The Sides: It's What's on the Side That Makes the Meal
By Brian McManus
When you think back on your soul food face-stuffing life, chances are it’ll be the sides that appear at center stage in your mind’s eye—the gooey mac ’n’ cheese, the sweet glazed carrots, the creamy corn pudding, the acidic vinegar-y tang of collard greens. Fried tilapia, fried and jerk chicken, oxtail: These mains are all well and truly good, but when you tuck into a hefty Styrofoam clamshell from any number of fine soul food spots in town, the side dishes are often where it’s at.
Exhibit A: This year’s PW Christmas party, catered by Victoria’s Kitchen (7304 Ogontz Ave. 215.927.1066. victoriaskitchen-philly.com). Some talked about the gloriously crispy fried chicken. Others talked about the fried fish. But everybody talked about the mac ’n’ cheese. (Still do. But we’re crazy here.)
“They’re as important as the main entree,” says Kevin Sadiki Travick, a soul food chef for more than 35 years, about soul food sides. “They’re equals. The side dishes aren’t backup singers anymore.”
Travick used to put out elaborate spreads of soul food for The Cosby Show, where he served as caterer for 12 of the show’s memorable Christmas parties—Theo, Rudy, Denise, Vanessa, Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable, Cockroach and Buddddd (not his real name) all lined up to fill their plates and stomachs full of his meticulously prepared eats. He also served as Phylicia Rashad’s personal chef for 30 years, and is still a close friend. Today, he runs Sadiki Inc. (215.849.3030), a catering business with a robust, eight-page menu. Over his many years in the business, he’s always held sides in a sacred light. Now, he says, customers do too.
“Many times, when I’m catering a party, the mac ’n’ cheese, sweet potatoes and greens will go faster than the chicken,” he says. Travick attributes this to both a “shift in consciousness” about the way more and more African-Americans are choosing to eat these days—many are choosing to live vegetarian lifestyles or more healthfully—and a firm belief that many side dishes offer a profoundly personal connection to the familiar.
“Soul food is comforting,” says Jamela Yahiaoui of Victoria’s Kitchen. “It’s comfort, warmth, food made with love. [Soul food sides] need to give you the feeling of warmth and comfortness and coziness too.”
Evidence of this—comfort, warmth, the familiar—runs throughout Travick’s menu at Sadiki Inc. It’s in the “Momma Lil’s Finger Lickin’ Greens,” inspired by his grandmother—a mixture of kale, rabe and collards he carefully stews just like she used to. It’s in the Creamy Corn Pudding, inspired by his Aunt Carolyn.
“She used to bring her corn pudding to every family gathering,” Travick says. “Aunt Carolyn’s corn pudding was the thing, man!”
All year, all around town, we’ve been noshing on a few “things” of our own—soul food sides we’re still dreaming about. The mac ’n’ cheese at Delilah’s Southern Cafe (Reading Terminal Market, 215.574.0929. delilahwinder.com) is made with seven different types of cheese, including Velveeta, Asiago and Muenster. It’s so good, once you’ve had it, you’ll fly into an uncontrollable blind rage next time a Kraft Macaroni and Cheese ad comes on your TV.
We were wowed by Gigi and Big R’s (38th and Spruce) jerk chicken at last year’s Vendy Awards, where the truck took top prize. But in our repeated trips back to this kitchen on wheels at 38th and Spruce streets, it’s been their rice and beans we’ve found ourselves craving.
Speaking of soul food trucks, not far from Gigi’s you’ll find Denise’s Soul Food Restaurant (30th and Market). Denise’s corn bread and candied yams are the thing.
At Victoria’s Kitchen, in addition to that mac ’n’ cheese, there’s a potato salad that the restaurant is “famous for,” says Yahiaoui. We found out why when we had it. You can taste the freshness. “At Victoria’s, everything is done fresh every day. Everything is done from scratch. Quality tastes good.”
So go out there, fork in hand. Find your own thing.
People, you may have noticed, are fat. Real fat. And getting bigger every day. But lost in the endless conversations about the no-longer-new obesity epidemic that threatens to sink our country into a pit of health-care debt we can never pay is a very real and glaringly obvious fact: We’re all a hell of a lot skinnier than we could be.
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