With Valentine’s Day and the Super Bowl behind us, two of my favorite event-based food phenomena have passed (goodbye, chocolate-covered everything and chili). February has also been a homesick month for me. With Nemo, flu scares, my team playing in the Super Bowl—and losing (sniff, sniff)—I’ve definitely been missing the comforts of home. Consistent heating and Campbell’s Chicken Soup aside, one of the things I miss most is the food I grew up with.
As a Midwestern transplant who moved to Massachusetts and now lives in California, I never know what to tell people my home is. My home has never been a place—it has always been the food I eat and the people I love, with whom I can share the food. Though I love eating Domino’s with my suitemates, I do get pretty homesick sometimes. And because I can’t fly home that often, eating familiar food is often the next best thing.
I try to recreate the soul food that my grandmother cooks, such as the greens, the cornbread, and the seven-layer salads. Since my cooking is still rudimentary (anyone want pasta?), I tend to search for soul food in restaurants rather than in my own kitchen. However, in the land of trendy, global, and gourmet, down-home southern food is few and far between.
I’m originally from St. Louis, and my grandparents hail from the South, so I can spot a good soul food restaurant from a mile away. Not actually a mile, because I’m near-sighted, but you know what I mean. New York is filled with so many bougie, hipster “neo-soul” restaurants that it is an actual feat to separate the chicken fried wheat from the gentrified chaff.
There are a few superficial things I look for on a menu before even trying a new place. One: fried chicken. Real fried chicken, with grease, and no terrible things like “pan fried in olive oil” or “baked, not fried!” Those things are fine and sometimes downright delicious, but they are turnoffs when I want some genuine southern cooking.
Two: complimentary cornbread. Soft, hot, not-too-sweet, and not-too-corny cornbread. I’m not picky–corn muffins are fine too, but cornbread is the warm buttery roll of the south.
And last but certainly not least: dessert. Homemade cakes and pies, especially red velvet, are a must. And crumbly, sweet fruity cobblers are a nice touch too. Although you might be too full to eat it there, there’s nothing like taking a slice of apple pie home and eating it microwaved with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Tastes like home.
My tried and true favorite? Amy Ruth’s Chicken and Waffles, between 116th and 117th streets. With cute entrée names like “The President Barack Obama” and entire waffle menu that varies from classic chicken and waffles (“The Rev. Al Sharpton”) to waffles with fried shrimp (“The Jennifer Holiday”), Amy Ruth’s simply takes the proverbial cake. It helps that its actual cake is delicious too. I’ve been to Amy Ruth’s on Easter and Thanksgiving. On Sundays, the line extends beyond the door with locals in their Sunday best and curious tourists alike. The staff is always kind and helpful, a great playlist of soul and R&B classics is always playing, and the food—oh, the food!
Cinnamon-y, soft, perfectly browned waffles. Totally cheesy, creamy, mac. Soft (complimentary!) cornbread. And delicious, well-seasoned, fried chicken, fish, and shrimp. It’s the closest to home I’ve found north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Although it is absolutely important to try new things and whatnot, sometimes nothing hits the spot like some genuine soul food. And to my friends from far away places—whether you are German, Italian, Eritrean, Brazilian, you can find your New York home food too. It takes some trial and error, but it is definitely worth it. Happy eating, y’all!
Krista White is a Columbia College junior majoring in theater. Noshing on the Big Appleruns alternate Fridays.