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The Mysterious Charms of Helen's Kitchen

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In a small Mississippi town, one restaurant run by one woman
holds pretty much everything — and everyone — together

L

ast year, toward summer’s end, the mayor of Columbus, Mississippi, got cross with the publisher of the town’s daily newspaper. The mayor had voted himself a $10,000 raise and the publisher, in an open letter printed in the Commercial Dispatch, chastised the move as selfish and short-sighted. The mayor responded with a public letter of his own, painting the publisher as ill-informed and negative minded. In Columbus, population less than 25,000, City Hall is across Main Street from the newspaper’s office. The tiff was big news. Townspeople chose sides.

Apart from certain basic facts — both being near in age, public figures, natives of the same town — the two men had very little common ground. The mayor is a former football player with a barrel chest who can be brusque in his dealings and grew up poor. The publisher is measured, thin and artistic, a photographer with work shown in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Also, the mayor is black. The publisher is white. The social circles they swim rarely overlap. This is the South.

One day, at the height of their minor war, the publisher went for lunch to a small soul food restaurant in town. Helen’s Kitchen stands beside an empty lot in a faded residential neighborhood of north Columbus. It is run by Helen Karriem, who says a word or two to almost everyone who comes through. As the publisher finished his lunch and was getting ready to leave, Helen said to him, "Come back. And why don’t you bring the mayor?"

And so, when he got back to his office, he emailed the mayor, saying they should meet. There are over a hundred restaurants in Columbus, but they agreed to conduct their peace talks at Helen’s Kitchen. A few days later, as a crowd of customers came and went, the mayor and publisher sat facing each other. Only they can know what was said over the tinny sounds of silverware, but by the time they departed whatever antagonism they’d walked in with had been wiped clean. And so had their plates.


A

nyone familiar with the mysterious charms of this restaurant will not be surprised that these two most opposite of men were able to roll away the rock while dining there. Since opening nearly thirty years ago, Helen’s Kitchen has been a place where the things that separate people seem to effortlessly disappear. Recently, talking about his visits to the restaurant, James Fitzgerald, the former culinary arts director at Mississippi University for Women, used the word "religious."

Part of this might be the simple matter of the food’s quality. The restaurant serves a revolving menu of meat-and-three classics: pork chops, fried chicken, meatloaf, fried catfish, turnip greens, yams, steamed cabbage, fried okra, macaroni and cheese. Everything is made the old, simple way. "The food is caught in a different time," said Jeff Clark, a former chef who, before moving away to the Gulf Coast, frequented Helen’s tables. It’s not fashionable. It’s not particularly healthy. Eddie Johnson, a janitor who eats there frequently, said of the food, "Like my grandmama used to say, ‘Boy, I’d put my feet in that.’" That’s a high compliment in the South.

It could also just be the physical fact of how closely together diners eat. There are ten tables, and strangers sometimes often share them. It’s nothing to see a well-heeled accountant pass hot sauce to a convicted drug dealer; to listen as a right-leaning real estate man shares an honest laugh with a yellow-dog Democrat; or to overhear a blue-haired nursing home resident comment on the weather, between dabs of her mouth with a napkin, to a burly public works employee in shirtsleeves.

But it’s likely that the real answer is Helen herself, a woman one longtime customer described as the "jewel in the crown." She's 79 years old, and is at her restaurant six days a week. "I promised God that if he let me halfway pay my bills, I’d be closed every Sunday," she likes to say.

I asked Helen once what it is that she thinks attracts the eclectic clientele.

"They come to eat good food," she said. "That’s it." The food at Helen’s Kitchen is served cafeteria-style from a counter that runs across the back of the dining area; usually, Helen herself oversees the plating, never far from the kitchen, and never without a black apron. On one of my visits, I asked her if she had a hand in all of the food served at her restaurant. "No," she said. "I have help." I sensed that her cooks do not stray from her directions, a suspicion confirmed by the introduction to her self-published cookbook. "When I hire cooks," she writes, "I tell them, ‘I respect you, but just cook it my way.’"

