still remember the first time I tasted my grandmother’s cornbread. I was maybe four or five. It was sometime in the seventies. If I close my eyes, I can still see the heavy cast-iron skillet being set on her wobbly table with a couple of pot rags underneath to keep from burning the laminate.
“Now, don’t you touch that pan, ya hear. It’ll burn the skin right off your fingers, Halia,” she said as she sliced into the piping hot bread . . . all golden and steaming and smelling of sweetness. I watched her lift the first slice onto a plate and wished it was for me, but the first slice always went to Granddaddy.
“When you work the night shift at the factory to pay the bills around here, you’ll get the first slice,” Grandmommy said to me as I watched the slice of cornbread pass on by me and land in front of my grandfather. I guess I really didn’t mind, though. I loved Granddaddy. I didn’t see him too often. He worked nights and slept during the day, but he always had a kind word for me, and, according to Grandmommy, “he was one of the ‘good ones.’ ” She’d say it all the time: “I’ve got myself a good man. He’s one of the
When I did get my slice, I wasted no time cutting off a big piece with my fork and plunging it in my mouth. It had a taste that danced on my tongue . . . a sweet yet salty flavor with a texture somewhere between bread and cake. Unlike a lot of cornbread, there was no need to spread any butter on my grandmother’s recipe. It was so sweet and moist that more butter would have been overkill. She made it with cornmeal, flour, sugar, an entire stick of butter, and a full cup of sour cream. She’d add a can of cream corn and a can of regular corn, and then mix it all up before pouring it into a cast-iron skillet to bake to a golden brown in her prize possession, her 1964 Lady Kenmore oven.
From then on, whenever I ate that decadent cornbread, I thought that it should be served in restaurants. And now, more than thirty years after I first tried it, I serve it to all my customers—small two-top tables get a small pan, four-tops get a medium pan, and six-tops get a large pan. Eight-tops? Those get two medium pans. And don’t ask me about ten-tops. If customers come in here with more than eight in their party, I tell them I can only accommodate them at two tables. As my cousin Wavonne, who has a way of telling it like it is, says, “Ain’t nothin’ worse than a large party. They’ll run us ragged with special requests and complaints ’til our tongues be hangin’ out our mouths and then leave a five percent tip.”
The first pan of Grandmommy’s cornbread is on the house, but we do charge for additional pans. I love and appreciate my customers, but we do get the occasional low-class fools in here who would have no problem filling up on my free cornbread and ordering virtually nothing else. I’m a cook (I’ve never felt comfortable with the term “chef,” considering I don’t have so much as a day of professional culinary training), and I love to see people enjoy my food, but I’m also a businesswoman, and a sister has to make some money.
When I opened Mahalia’s Sweet Tea in the heart of Prince George’s County, Maryland, I thought long and hard about whether or not my grandmother’s cornbread was going to be free or available on the menu for a charge. I didn’t like the idea of my customers filling up on heavy cornbread and later skipping appetizers or desserts . . . and affecting my bottom line, but I think restaurant patrons really like the idea of getting something “free” with a meal, so I decided to work it into my prices and make it complimentary—one of the many times I’ve followed the advice of Wavonne. “You know, Halia,” she said to me when she was helping me launch the restaurant, which mostly amounted to her doing her nails or reading the latest issue of
while I did all the work. “What would Red Lobster be without those free salty biscuits with all the cheese up in ’em? Hell, I wouldn’t even go to the Olive Garden if I didn’t get that big ol’ free basket o’ bread sticks . . . even if those greedy buggers do charge you for somethin’ to dip ’em in.”
