For any foodie, the American south is sysnonymous with Soul Food and hearty home cookin'. But what is Soul Food? Cajun, creole, crawfish, and cracklin' or fried chicken, hamburger steak, meatloaf and collards, this food is both regional and diverse. As a Canadian, it is hard to put a finger on what constitutes a meal for the soul here in the South. It certainly isn't poutine. Here, in New Iberia, Louisiana, we find the answer.
Driving into New Iberia, we are keenly aware of the poverty of the population that lives here. This is not an exaggeration. This town epitomizes what your mind's eye sees when it envisions the poor, small town South. Though the highway in and out of New Iberia is dotted with mansions sporting iconic pillars, with vast lawns and ancient, broad canopied trees, these luxuries give way to crowded, dilapidated shacks. Rusty roofs and peeling paint decorate tiny shoe box and shotgun homes that sport "No Trespassing" signs and unfriendly, barking dogs. Something tells you that their bark is NOT worse than their bite.
As we pull up to Brenda's Dine in and Take out, we find the same, weathered aesthetic. The grey, clapboard house is dirty, it's barred screen door is propped open. We've read many a review that this is the place to go for soul food. Sporting 4.9 stars and hundreds of reviews all over the web, we decide to step inside. We are met by two men with glossy, very black skin; one with rheumy, surprisingly blue eyes, the other sporting a wide, two-toothed grin. They regretfully inform us, in a charming southern drawl, that they are closing for the day; all sold out. It is only 4:30 in the afternoon. The friendly, toothless man behind the counter said he'd be happy to serve us if he had any food left; that he'd love to hang out with us and shoot the shit. Wide eyed, he covered his mouth, excused and corrected himself...shoot the crap. Over his shoulder, a NO VULGAR LANGUAGE sign is printed and framed. We asked the men where we could go to get some Soul Food, and the man with the rheumy eyes said, you only come here. He suggested we come back tomorrow, the menus on Tuesdays and Thursdays (it rotates on a daily basis) are his favourite. I said, "That good, eh?" and he said "It's so good you'll slap yo' gramma!" Now, we're not advocating elder abuse, but after that, we knew we had to come back and find out for ourselves.
Fast forward less than 24 hours and we find ourselves driving through the tiny town of New Iberia in search of some granny-slapping goodness. Pulling up for the second time, we notice several cars and trucks parked around the small house. I opened the door which opens inwards and it bumps into a man standing in a far too crowded take-out waiting area. The place is PACKED. We wait outside until a few patrons leave and are met by the mouth watering smell of smoked pork, fried chicken, sweet sausage and red beans and peach cobbler. It's impossible not to salivate, and we only had some fruit for breakfast in order to make room for the feast we knew was imminent. Our stomachs rumbled simultaneously.
Deciding to eat in, we step into the tiny, four table dining room. I know I'm home when I spot the avocado green paint on the dining room walls that was a perfect match to the walls of our living room back home. Not everyone is gutsy enough to embrace that hue. I knew from that moment that Ms. Brenda had good taste, and was therefore an outstanding cook...obviously.
We ordered our meals, I got the Fried Chicken, red beans with sausage, rice "salad" (essentially dirty rice with shredded pork in it), and smothered cabbage (which, as it turned out, was also studded with pork...). Braden ordered the Smoked Meatloaf, which came with white rice and gravy, mac and cheese, and green salad. As we waited for our meals we read the news paper review-cum-placemats set under the plexiglass table top. By happy accident, we discovered that we were about to eat at a joint that was already famous all over North America. Brenda's has been visited by the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, has appeared on the Food Network, and Canada's own foodie show where she taught Canadian TV personality Bob Blumer how to make the best gumbo you'll ever have. Using her techniques, he won second prize at a National Gumbo Cook Off Competition. I suspect if she had have been behind the wheel on this one, the gumbo would've taken first.
When our food hit the table, we were primed for enjoyment. Her food did not disappoint. My Fried Chicken was the crispiest I've ever had, the dark meat inside slick and juicy. The breading was dotted with black pepper and had a great little kick. My beans were sweet and smoky with large chunks of sausage. The cabbage was tangy and sweet and a little salty, too. The rice salad, a solid side. Let's be honest, rice is a filler, and I had too much chicken in front of me to get busy with the rice. Braden's meatloaf was covered, but not drenched, in homemade, sticky sweet BBQ sauce, and although we didn't ask, I don't think it was ground beef. The flavour and texture suggested that it was made of finely shredded pork rib meat. His mac and cheese, although not as cheesy as Mac and Cheese should be, was tender, creamy, a little sweet and a little spicy. Braden really liked his gravy smothered rice and green salad, but like I said before "ain't nobody got time for that!"
When we finished, I had an entire, huge piece of crispy breaded chicken thigh (and a bunch of rice salad) left over. At $7.95 for my meal, I couldn't believe how much they packed into that styrofoam take-out container. They were so busy at lunch, and so humbly staffed, that they didn't have any clean plates to serve our meals on. The whole shebang cost $23.00 (I also ordered a sweet tea/lemonade blend to drink, too), and we had a great conversation with our friendly, toothless server; the same gentleman who had greeted us the day before. He was the sweetest, gentlest guy you're bound to meet.
Although Brenda was touted in all the reviews and newspaper articles as being bubbly, warm and kind, she seemed to me to exude more of an "all business, no nonsense" attitude. Perhaps, at 71 years old, and after over 30 years in the business, she was simply wiped from a busy lunch. As a food-service veteran myself, I know what it's like to lose that zeal after a long, busy shift.
I now know why they call it Soul Food. Not only is it food for the soul, but good soul food, real soul food, is made with soul. Heart and soul, to be precise, and if I never have Soul Food again, I know this meal will ride with me for as long as I live. Those smoky, sweet, toothsome flavours are now, and forever will be, a part of my soul.