On an especially cold Sunday afternoon in Windsor Terrace, a long line of neighborhood regulars and newcomers stood in line good naturedly until the door at the soul food restaurant Butterfunk swung open at 5:30 pm like clockwork. It was tacitly understood that because reservations were taken only for parties of six or more, everyone would simply wait for as long as it took, and with good reason: after several tries, the proprietor/chef Chris Scott is on the current season of Bravo’s ever-popular reality TV show Top Chef, and he had just made it to the final four. Within a few minutes, the restaurant was full to capacity and within a half hour, the waiting list was long enough to turn over the entire place at least four times. (Thankfully, Butterfunk opened their sister café Brooklyn Commune next door so others wouldn’t have to brave the elements while they waited their turn.) I hadn’t finished my drink before the kitchen threw in the towel and refused to take any more to-go orders. All of a sudden, it was all over for the night—and just like that, it was the start of everything else.
As the saints came marching in—curious foodies, young couples with babies and small children, date night aficionados, a large party here and there—resident DJ Eli “Paperboy” Reed began to spin rare black gospel 45s seamlessly on two turntables, as if on cue for Gospel Sunday, the restaurant’s longstanding night of music. The Dixie Hummingbirds. The Southernaires. The Mighty Clouds of Joy. This was a far cry from the usual live music gospel fanfare that typically happens in New York City restaurants on a Sunday. There was something subversive and inappropriate about someone spinning gospel records instead of a vocalist singing familiar hymns. How can a turntable praise God?
And yet for a moment that seemed to last for an eternity, I was a child again in the Deep South, surrounded by a cacophony of family members—waking up, having breakfast, laughing, talking over each other, getting ready for church—while The Soul Stirrers and The Blind Boys of Alabama and the Reverend James Cleveland percolated incessantly on the radio. The shock of it all, to be this far from the South, in a part of Brooklyn most New Yorkers would be hard-pressed to know, with that backbeat pressing in on my memory like a sonic boom, was almost stultifying.
Eli, a native of Boston, carefully selected each single with a good-natured ease that revealed a profound respect for the South and the Black Pentecostal church. A sojourn busking in Mississippi gave way to a stint in Chicago that catapulted him into a successful career as a musician, songwriter and vocalist. Interestingly, he found work on the Southside of the Windy City for a year as minister of music in soul/R&B/gospel legend Mitty Collier’s church. His time in New York City would eventually lead him to another R&B/gospel powerhouse, Vy Higgensen—co-writer of the Off-Broadway black gospel musical Mama, I Want To Sing! and executive director of Harlem’s Mama Foundation for the Arts, where Eli occasionally teaches. Somewhere along the way, he began to collect thousands of those black gospel 45s—each one an unforgettable gem from now-defunct small fledgling record labels and singing groups, each one with its own story to tell. As I looked at the diners, I couldn’t help but wonder if the music that is sacred to me is simply audible wallpaper for everyone else. Perhaps even our soul food that’s so deeply connected to African-American traditions is simply something else to eat.
From the Mason Dixon Line to the Third Coast, from Sunshine City to the Gullah Islands, from Fort Sumter to Fort Worth, the South is vast and enigmatic, filled with theme parks and all kinds of music, drenched in sunshine and blood, its pitch-black darkness shimmering like quicksilver just beneath a brightly lit and well-manicured surface. It is the South that so many Americans love to hate or at least disdainfully ignore, and sometimes blame, for the historical ills that the nation as a whole is too preoccupied with “progress” to face. The fact that some of the more popular things the world defines as distinctly American— like Coca-Cola, BBQ and yes, Rock ‘n’ Roll— emanate from the South allows its twangy narrative to unfurl itself onto our collective unconsciousness more often than we know. This is a part of the reason why so much about the South is both denigrated and embraced.
This love/hate juxtaposition comes to life especially with Southern food—devalued as scraps from the master’s table that African slaves were expected to eat, along with whatever they grew—because African-American cooking and Southern cuisine are synonymous. Everyone knows this and no one will openly admit it. No one will openly admit that whatever any chef makes in their well-respected James Beard award-winning Southern revival restaurant is done so on the backs of the nameless African slaves that initially created those dishes by taking what the master threw away and combining them with the delicious things they brought with them—okra, red peas, sesame seeds, yams and more—to make something new.
The African contribution to American cuisine is staggering because slave owners wanted the slaves to eat dishes they recognized. It’s important to acknowledge who brought what to America’s culinary banquet and why we collectively eat the things that we do, because everyone’s contribution deserves a seat of acknowledgment at the table.
If African-American cooking/Southern cuisine is the original, soul food has proven itself to be a very popular facsimile. It is a collective sensory memory—one that embraces family, cultural birthright and regional customs—that comes alive whenever it’s eaten. On a recent episode of Top Chef, Butterfunk’s chef Chris said, “One day, people will give soul food the respect that it deserves.” The truth is, we already do.
For those black folk who still maintain Sunday rituals, dinner usually happens right after church service in an adjoining kitchen because historically, it was important to attend to the stomach as well as the soul. Black grandmothers who’ve spent decades cooking and baking every delicious thing under our sun lovingly prepare enough food for the entire congregation. Those who venture away from these hallowed communal tables have a favorite restaurant in mind, one that is well-respected and frequented often by us—and virtually unheard of anywhere else. The interpretation of the South we carry tends to sustain and revive us, and leaves us looking for the best of it in others along the way.
By reaching out to embrace family favorites and childhood memories, Butterfunk embodies a part of the South that exists in Chef Chris’s imagination— one where Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, DC are interconnected. One bite of his version of the gospel bird—lemonade buttermilk fried chicken, properly brined and seasoned to near perfection—and I knew that the host of Southern black women who engaged him in the kitchen at an early age are with him, still. The brown sugar biscuits confirmed it, their sweetness colliding beautifully with each savory crunch. Yes, I’ve had better macaroni and cheese—but I’d be hard-pressed to say where, exactly. And the collard greens tasted like your favorite auntie made them.
To tell you the truth, I couldn’t imagine any of the black folk that I know in Butterfunk on a Sunday. If the start time isn’t enough of a deterrent, the wait, which was up to two hours for those who arrived after 6pm, is definitely a reason to leave. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine that they wouldn’t enjoy it. Our Southern ways are elevated here. This food tastes like home and the music sounds like it, too.
Gospel Sundays take place every Sunday starting at 5:30 at Butterfunk Kitchen, 1295 Prospect Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11218.