I thought about what Wavonne said. I certainly wanted my restaurant held in higher regard than Red Lobster and Olive Garden (not that I don’t like to help myself to one of those “salty biscuits with the cheese all up in ’em” every now and then myself), but she did have a point. Wavonne is not a girl of academic intelligence—I swear the only reason she graduated high school was because the teachers couldn’t bear another year of her mouthing off. She’s more concerned with Bey-oncé’s latest video than who was confirmed onto the Supreme Court, and, if she didn’t work for me (and I use the term “work” loosely), I’m not sure she’d be able to hold a job at all. But the thing about Wavonne is that she has a sense about what makes people tick . . . what makes them behave the way they do. She warned me that the customers who kept their bluetooth earpieces on during dinner were most likely to be the ones to run my staff to death with complaints about everything from the location of their table to the prices on the menu . . . and then tip worse than a certain former Washington, D.C., mayor. She gave me some good advice about going with black linen napkins instead of white: “The white napkins’ll get lint all over those tight black hoochie dresses your customers gonna be wearin’.” And I even followed her advice about the dinner lighting in the restaurant: “Halia, you gotta lower the lights in here. A sistah wants to look good for her man over dinner and ain’t all the Oil of Olay in the world gonna make some of the heifers who be comin’ in here look presentable in this light.”
So the cornbread, thanks to Wavonne and her vast insight, comes with my meals along with a small house salad. I’m looking at that very cornbread right now as I take it to table fourteen while thinking about my grandmother Mrs. Mahalia Hix. Everyone assumes my restaurant is named for myself, but it’s really in honor of the grandmother after which I
my restaurant were named. Grandmommy’s name on the marquee is much deserved—almost half the items on the menu are based on her recipes.
“Girl, he makes my wig go crooked!” Wavonne says as I head back toward the kitchen after making a cornbread delivery. I turn to see who her gaze is on and find Marcus Rand coming through the door of my restaurant. I suppose I should say
restaurant—Marcus is practically a co-owner. I didn’t want his help or his money, but I got in a little over my head when I was opening the place and turned to him as a last resort. I don’t like Marcus nor do I trust him . . . and I’m quite certain that the money he invested in Mahalia’s Sweet Tea isn’t exactly clean. Not that I think Marcus is involved in anything illegal. Unethical? Yes. But
Marcus is too smart for that.
I think he makes some of his money as a financial planner, although financial
is probably a more accurate description of what he does for a living, considering the mutual funds and other products he sells pay steep, some might say “predatory,” commissions. I think he’s also involved in some of those Ponzi-type schemes where you recruit members to sell all sorts of nonsense and everyone pretends that members, or “associates” as Marcus calls them, make lots of money selling quality items when the real money is made by finding other suckers to join the scheme as your underlings so you can take a percentage of their sales (think Amway, Avon, Mary Kay). Marcus is as smooth as butter and uses his charisma to recruit associates, most of them women, all over town. Despite his success in this area, I don’t think you net a mansion on five acres in Mitchellville or a BMW 5-series by recruiting members for pyramid schemes. I’m not sure where his big bucks come from, but some of the people he brings in here for business meetings over my fried chicken and waffles look like they’re into things far more serious than Tupperware or scented candles.
I met Marcus more than ten years ago when I was a line cook and occasional server at a restaurant a few miles outside D.C. in Virginia. Marcus was in his early thirties at the time but looked about the same as he does now. He has a shaved head, big brown eyes, and a smile for days. He’s charismatic, charming, and confident. I guess he’s about medium in height . . . maybe five feet nine or so and quite fit. He keeps his lean body firm and likes to wear tight shirts that show no hint of fat around his abs and highlight sculpted biceps so fine you just want to squeeze them. His skin is a rich dark color, and, to this day, his complexion reminds me of those Palmer hollow milk chocolate bunnies they sell at the drugstore before Easter, which is quite fitting—much like those hollow bunnies, as I’d learn shortly after I met him so many years ago, while pretty to look at, Marcus is made with cheap ingredients that leave a foul taste in your mouth.
“He makes me think of that song by that gawky white girl with the long legs and the itty-bitty titties,” Wavonne says as Marcus approaches. “Somethin’ about ‘I knew you were trouble when you walked in’ or some shit.”
“Hi, sugar, how’s it going today?” Marcus, decked out in one of his Hugo Boss suits with coordinating French-cuffed shirt and silk tie, says to Wavonne as he reaches for her hand, giving it a quick kiss.
Wavonne smiles. “Just fine,” she says, tilting her head and doing that thing she does with her eyes whenever an attractive man is around. “Don’t you smell nice.”
“Thank you, sugar,” Marcus says. “It’s my new custom scent. I had it made just for me.”
Wavonne inhales deeply. “It smells good. Sort of like spiced rum.” She takes another breath. “And maybe some dark chocolate.”
