My blog served me well when I visited At The Bistro soul food restaurant on Brooks Road last week. The cheerful staff noticed me taking pictures of the building, located just west of Airways next to the airport, before I came in. They jokingly asked why I needed pictures and I told them about the blog while I ordered my food. I was photographing my heaping plate of delicious Cajun baked chicken, candied yams, purple hull peas and greens when the extremely friendly owner, Terra Smith, came by to introduce herself, talk about her food and offer me a free order of fried green tomatoes to go with my meal.
I generally avoid foods that are battered and fried in vegetable oil, but I wasn’t going to turn down free fried green tomatoes. It turned out to be a worthy indulgence. The batter was perfectly flaky and crispy and, just like everything else I ordered, they were perfectly seasoned. I didn’t eat the cornbread pancake that came with my meal since I try to avoid grains in order to keep my food quest healthy, but I ate every bit of everything else I was served without ever touching my salt and pepper shakers or requesting hot sauce.
“I was blessed with a gift for seasoning,” is the laughing explanation I got from Terra, who also gave me a Christmas card on my way out. I know I was getting some special treatment due to the food blog, but I also saw everyone else in the restaurant getting friendly service and my Christmas card came from a stack of them by the cash register so I think the inviting atmosphere really is a part of the restaurant’s identity.
I was curious to ask Terra about the “healthy soul food" claims on the sign next to the street in front of the restaurant. Like most soul food restaurants the menu was heavy with fried options and the list of “vegetables” offered with the lunch specials included dressing, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and garlic mashed potatoes. So I wasn’t surprised to hear that “healthy” means they don’t use any pork, pork lard or other meat with their vegetables. Since a four veggie plate is only $5.99 it does make At The Bistro a great place to eat if you have vegetarians dining with you.
However, as any regular reader of this blog knows, my diet is usually based around large quantities of healthy animal fats like pork lard. What I try to avoid are the sugars, refined grains and vegetable oils that primarily cause the diseases of civilization like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s (there is a growing push among scientists to refer to Alzheimer’s as Type III diabetes), depression and even acne and tooth decay. I was happy to hear that the vegetables are cooked with real butter, just in limited quantity with the real focus on the seasonings used to add flavor. The cajun baked chicken was particularly good. It was crusted with spices and herbs yet extremely juicy. I ended up making up for the lack of animal fat in my vegetables by requesting dark meat and devouring every bit of the the chicken skin along with my leg and thigh.
The pork fat in soul food gets a bad rap due to the same faulty logic behind what I call the “Big Mac fallacy” that causes people to condemn red meat. A large Big Mac combo includes a three-piece bun, a big pile of potatoes fried in garbage vegetable oil and a 32-ounce cup full of high fructose corn syrup for a total of 194 grams of carbohydrates with 95 grams of that coming from sugar. But if someone eats a lot of Big Mac combos and ends up being a fat diabetic with heart disease people will point to the two little patties of ground meat from worn-out dairy cows on the sandwich and say that all their problems were caused by red meat.
Soul food uses a lot of pork fat, but it also traditionally uses a lot of starch. And that's before you even get to the sweet tea, Kool-Aid and soda that are all staples at soul food restaurants. Cornbread, cornmeal and flour batters, rolls, flour used to thicken gravies, potatoes; soul food was originally food for poor people, and just like the food that is making poor people fat yet malnourished today it used a lot of cheap carbs to stretch the food out. No matter what your definition of healthy eating is though, there is enough variety on the At The Bistro menu to fit with just about anyone’s diet.