Southern Food: When a mess is a good thing

Southern Food: When a mess is a good thing

April 28th, 2013 by Barry Courter in Dish2013

Marsha's Backstreet Cafe sells 30 to 40 pounds of chicken salad every day.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Every so often, Marsha Bain changes up the menu at Marsha's Backstreet Cafe on Brainerd Road, but one thing she never messes with is the chicken salad. It's one of the reasons why people have made Marsha's a regular stop for 14 years.

"We sell between 30 and 40 pounds of chicken salad a day," she says.

The special recipe dish is served on sandwiches, on cold plates and in quart containers to go.

The other reason people come back to sample her Southern comfort food is that "everything is made fresh every day."

"We cut our fresh fries here. The chicken fingers are made from scratch. Everything is fresh."

Almost every restaurateur who specializes in Southern or comfort food has a secret ingredient and it's really not all that secret.

"Love," Bain says. "That's what our customers say about our chicken salad. We make it with love."

Chef Lemont Johnson of Lemont's Catering bases most of his dishes on Southern food, but he likes to mix influences, adding a Jamaican jerk chicken to a mess of collard greens, for example.

Southern cuisine to him is grounded in the spices and ingredients -- onions, garlic, bell peppers -- that we are accustomed to in this part of the country.

"It changes when you add rosemary or dill," he says. "Those are good, but not true Southern."

He adds that recent science has found that things like garlic, leaks and onions are good for you and make you feel better.

"Maybe that's why it's called comfort food," he says.

Herman's Soul Food on Brainerd Road is known for, well, soul food, of course, but on a somewhat grander scale than some might be accustomed. Still, Clifford Billups, who helps run the restaurant with his father, Rodney, says the 6-year-old restaurant has enjoyed its best year to date.

"Homestyle, or Southern food, is coming up," says Billups. "We have a lot of mom-and-pop restaurants. We used to be one of those, but we haven't had one of this magnitude."

Among their more popular dishes is the waffles and chicken, he says. "We also have a grilled chop steak with onion, bell peppers and mushrooms and two sides of your choice. People love it."

Contact staff writer Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfree or at 423-757-6354.