There’s a Bible study for the homeless happening in the main dining room and the kitchen is quiet between lunch and dinner services, so chef Cody Suddreth has a chance to sit down and talk about the collard greens tattooed on his left forearm.
It’s a cold, rainy Tuesday at the King’s Kitchen, a Southern-style meat and three — so named for the restaurant’s popular choice of a plate filled with a meat and three vegetables, picked from a list of what’s in season — in the center of downtown Charlotte, North Carolina. Lights from a Christmas tree decorated with wooden spoons and burlap ribbon twinkle just inside the entrance; a wreath made of cotton bolls and vines hangs on the wall.
"I got some really nasty second-degree burns last week that really messed up my tattoos," Suddreth says with a laugh that is more gallows humor than anything. "But this is the stuff I like to cook. Tomatoes, ramps, collards. Garden food, man."
The King’s Kitchen operates as a nonprofit and donates all of its proceeds to benefit the homeless. That Suddreth is here, cooking in a restaurant that often hosts business lunches for stiff bankers in custom suits but is also appropriate for men who’ll sleep on bus benches and in shelters tonight, seems fitting. "Meat and threes are not a concept from the concrete jungle here, at least not at first," he says. Suddreth grew up in the North Carolina foothills and went to culinary school at a community college there before working in Atlanta for a decade, eventually making his way to Charlotte to be closer to family. The food he cooks at the King’s Kitchen reminds him of the food he grew up eating. "These restaurants derived from the garden," he says. "They had collards, green beans they put up until the winter, creamed corn. And that inspired meat and threes."
Meat and threes are foundational to Southern cuisine. They tell the story of industrialization and social mobility in this region, of traditions from small farming towns in Alabama and villages thousands of miles away in Greece. Chefs outside the South, for better or worse, are trying the concept with varying degrees of success. Meat and threes embody the soul of Southern people, of their warmth and hospitality, their desire to sit around a table and talk.
And, as Suddreth says, the food is really damn good. "You kind of want it all. You’re like, ‘Well, if I could eat 10 sides, I would.’"
No one knows for sure when the first meat and threes sprouted up in the South, or where, but if anybody could hazard a guess, it’d be John T. Edge. He’s the director of the Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi and a nationally-renowned expert on the region’s cuisine and its history.
"As the Southern worker transitioned from farm to city, you see this meal arise," he says. "To me, a meat and three is the example of country to city transition, farm to urban transition." This would’ve been the first few decades of the 20th century, Edge says, in and around emerging Southern cities such as Nashville and Atlanta.
"It was food for people who plowed the back 40 [side of the farm], reinterpreted for people who work at desks and in factories," he says, "catching lunch breaks in the city instead of returning home for lunch." The classic meat and three restaurant typically serves items from a familiar list of entrees: meatloaf, fried catfish, pot roast, hamburger steak with gravy. The sides are common, too: creamed corn, collard greens, green beans. Those dishes represent two of the many influences commonly found in Southern food: the cuisine of enslaved West Africans forcibly brought to the South and the "country food" common among predominantly white farmers. There’s always tea to drink.
There are subtle differences between the meat and three and diner food, say a "blue plate special." Some meat and threes send plates out from the kitchen; others let diners work their way down a steam table and serve themselves. "Diner food is literally ordering a plate lunch, a composed plate. It’s often a meat and a starch and some kind of vegetable," Edge says. "[The meat and three] offers a multitude of choices, as if your grandmother made three meats and 10 vegetables and said, ‘Okay, pick what you want.’ There’s a bounty to the meat and three."
One of the earliest known meat and threes was a 49-seat diner in Nashville called Hap Townes Restaurant, named after the father and son who ran it. The business evolved from a hot dog cart in the 1920s to the small stone building with a coal oil stove that the pair opened after the younger Townes returned home from the war. He would come in at 3:30 or 4 a.m. to start cooking breakfast, and to put pots of vegetables on the stove for lunch.
They didn’t call it a meat and three. "[It was] plate lunch back in those days," Townes told the Southern Foodways Alliance in an oral history recorded six years before he died in 2012. Customers would order from a choice of Southern standards displayed on a steam table — Townes would "dip a plate" for them — and they’d mop it all up with homemade cornbread.
People would line up outside to wait for a table. Workers from a nearby hosiery factory ate there; so did Johnny Cash. Many restaurants in the segregated South catered to white workers, but there were some that integrated, especially after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Often meat and threes led the way. Hap Townes served white and black patrons in the same dining room; the first restaurant in Charlotte to integrate was the Coffee Cup, a diner that became popular with bankers and laborers alike.
