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Birney Imes: Cooking from the soul


Birney Imes



"You have a Mr. Beauregard R. here to see you." It was Felicia in the front office. Beauregard or "Beau" was in town visiting a friend and I''d invited them for lunch on Thursday. He lives in St. Augustine, Fla., and is a painter. 


He''s not a young man. I only say that because Beauregard is not a name one encounters among the young. The best known of the Beauregards was P.G.T., the Confederate general who led the Confederate forces at Shiloh and Corinth. Beauregard, the general, was actually a Creole born on a sugar cane plantation outside New Orleans, who only learned English when he was sent to school in New York City at age 12. 


My lunch guest who had been in town since Tuesday was charmed by all he had seen (and as far as I know has no connection to the general other than being of Louisiana origin). He''s also a vegetarian. 


Even so, I had suggested Helen''s Kitchen for lunch. Despite its ample selection of vegetables, Helen''s is not the first option that comes to mind when considering meatless fare. With soul food cooking, pork shows up everywhere you look, vegetables too.  


Yet, Helen''s offers a distinctive dining experience, something visitors always seem to appreciate. 


I can remember during my school days eating seafood on a table with a newspaper tablecloth in a room behind a gas station in Convent, La., and not so long ago standing with a group in front of a small mountain of steaming crawfish, chicken, and vegetables on a kraft paper covered plywood tabletop behind my brother Gene''s barn. Years past I''ve sat elbow-to-elbow at long wooden tables under a tin roof at Magowah eating the thick Brunswick Stew served at the Phillips boys'' annual shindig and perused the Times-Picauyne while enjoying homemade biscuits and eggs in a booth at the Hummingbird Hotel, a skid-row establishment on St. Charles in N.O. Good food is an essential ingredient for a memorable dining experience, but the setting, one''s companions and the experience itself are what linger in the memory. 


Take Fleet''s for example. In the not-too-distant past, Norfleet Reichle''s down home (literally) lunch place on West Lowndes Drive was where you took someone for a memorable lunch. Having to negotiate a pile of homegrown food at a table of high-strung strangers, say a Terry Brown or a Sam Pilkinton, is, well, a memory. 


Down-home places such as Fleet''s and Helen''s provide a common ground where all sorts of folks gather for a pleasurable pause in their day. Regardless of political affiliation, race, gender or socioeconomic group, here is something they all will agree on, good food. Ideas and information are exchanged; friendships are maintained; a sense of community nurtured. 


On Thursday at Helen''s we had before us chicken, fried and baked with dressing; barbecue ribs and pigs'' feet along with yams, rice, mashed potatoes and green beans. Everyone, even the vegetarians among us, managed just fine. 


Helen, who has been in business for 21 years, is coming out with a cookbook in time for Christmas. "Helen''s Kitchen: Cooking from the Soul; Southern Cuisine & Family" will be a compilation of Karriem family recipes. Helen''s daughter, Ayesha Karriem-Mayagoitia, who lives in Los Angeles, said Saturday the family is in the final stages of editing and production of the cookbook. 


"I don''t know how she still does it," said Ayesha of her mother. "Fourteen-hour days; up at 4:30." 


The family is hoping to have cookbooks in hand for a Nov. 21 tasting at the restaurant. The event will also be a birthday celebration for Helen who will turn 73 the next day. 


Any cookbook publisher should be so fortunate to have success enjoyed by "A Grand Heritage: A Culinary Legacy of Columbus Mississippi." According to its publisher, Lynda Rood, the book is in its third printing and sales since its initial 1983 publication are around 30,000. 


The cookbook is a classic -- it''s anything but lean cuisine, though -- and Rood says, other that a few corrections, nothing''s changed from the original. 


"A Grand Heritage" is sold through local gift shops and by word of mouth. The publisher (co-publisher, actually. Juliaette Sharp is Rood''s partner) has a box of books in her car trunk. 


Originally intended as a fund raiser for Heritage Academy, Sharp and Rood brought the rights after the first printing. Demand held up and the two reprinted the cookbook in 1987 and in 2003. Inventory is down to less than 1,000 books. 


Rood laughed when I asked her if there would be a fourth printing. "I wouldn''t say absolutely not, but I seriously doubt it."


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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Reader Comments

Article Comment Kirsten Cox commented at 11/2/2009 9:02:00 AM:

I love Helen's Kitchen! The food it the best and Helen's is a great hostess. They just launched a new website, Go check it out!


Article Comment Mimi commented at 12/2/2009 11:05:00 AM:

Hey, Uncle Birn! Great article! It made me HUNGRY!I was trying to find a recipe from A GRAND HERITAGE online while I'm at work to share with a friend, and your article came up in the search! I have A GRAND HERITAGE at home, everything I make out of it here in KC, my friends can't get enough of!! Take care, can't wait to see you at Christmas!! MEEMS


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