I grew up just south of Dayton. In between Springboro and Lebanon and I grew up eating beans and cornbread on Sundays. The cornbread was made in a cast-iron skillet, and the beans were cooked all day on the stovetop. Sometimes the beans, or peas, would have a piece of ham, most times not. My little brother and I ate them with a wedge of onion. Fried potatoes were cooked in an electric skillet in lard or Crisco.
At my grandma’s apartment in Alabama fried okra, canned tomatoes that she put up, and a “mess” of greens were always part of Saturday dinners. She never cooked on Sunday. I always classified these foods as southern. A roasted chicken, a ham bone in a pot of peas, and that cornbread, white cornmeal, no sugar, baked in a skillet with lard. I now can make that cornbread and will sometimes buy a quart of buttermilk so I can eat soak the cornbread in a glass of the buttermilk and eat it with a spoon like my dad did.
It wasn’t until I was older that I learned in the north this is called soul food. Soul food scholar, author and fellow BBQ Judge Adrian Miller, says this about soul food:
“My contention is soul food is really the interior cooking of the Deep South that migrates across the country. I think of soul food as an immigrant cuisine and ultimately a national cuisine, because black folks just landed in all parts of the country.” -Adrian Miller
My grandma was born in Georgia, poor, lived in Alabama for the last 75 years of her life and worked in cotton fields, factories, and kept house for an old rich guy in the little city where she raised 7 kids on her own.
Like many others, she took the cheapest and least desirable foods and made created meals that created some of my favorite memories with my cousins and Alabama family. After her death, I began to search out the foods that reminded me of her table and the recipes my mom took from her mother-in-law’s kitchen. I have found two places that fit the bill perfectly here in Dayton.
Benjamins The Burger Master
1000 N Main St Dayton, OH 45405
When I need some beans and greens, my first stop is Benjamin’s Burger Master on Main. Most of you go there for the burger, but I go for the cornbread, collard greens, and pintos, or soup beans they always have on the line for lunch. There are always bbq ribs, made like my mom did in the crockpot, and fried chicken wings as well. But I am there for the memory of those soup beans poured over a piece of cornbread with a dash of hot sauce. When I close my eyes I can taste and smell the memories of that little eastside apartment where my cousins gathered in the tiny kitchen.
925 McArthur Ave Dayton, OH 45417
Recently my work has me working on Edwin C Moses and that means Huffies BBQ is around the corner. This family-owned spot has been there forever. Literally. Their menu has it all. Black-eyed peas, pinto beans, fried okra, collard greens, ribs, and chicken. I had the greens, peas, and bbq ribs recently and the flavors were all there. There’s more to the menu, including burgers and fries, but that’s not what I am after when I am there.
I think southern food, soul food, is a lot like bbq. It takes a lot of time and love to create something special from foods that are often overlooked as cheap or difficult.
There has been a bevy of places that create some amazing food that gets close. Eden Spice in West Carrolton has the best fried cabbage. Stuffed Enuff on North Dixie didn’t survive the pandemic- but is still doing pop-ups, and Fat Boyz BBQ hits all the right notes as well if you find them around town.
Where do you go for soul food and when can we meet for lunch?