Where the soul is

Photo by David Robert

The word on the street is that Bert’s doing soul food. And well, according to Bert, he’s been doing soul food all along. He just finally put it on the menu.

At first, it seemed like Bert was coloring outside the lines. I don’t associate a New York deli with the fixings of a food style that has its roots in the slave quarters of the Deep South. After all, Bert’s Deli offers kosher salami and matzo ball bowls and spinach knish.

My mouth waters for spinach knish. And as I wait in line at Bert’s to order, I watch a girl carry off an enormous fresh roast turkey breast with cranberry sauce, bacon and mushroom sandwich.

“Yeah, she won’t finish it,” the guy at the counter informs me. “She’ll be back asking for a to-go box.”

I try not to watch the sandwich as the girl carries it to her table. A bit of drool forms at the corner of my mouth. I’m deeply hungry. I order soul food.

“One soul food plate!” the guy yells back to the cook—Bert in the flesh.

Bert’s BBQ soul food plate ($8.99) sounds like it contains enough protein to feed a starving Somali for a year: hot links, three pork ribs, an enormous mound of beef brisket sliced thin and a mess of baked beans. As a nod to balance, the meal includes a healthy serving of sinus-clearing mustard collard greens.

Will I like it? I don’t know. A friend of mine, a Nigerian woman named Aku who lived in Reno a couple of years ago, introduced me to a kind of soul food with a distinct cooking style all her own.

Aku liked to cook up greens and meats with plenty of zing.

“In Africa, we like to taste our food,” she once told me, wagging her finger. “You Americans eat cuisine that is so … bland.”

Aku concocted some strange stuff. She made something she called foo-foo, out of instant potatoes, okra and chili peppers. She fried plantain with hamburger, onions and chili peppers. I’d never tasted bananas with ground beef before. I could tell right off that this wasn’t going to be one of my comfort foods.

And comfort is, after all, what soul food is really all about. The term came to mean African American food sometime in the 1960s, but, it could be more generally applied to any food that evokes the soothing memories of childhood and family.

For me, soul food could describe things like grilled cheese sandwiches and tuna casserole. Ice cream. Bratwurst. I think this as I wait for my lunch to arrive at the counter. I also peruse the menu for future dining opportunities. Bert’s grilled sandwiches on sourdough sound tempting, like pastrami with onions, pickles, spicy mustard and Swiss cheese. At $8.99, it sounds a little pricey, but the sandwich is served with a choice of potato salad, macaroni salad, cole slaw or French fries. And it’s easily big enough for two people to share.

Some day, I’ll order one of Bert’s “diet” plates. The roast beef diet plate ($8.95) features rare roast sirloin smothered in sautéed mushrooms. Marty’s Diet Plate ($8.59) consists of a half-pound burger with bacon and mushrooms. Marty is my kind of dieter.

Then my soul food arrives.

I taste the bacon in Bert’s beans, which are some of the best I’ve tasted. I gnaw at a rib and follow that with a forkful of tender brisket. I sample a bite of “hot link,” then try to cool my mouth off by sucking on ice. I eat my greens, loving every bite.

I’ve barely made a dent in the amount of food on my plate, when I make Bert’s day by heading back to the counter, declaring my soul to be satiated.

“Can I get a to-go box?"