That’s still the case at meat and threes today. At Atlanta’s Busy Bee Cafe, customers span ethnicities and tax brackets. "I have millionaire football players in here all the time sitting next to regular, everyday people," says owner Tracy Gates, whose family bought the iconic restaurant in 1982. The food is prepared about the same as it’s always been, though she is quick to point out that, "With soul food, it’s not really a recipe."
As long as she can remember, restaurants such as the Busy Bee transcend race. "It’s always about family with this kind of food," she says. "It brings strangers together. It’s not anything fancy, so you can be yourself. You can be relaxed. Nobody is concerned with your status."
The food, because of its origins and its substance, appeals to all. "This meal more than any is really the bedrock of Southern food culture," Edge says. "More so than barbecue, more so than fried chicken. It is the foundational Southern meal… Yeah, yeah, I know. People consider Jell-O a vegetable, as one of their three. But really we’re talking about a meat and three vegetables. That’s a well-balanced meal to fortify a worker."
As the South evolved, in the 1980s and ’90s, the Southern worker saw his own kind of change.
Families sold their farms. Tobacco mills and textile plants closed. In North Carolina, tobacco made up 27 percent of cash farm receipts in 1983, but only nine percent by 2003, according to the state's agriculture department. In Alabama, nine out of 10 textile and manufacturing jobs were eliminated between 1990 and 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Old school meat and threes, places like Hap Townes, closed, replaced by fast-food joints. Office workers needed sandwiches on the go, not hearty plates of vegetables.
Chef Tim Hontzas, whose grandfather, father, and uncle ran restaurants in Mississippi, watched that shift with sadness. "I mean, a lot of people thought they could go buy some pre-made cornbread mix and some Sister Schubert rolls and throw it out there with some canned vegetables and no one would know the difference," he says. "I think that’s B.S. to think people are that ignorant. But for a time, people got away with it."
Hontzas trained under James Beard Award-winner John Currence and opened his homage to his grandfather, Johnny’s, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2012. The restaurant is a Southern meat and three with Greek influences. (Hontzas is Greek, and there’s a long history of Southern-Greek restaurant owners who blend the two cultures’ food traditions.) Hontzas looks up at the chalkboard menu — it changes daily — and rattles off the familiar list. Hamburger steak, collards, a 32-ingredient meatloaf. But also: "Spanakopita, souvlaki, I’ll do pastitsio if it’ll ever get cold down here in Alabama."
Johnny’s is among the best meat and threes in the South, part of a school of newer restaurants intent on reinvigorating traditional Southern cuisine. Hontzas wants his food, and the friendly table service, to reflect the region’s history, its commitment to farms and gardens. That’s no different from how Gates wants people to feel when they eat at the Busy Bee in Atlanta, even though it opened more than 60 years before Johnny’s. "That food connects them," she says. "It’s part of their history."
They knows chefs in other cities, even in places such as New York and San Francisco, are trying out the meat and three. And that’s okay, Hontzas says, as long as they’re willing to do it right, by treating history with integrity, by honoring the growing season and supporting local farmers. "The old school meat and three, to me, was what it was supposed to be," he says. "It’s who we are, it’s our hospitality. This kind of food brings people together. It’s different from going and getting a hamburger. It’s like a hug."
They call this comfort food, and on cold, rainy December days, try to find something more like a warm blanket than a plate at the King’s Kitchen. The dining room, a more upscale version of those at meat and threes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is full and noisy. Forks clink and guys in suits laugh. A group of old women takes its time.
The plate that arrives from the kitchen — piled with fried chicken and bowls of mashed potatoes and black pepper gravy, green beans with Benton’s bacon and onions, and sweet creamed corn — is so full it could buckle. There’s a separate plate for cornbread.
Everything here, and most of the menu, came from North Carolina farmers trying to do right by their history. Later, Suddreth says he’s been promoted to another Southern-style kitchen owned by the same restaurateur. The cuisine on his new menu is different, more upscale. He’ll miss cooking at a meat and three, but it’s not like the concept will disappear.
"It still sticks around, it’s still relevant from a hundred years ago, and that’s pretty amazing," he says. "I’ve worked in James Beard Award-winning restaurants and Michelin-starred restaurants. I love inventive food, all that good stuff. But I still respect the tradition of Southern food because I lived that with my grandparents. It’s more than just the food, man. It’s way more."
Adam Rhew is a writer based in North Carolina and the associate editor of Charlotte magazine.
Editor: Erin DeJesus