Marcus, like so many brothers, wears too much cologne. I don’t care if it smells like spiced rum, or dark chocolate . . . or Taye Diggs for that matter. I’m just not a fan of cologne and perfume. It gives me a headache and irritates my sinuses. Marcus’s cologne is so strong, and he wears it so heavily, that it often lingers in the restaurant for hours after he’s left. Sometimes, just from standing near him, the scent gets in my clothes and doesn’t come out until I wash them. I ask my staff to refrain from wearing cologne or perfume even though Wavonne defies me here and there and sprays herself with all sorts of stinky nonsense. When customers come into Sweet Tea, I want them to smell my food, not Mary J. Blige’s latest overpriced fragrance.
“And you, Halia?” he says to me, stopping himself in midreach. Not only does he know better than to call me sugar, he also knows I’ll refuse to offer my hand for him to kiss. I ain’t buying what he’s selling, and he knows it.
“Busy. What do you want, Marcus?” I ask, knowing that the only reason Marcus would come by in the middle of the day is because he wants something.
“Can’t I just stop by to say hi to my two favorite ladies?”
“Sure you can. It’s just that you never do.”
come to say hi, but I also want to talk to you about reserving a table tonight. I’ve got three associates to entertain this evening and Régine and Jacqueline will be joining, as well.”
“You could have called, Marcus. You know I’ll have the big table by the windows all ready for you.”
“Great. I’m sure you’ll be serving plenty of fried chicken and waffles, but one of my guests is a vegetarian. Any chance you’ll be making that famous sweet corn casserole of yours?”
“No,” I say flatly.
“Are you sure? I mentioned it to Heather, my guest who’s a vegetarian, and she was very excited about it.”
“Tell her to hold on to that excitement for a few more days. It will be a special on Monday night. And probably the last time I serve it until corn comes back in season in the spring.” I often reserve some of my best specials for Monday and Wednesday nights when people tend to eat out less and need a little more motivation to come in here and spend their money.
“Can you move it up on the schedule? For me? Please.” Being the snake charmer that he is, Marcus says this like he’s asking. But we both know it’s more of a demand than a request. If I refuse, he’ll slyly remind me of the money he loaned me to get this place off the ground . . . how he helped me when I needed it, and now it’s my turn.
“Marcus, that dish takes a lot of time. And I can’t just make it for your guests. If other customers see it coming out of the kitchen, they’ll want it, too.”
“Great. Cha-ching Cha-ching. You’ll rack up some serious sales.”
“I don’t have enough fresh corn in the kitchen today, and I can’t get it wholesale at this late hour. We’re into fall. Fresh corn is not as easy to come by as it was a few months ago. You get me the corn, and I’ll do the best I can.”
“Where should I get it from?”
“The Safeway for all I care. Wendy at Shadow’s Catering always has a lot of fresh produce on hand, and she owes me a favor. Maybe you can work out a deal with her.” I’m willing to cave to Marcus to an extent, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to run around buying fresh corn on the cob at the last minute while I’m trying to run a restaurant. I’m sure he’ll push the job off on his sister, Jacqueline, anyway.
“Okay. I’ll get Jacqueline on it. Thanks, Halia. You’re the best.”
“Yeah, yeah . . .”
“If I can’t get fresh corn, will frozen do?”
just ask me that? The only frozen thing I serve in this restaurant, Marcus, is ice.”
He smiles. “My bad . . . my bad. That’s why everything is so good.”
And he’s right. The best food starts with the best ingredients. Everything we serve at Sweet Tea is made from scratch. All of our meats and vegetables are fresh, many from local farms. We even cut and broil our own house-made sourdough croutons because no package variety comes close to my recipe. We make all our salad dressing in-house because the bottled brands don’t have the creamy thickness I want, and we chop lettuce daily for all our salads—taste the lettuce that comes precut in a plastic bag, and you’ll know why. And, of course, all of the tea at Sweet Tea is fresh brewed on the premises. Every day we offer unsweetened, sweetened, and a special flavored tea. Today’s special tea is honey clove. And, okay, so we do use canned corn in my complimentary cornbread, but that’s how Grandmommy made it, too, so I figure we get a pass on that one.