BURRRRRRRRPPPPP. Oh, sorry. We’ve been stuffing ourselves to the gills around here with soul food from every corner of this fair city. And in the Food & Drink Issue you can see where, exactly, we’ve been doing it. In “The Place,” we profile a longtime Philly soul staple, Elena’s Soul Showcase Lounge & Cafe. “The Main Course” spells out a bit of the long and storied history of this great, comforting cuisine. In “The Sides,” we shine a light on the soul food sides that have been inching toward center stage for quite some time, and are now poised for their close-up. And if the very thought of heavy, fried chicken, mac ’n’ cheese and stewed greens with pork is making you feel bloated, don’t worry: We’ve got a piece on how some soul food chefs are making a conscious effort to cook healthier. We’ve also thrown in a mac ’n’ cheese recipe that you’ll want to try immediately. Dig in.
The Place: Elena’s Soul Showcase Has a Rich History Steeped in Soul and Soul Food
By Elliott Sharp
Twelve people are swigging beers and sipping cocktails at Elena’s Soul Showcase Lounge & Cafe (4912 Baltimore Ave.). On the TVs hanging above the rows of booze, the volume turned down so as not to interrupt conversation, the Celtics are losing to the Lakers. At the far end of the long bar, a man in his 40s recalls when his mother brought home the family’s first microwave. “We messed that cake up so bad, man,” he says. Everyone laughs.
After filling up my guts with perfectly gold fried whiting, crispy fried chicken wings, potato salad, green beans, mac ’n’ cheese and candied yams, I post up at the bar next to a gentleman in a newsboy hat named James. “I moved to Hazel Avenue in West Philly in the early 1970s, and had never been across Baltimore Avenue until a friend said, ‘Hey man, you gotta come check this place out,’” the 72-year-old Philly native says. “So I walked in one night and it was startling! It was packed, the music was loud, and everyone was dressed up.”
When James, a theater-turned-television actor who has appeared in episodes of HBO’s The Wire and Homicide: Life On The Street, first stepped through the doors, Elena’s was called Leroy’s Showcase Lounge. James has been drinking and socializing here ever since, but the raw-food diet he’s maintained for several years keeps him away from the soul food. “I gotta stay healthy,” he says. “I’m gonna live to be at least 100.”
Leroy’s became Elena’s in 2008 when 39-year-old Philadelphian and former downtown party promoter Algernong Allen (everyone, including James, calls him Al) bought the spot and named it after his mother. “I came in with a date in the late ’90s,” he says about his first Leroy’s experience. “It was chill. After that, every time I wanted a cheap drink or had a date, I’d come here. It’s still mellow, but we have more energy now.”
Leroy’s opened in 1976, but before that it was called Ted Knight’s Showcase Lounge. “Ted employed Leroy as a porter,” says Allen. “The legend goes that one day Leroy hit the lottery and bought the bar from Ted.” When Allen was researching the liquor license, he discovered the building’s history goes back even further. It was called Al’s Tavern in 1948; then he found an old receipt with 4912 Baltimore on it that said Steelman’s Cafe. He also tracked down a photo from 1911 that shows the side of the building with “Steelman’s Cafe. Fine Wine & Spirits. Ladies & Men.” It was a meat market after that and, following Prohibition, it became Al’s.
Now, at Elena’s, there’s an old photo of the Temptations above the bar. “They played here,” Allen says, continuing the history lesson. “Back in the day, this part of West Philly was a hot spot for black musicians, so a lot of people came in and out.” Philadelphians Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Patti LaBelle, the Staple Singers, the O’Jays—they all played, drank and ate here back in the Ted Knight and Leroy days. The name of the bar has changed, but it’s always been about soul food and music. Now there’s regular jazz, soul and hip-hop at Elena’s.
“It’s a black bar, but it’s for everyone, just like how Bennigan’s is an Irish bar, but for everyone,” Allen says. “It’s a place for us to share our culture. Everything’s merging together. You know, the skate-punks listen to the same music as the hip-hop cats, and Elena’s reflects this diverse urban experience. People feel comfortable here. They don’t have to dress fancy or talk fancy. It’s all about being yourself. That’s the vibe.”
The crowd grows significantly at 10 p.m. Thursday night open-mic host and local MC Hezekiah is playing songs produced by J Dilla, the legendary hip-hop producer who would have turned 38 last week had he not died in 2006. “Rest In Peace James Yancey aka Jay Dilla,” Hezekiah says over a Dilla-produced Common track. Running a bit late, the band finally shows and they quickly set up drums, guitar, bass and keyboard. They leap into the break of the Dilla track and improvise slightly on the melody. Hezekiah turns Dilla down as the band takes over, and a young MC hops up from the bar and grabs the microphone. He leans into the groove and starts spitting.
The Main Course: Necessity and Ingenuity Inform the Dominant Dishes of Soul Food
By Brian Freedman
Soul food is as emblematic of America as anything you can eat: Within the wisps of smoke curling up from a hunk of just-smoked meat, encased in the snappy crust of a leg of fried chicken, wrapped up in the funk emanating from a dish of chitlins, lies so much of our story as a nation.
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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