward to.
MICHELLE’S SOUL FOOD KITCHEN, Retired Men’s Social Club, 2087 Del Monte Blvd., Seaside. 5:30-9pm Thu; noon-7pm Fri. 760-2386, michelles-soul-food-kitchen.business.site.