(And Finding Good Eats in Columbus, Georgia)
By L. Kasimu Harris
Last week, as my companion Ariel Wilson and I pulled into the church’s parking lot, any hope of catching up with family members was dashed when we saw a woman walking to her car with an aluminum pan of food. It was a Sunday afternoon and we drove up south, from New Orleans to Columbus, Ga., for the funeral of my partner’s aunt. Although the services weren’t until the next day, the repast was over. We missed the visitation. I didn’t expect that they’d have songs, stories, and a ceremony by members of her aunt’s Order of Eastern Star chapter, who also served their baked chicken, macaroni and cheese and many types of cornbread and cakes. I don’t normally go to funerals. But when I do, I appreciate those that provide food and congregation.
Prior to departing New Orleans, I quipped that we’d have to eat dinner at Applebee’s or Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon. I thought Columbus was a hamlet, full of strip malls and chain restaurants, and I had low expectations for food. All I knew about the city was that Alan Rothschild, founder of The Do Good Fund, lived there. The place has beauty. But, I’d never seen so many churches in my life, and every other billboard seemed related to Fort Benning, the nearby military installation. Usually, when traveling, I tap friends’ prior experiences for reconnaissance. Since I didn’t have a chance this time, I went hunting for dinner on my own, with Yelp’s help.
I chose 7th Street Provisions in Columbus’ Historic District. My girlfriend’s cousin accompanied us. We ordered the mushroom turnovers, with duxelles and au poivre dipping sauce. We had a round of drinks, I picked the Tallulah Belle with Belle Meade Bourbon, house made peanut orgeat and served with Coca-Cola, in an eight ounce glass bottle. I had two of those drinks, and used about two ounces of the Coke. The French inspired Southern cuisine restaurant opened last November. From the ever changing paper menu, I had the Duck Saison, seared breast, brussels sprouts, butternut squash, red cabbage, butter beans, a l’orange. Ariel ate the Blackened Salmon, creamed grits, roasted corn leeks, lobster etouffee and had bacon on the side. And Nigel, still stuffed from the repast, ate light and had the Bistro Salad with shaved apple, vidalia onion, white cheddar, candied walnuts, sunny egg, cherry bordeaux vinaigrette.
Everything was tasty, but we agreed that Ariel picked the best dish. Her fish was well-seasoned and perfectly cooked, with flavor all through the dish.
Last year, Lori Gilpatrick and Chris Williams, friends and recent co-workers, heard that a new restaurant was opening and showed up looking for jobs. They found a for sale sign on the long shuttered eatery and quickly became owner-operators, tasked with a complete remodeling job. It took them about nine months and they did most all of the work themselves, from building the tables to installing the white tile in the kitchen. Gilpatrick runs the bar and Williams is the executive chef and their care in construction was as meticulous as the menu. We left satisfied.
The next morning, time got the best of us and we weren’t as successful finding breakfast. After a failed attempt that took us across town and too close to the noon start time of the funeral, we scrambled into Piggly Wiggly. I grabbed a fruit bowl and juices, she got popcorn and later asked for some of my fruit.
Years earlier, Ariel sung at her uncle Thaddieus’ funeral that day, she sat calmly and listened to the praises of her aunt, Redena, a stylish woman, who gave awesome hugs and always served others. After the services, Thad Jr., was tasked with deciding where we’d eat lunch. And as the family waited for his choice, I hoped he would take us to some down home place, or something exotic--but, he wanted Lone Star Steakhouse & Saloon. More than a dozen people sat together, to share appetizers, stories and laughs. This was repast. Until a day ago, I didn’t realize that repast simply means a meal — I always thought it was the meal after a funeral. Keith Cromartie, a Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc., Brother of mine, from the same chapter at Middle Tennessee State, albeit 26 years apart, said his current alumni chapter of Kappa, in Huntsville, Ala., often celebrates repast, their brotherly meal, before formal meetings. Cromartie was in the military and had been apart of or witnessed funeral "repast" or "repass" (both are correct) across multiple ethnicities, classes, races in the South and Northeast America, Asia and in Europe. His mother worked in the community and in January after her cremation, the repast was held in a gym to accommodate the hundreds of people. Cromartie said: “ It was an upbeat celebration of her life with music, food, drink--a reunion.”
Meghan Gallagher, a classmate in graduate school said in her Irish family, the meal after funeral is a "Celebration of Life.” And her experience were the same as Cromartie’s family and and so many others: lots of stories, food and adult beverages. “People have to eat,” Gallagher said. “You're giving everybody something to do, whether it's shop, cook, eat, or clean up, its comforting a little bit.”
Before returning to New Orleans, we tried Minnie's Uptown Restaurant, a meat-and-three. Although it was “free chicken leg day,” we still ordered more chicken, green beans and macaroni and cheese, with its browned edges that I love, and sweet tea. The taste was akin to a meal your mother made at home for the family.
“It pretty much is, my mother still seasons the pots,” said Melinda “The Chicken Lady” Newton about her mother, Rose. Newton added that she doesn’t like a lot of salt, her mother prefers more and then there is someone in the middle. “We don’t skip out on the details on the food, if it's not right, it’s not going to go to the line.”
The chicken is soaked in a brine overnight, and then coated with a special batter that has seasoned flour and special oil to deep fry the chicken.
Minne started the eatery in 1988, when she was in her 50s. Six years into opening the restaurant, she had a massive heart attack. Since then, Newton’s mother has overseen the more hands on operations. Newton had no plans to work in the business. “No, never, I wanted to be a race car driver,” she said. Now, she drives a BMW 6 series that “has about 544 horsepower.” Newton joined the family business about 16 years ago and now runs it with her mother. Newton’s 20-year-old twin sons are involved too. But, Minnie hasn’t fully retired.
“She comes in daily, to tell us how she could do it better,” Newton quipped. Minnie bought an old dirt floor general store, in a row of connected buildings that housed a bakery and laundromat, and turned it into a restaurant. They ran both the eatery and bakery, until the eatery kept growing and eventually overtook the other two businesses. They still use century old equipment from the bakery.
Newton has started expanding, too. She has The Chicken Lady BBQ sauce that’s sold regionally and has plans for a second restaurant. She said the food scene is growing and “It’s almost like we’re becoming a little mini Savannah, Georgia.” Newton said Columbus has three microbreweries and contemporary upscale places like 11th and Bay and Epic, both located in the Uptown area of Columbus, where some of the brick buildings date back to the 1800s and are located along the Chattahoochee River. The city has changed a lot since Minnie’s opened, folk didn’t live in the area and went home after work. Now, it’s bustling.
They serve lunch only and are closed on Saturdays--but, Newton is reconsidering both of those. Sundays, after church, is their busiest day of the week. I told Newton that I’d traveled to Columbus for a funeral and asked about the repast tradition. She said two weeks earlier, one of their regulars brought in about 40 people after a graveside service.
“I think food brings comfort for everyone, even when we are stressed,” Newton said. “Everyone from Dan Amos, the CEO of Aflac, behind him is a city a worker that works in the sewer and then there is a nurse — there is not division, when enjoying a good meal. Food brings everyone together. It always has, and always will.”