Food for the soul

We are living in troubled times. The shadow of 9/11 and the possibility of further acts of terrorism pervade our daily thoughts. Where before we had felt safe from foreign invaders, the government now gives us a daily notice of the level of the terrorist threat. The war with Iraq frightens even those who support it. The economy was flat for too damn long, and the recent uptick has been modest. Not to make light of this, I do offer some respite, albeit small by comparison — soul food. Food for the soul. Comfort food. Fried chicken, meat loaf, macaroni and cheese. Smothered anything. Sweet potatoes. Collard greens and the pot liquor they brew, with corn bread to sop it up. I’m not sure what first drew me to soul food. It probably began with a plate of barbecued ribs or some fried chicken; then grew to include corn bread, biscuits, and greens. Next came Cajun and Creole food that I discovered when I went to Jazzfest in New Orleans. Although I was slow to try catfish, it’s now a favorite of mine. I love gumbo, whether it’s thickened with roux, filé, or okra, or a little of each, the way that I make it. Jambalaya, red beans and rice, crawfish étouffée, barbecued shrimp, are all part of the soul kitchen. And although not all of these dishes are served at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the soul food there is one of the best kept secrets in Detroit.

Baker’s has always been, first and foremost, a jazz club, the world’s oldest continuously operated one at that. There were sandwiches on the menu, but they weren’t often ordered. In 1996, when John Colbert and Juanita Jackson bought the club from Clarence Baker, it became a restaurant as well. Over the years I’ve gotten to know John, a former cop, who has immersed himself in running the club and in preserving the history of jazz. He also does his part in securing the future of this great American art form by running jam sessions several nights a week, allowing players young and old to sit in with the house bands that play, testing their development with the critical audiences that frequent this bastion of musical history night after night.

Baker’s is now serving up some of the best soul food our city has to offer. Ever since sampling the food at the “new” Baker’s, I have attempted to meet Juanita, to try to coax some secret recipes out of her and to learn more about this early American cuisine that has gained popularity across the nation as part of our culinary heritage. She was never available when I was there. I began to wonder if she really existed. Last night, I asked John if I was ever going to meet her. He turned to a woman sitting at the bar and asked whether she had a few minutes to chat with me. Indeed, it was the legendary chef herself. She smiled, warmly greeted me and directed me to a quiet booth where she spoke openly about her past and her kitchen.

Juanita, sometimes referred to as Miss Juanita, learned to cook at her mother’s and her grandmother’s side. Back in the day she never used spoons or cup to measure ingredients, using a pinch of this or “ about this much” of that. The recipes were all formulas in her head, likely changing from time to time, improving with age. She told me about growing up in Springfield, Ky., on a farm where her family raised a few pigs and cows and grew corn, okra, tomatoes, beans and all manner of greens.

She recalled being whupped only once, by her grandmother. She told me that as a child she loved hot cake, fresh out of the oven. Grandma had baked some cakes for the family she worked for, and when she left the kitchen for a minute, Juanita sliced off the bottom of one of the cakes and put the “short” cake back on the plate, consuming the missing slice. When her grandmother returned, she sent the child out back to fetch three switches, which she promptly did. “Too small,” said Grandma. Juanita brought back three larger ones, which were used on her before she spent the night in the cellar for the first and last time. Juanita laughed as she recalled this incident. She is a warm woman, with an easy laugh. She is beautiful, inside and out, stylishly dressed and poised with a gentleness that survived years of hard work in the restaurant business, first as a barmaid and finally as the owner of her own establishments.

In 1980 she and a friend bought a bar on McNichols and Schaefer which was then named Juanita’s. For the next 12 years, this is where she served the food she had learned to cook as a child and became famous, especially for her fried chicken wings, which earned her a reputation as Detroit’s “Wing Queen.” These remain the most popular item served today at Baker’s. The wings are cleaned, she emphasized, then seasoned and shaken with flour, then deep-fried ’til crispy. They are not spicy. “If you like them spicy — not everyone does — put on hot sauce.”

Juanita is aware of evolving concerns about healthy dining. The oil used for frying is canola oil. The food is not heavily salted as soul food once was, in deference to those who worry about their blood pressure. However that does not limit diners who prefer the more traditional dishes. The menu includes fried catfish — my personal favorite — baked chicken with dressing, roast turkey, salmon patties, fried chicken livers and gizzards. The meat loaf is a mixture of beef, finely chopped onion and peppers, which is seasoned and topped with tomato sauce. It is moist and delicious. Other seafood selections are pickerel, whiting, perch and shrimp. One dish not on the menu that is available by request — usually — is blackened catfish. The moist, rich, sweetness of catfish is the perfect foil for the burning spice coating that is seared on in a white-hot cast iron skillet. Pork chops, fried or smothered, are offered as is a requisite hamburger and fries. End your meal with a simple peach cobbler, topped with brown sugar and a touch of nutmeg. Thanks to Juanita, Baker’s has now become destination dining.

One of Juanita’s favorite stories is about the evening she was walking down the street in Las Vegas, when a Detroiter approached her asking if she had any wings in her purse. She threw her head back in laughter as I enjoyed the tale. Obviously, she is proud to be our Wing Queen.

Baker’s is located at 20510 Livernois, just south of the gas station at the southeast corner of Eight Mile. The phone number is 313-345-6300. There is an attended parking lot on the same side of the street. If you’ve never been there, go as soon as you can. If you haven’t been there in a while, hurry back. It’s a treasure. Don’t miss it.

Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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