Her way is the old way, a style of cooking that dates to the early 1940s, decades before the dishes made by black cooks in American South would start being described as "soul food." Most of Helen’s food is cooked with methods and ingredients common at Mississippi meat-and-threes, but a few personalizations have creeped in. "Our niche, if you will, is that our vegetables are cooked a little different," said one of her sons, Kabir, who helps around the restaurant. "Usually, people will flavor their vegetables with pork, or grease, when they’re making soul food. Ours is flavored with vegetable stock and smoked turkey." Helen also believes dry seasonings like salt and pepper should be applied in the kitchen, not at the table. "Better for you that way," she said. "And it does its job better."

Helen has a high, thin voice, and her face is kind. It begins in her eyes. There is something steely and authoritative about her, though. In conversation, she speaks in inadvertent aphorisms, declarations that, while apposite to the subject at hand, serve just as well to relate to most anything in life. Once, while talking to me about customer feedback, which she gathers by sporadically questioning diners tableside, she said, "Telling me the positives is okay, but I don’t learn from that. You learn from the negatives. That’s what strengthens me."

I pressed her on the restaurant’s almost magical qualities, pointing out how people’s differences seem to evaporate beneath her roof.

"I treat you all the same," she said eventually. "You’re all my brothers and sisters in Christ. It wouldn’t be right to go any other way."

I was ready to concede. But then a smile broke across her face, and she added, "I can’t tell your money from anyone else’s."

Of course, it’s not that simple. To know why a plate at Helen’s Kitchen makes a diner’s virtues spike is to understand how Helen’s own past, family, and community shaped her as a person. "I always thought you best cook what you best lived," Fitzgerald said by way of explaining the melting pot that congregates daily beneath the roof of Helen’s Kitchen. Helen has lived plenty.


C

atfish Alley is one block long, a narrow, one-way stretch of road in downtown Columbus that empties into Main Street not far from the Victorian house where Tennessee Williams was born in 1909. There are a few businesses along the alley today — a liquor store, two restaurants, a lawyer’s office — and about half a dozen upstairs apartments. The alley’s pace is calm now, but that wasn’t always the case. Along a sidewalk, beside a bench beneath a crepe myrtle, there’s a six-foot tall monument with a paragraph chiseled into its side. The words tell the alley’s story:

"Throughout most of the 20th century this block of Fourth Street South was an important commercial center for African-Americans. So named for the fish frying in the street’s cafés, Catfish Alley was remarkable for the easy mingling of races during an era when the South was rigidly segregated. Doctors, dentists and barbers occupied upstairs offices, while at street level, cafes, pool rooms and businesses owned by both black and white merchants enjoyed a lively trade. Stories of the alley in its heyday describe a world within a world, a fusion of commerce and culture deserving its own chapter in the history of Columbus."

The alley’s heyday was the 1950s. Fishermen would bring the day’s catch up from the nearby Tombigbee River and street cooks would fry them along the sidewalks as the sun went down. There were bars and live music, and rows of businesses. Kimbrel’s Shoe Service was there. Pennington’s Grocery. Skyes Cab Company. Fourth Street Drug Store. Tucker’s Barber Shop. Herndon’s Billiard Parlor. The Paradise Hotel & Cafe and J.B. Leonard’s Pharmacy, too. With all that to offer, blacks and whites, if in no other part of Columbus, would find themselves passing along the same stretch of crowded sidewalk.

In the middle of this bustling alleyway scene stood a place called Jones Restaurant, its name painted on a window. It served what wasn’t yet called soul food, and was operated by a black woman named Sallie Mae Jones. Born in 1912, Jones lived much of her life only knowing segregation. Her mother was a cook, and while Sallie Mae had wanted to be a teacher, it never worked out, and she followed her mother’s footsteps into a kitchen. If there was disappointment, it was not carried far. Jones, a deeply religious woman of the Baptist faith, ran a prosperous business and was proud.

She had eleven children, and instilled in them an independent, fair spirit. People who knew her say she would often say things to them like "Stand on your own two feet," and, "You don’t know who might have to give you a drink of water before you leave this world."

Everyone along Catfish Alley knew Sallie Mae Jones. So did most people in Columbus. In a time when being black and being a woman were obstacles, she succeeded. What only half the town knew, though, was that the father of her children was a white man, a married farmer. One of their children, born in 1936, was a girl who Jones named Helen.

"My daddy had a house up on the hill," Helen told me one day in her restaurant. "But he kept care of us. I never knew the difference."

I

n the early 1960s, Helen moved to St. Louis to help care for some nieces and nephews. She ended up marrying a man there, and staying for nearly two decades, having six children and becoming a homemaker. Money was scarce. She made toys out of cardboard boxes and found solace in cooking. Being in the kitchen connected her to her mother, to the Catfish Alley crowds from her childhood, to Mississippi, almost 500 miles away. Her children say she always insisted on her family eating their meals together.

Those meals, no matter how tight money was, were feasts. The children often helped in the kitchen. Someone would pull out a stereo and a stack of 45s. Maybe Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin. Ahmad, Helen’s fourth son, remembers her applying the "skills of a surgeon, the craft and creativity of an artist, the attention of a scientist" to making dinner for her family.

Any of her children’s friends playing in the backyard were expected to wash their hands and find a chair at the table. She made desserts especially well: sweet potato pie, lemon meringue pie, and peach cobbler.

Over the years her husband, more and more, was absent from the dinner table. After their divorce in the late 1970s, Helen moved her children back to her hometown of Columbus. Jones Restaurant was still open and run by Helen’s mother Sallie Mae Jones, but most of the other people who had owned businesses along Catfish Alley during its heyday had grown old, retired, or died. The civil rights movement had moved across the south and broken down barriers; changes had unhinged the once busy alleyway’s unique verve. People had moved on.

Helen was in her forties and had never worked outside the home. She enrolled in East Mississippi Community College to find a career to better support her children. Eventually, she began working in the coronary care unit at a local hospital. But the pull of cooking and commensality, of bringing people together along a full table, was never far from her.

A woman named Itell Moody, who was of Sallie Mae's generation, had a restaurant along a busy street in a largely black neighborhood. She served quick, cheap meals — "I remember her selling hot dogs for a dime," a customer at Helen’s recalled — but by the late 1980s, Moody had slowed down. She could no longer keep her restaurant going, and she offered it to Helen, who talked it over with her loved ones.

"I don’t care what you do," she said to me of how she makes decisions. "You’ve got to keep your family involved."

Together, the family came up with the money to purchase Moody’s building at 708 15th Street North. Helen took a leave of absence from her job at the hospital, opened Helen’s Kitchen, and never looked back. "I have been here ever since," she said.

Helen’s Kitchen is a family affair — three of her sons help out each day — and it’s doing okay. "Financially, we are paying the bills," said her son Kabir, who also serves on the Columbus city council. "You’re going to have your ups and downs anytime you are self-employed."

The restaurant only accepts cash. "I took checks for a while," Helen said. "But I’ve been feeding some folks so long they got to thinking they don’t owe me anything." Jeff Clark, an old regular, wagers that in the twenty-eight years of its life, the restaurant has given away as many plates of food as it’s sold.


P

laces like Helen’s can be found across the South. Places that don’t fit in with the shiny, modern world. Places that settle so naturally into their communities. Places a block or two off the path most traveled. Places that, unless you stumble right or a guide leads you there, you’ll probably miss. James Fitzgerald told me that when he came to teach culinary arts at Mississippi University for Women, he made a deal with his students. "I would teach them, but they would teach me, too," he said. "One thing I wanted taught by them was, ‘Where are some good places to eat?’ My students clued me into Miss Helen’s, and my culinary life was never the same."

The day Helen’s Kitchen opened, a full meal cost $2.50; today, it’s $6. There used to be a jukebox in the corner that played soul music, but it’s gone now. The restaurant is in a neighborhood where most homes have porches. It has a tin roof. There’s no sign out front. The tables are adorned with vinyl tablecloths. In winter, the room is kept warm by a single gas wall heater. The family has occasionally forgotten to lock the door at night. The door is glass, and it is cracked. There is no menu. You can always get fried chicken. You can always get peach cobbler. The bathroom is sometimes out of order.

This restaurant is like a lot of restaurants, but it’s also like none other. It’s operated by the daughter of a black cook and white farmer and she lives seven blocks away. She turns 80 in November and still chats up nearly every customer. She hopes her restaurant lasts forever, and that when she is gone she is remembered for it, the same way her mother, who died in the summer of 2006 at the age of 94, is remembered for her restaurant. All are welcome at Helen’s Kitchen. All tend to come.

William Browning, a University of Mississippi graduate, has been a reporter for a decade. His work has been recognized by the Florida Press Club, the Society of Professional Journalists and Associated Press Sports Editors.
Laura Sant is a Brooklyn-based illustrator and writer.
Editor: Helen Rosner

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