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Kissing Cousins 

Family traditions reign in southern culture

Cousin James Café
3900 Wilkinson Blvd. 704-399-9947.
Hours: Mon.-Sat.
11:30am - 11pm.
Same menu all day. Lunch specials served until 3pm. MC, Visa. Catering. Take out.

Baked, fried, smothered or barbecued are cooking terms used in the Southern Country kitchen. Depending upon where you have lived, you might label this cuisine as either "Soul Food" or "Country Cooking." In large, urban non-southern centers such as New York and Chicago, restaurants that feature pork chops, fried chicken, collards, and sweet potato pie are termed "Soul Food" restaurants. Sylvia Woods, for example, has been serving gravy-smothered chicken and biscuits in her renowned "soul food" restaurant in Harlem for the past 30 years. On the other hand, Southern cookbook authors Dori Sanders of York, SC, and Edna Lewis of Virginia both use the term "Country Cooking" to describe their dishes. Whether you call it soul or country, this style of cooking reflects a slice of southern rural life.In December, owner James Crosby opened Cousin James Cafe on Wilkinson Boulevard. Crosby decided on this location since the area was devoid of, as he put it, "soul food" restaurants. The building, once a pizza restaurant, is located across the street from land being rebuilt as part of the city's revitalization effort of the West Corridor. Of the name of his restaurant, Crosby says, "Cousin makes you think African American," but notes that 60 percent of his customers are "non-black."

Many of these down home eateries have prospered in Charlotte for decades and as is common to barbecue restaurants, these spots draw a diverse crowd. What the patrons have in common is looking for good food at a good price. Cousin James is such a place.

Cousin James sparkles. "A reflection of my past," says Crosby who is retired from the Marine Corp. His white glove treatment extends from the exterior and interior brick being painted white to a crisp interior with a rough-hewn coziness. Tables are covered with colorful sunflower tablecloths and broad windows flood the room with light. Orders are taken at the front counter, but food is delivered to the table.

Southern county cooking is associated with family traditions handed down from one generation to the next. Although Crosby was trained in the culinary arts at Ivey Tech State College in Indiana, he grew up helping his grandma, Mary Ella Rogers, cook on the family farm in Evergreen, AL, a small town located near the coast.

"I was always hanging around the kitchen to help. I was Grandmama's little boy," Crosby notes. "She taught me her recipes. We lived on a farm. There were 11 of us and although times got extremely hard, we always had enough to eat and clothes on our back."

Crosby moved to Charlotte with his wife, Ramona Halloway, who is part of the Matt & Ramona team on 107.9, The Link. Cousin James Cafe is his first restaurant endeavor.

The menu is simple and predictable with scheduled daily specials such as meatloaf, baked spaghetti, and barbecue ribs. More specials are handwritten on a board beside the entrance. The main menu roster includes fried chicken, baked chicken, fried pork chops, and fried croaker. Sides include macaroni and cheese, rice, pinto beans, candied yams, broccoli casserole, garlic mashed potatoes, potato salad, and collards.

One of the stereotypes of this rural cuisine is that most elements are artery clogging and swimming in sugar and fat. But in the past 10 years, more attention has been paid to healthy alternatives and this is where Crosby's culinary training kicks in. Crosby, for example, has chosen not to use pork fat to season his collards. Instead he uses a housemade chicken stock, a nifty substitute.

His deep fat fried chicken is delicate and greaseless, brash yet crispy, while the baked chicken is falling-off-the-bone tender and has a serene clarity of taste. Crosby buys his chicken fresh (not frozen) from a local supplier. Entrees are inclusive of either a yeast roll (not housemade) or housemade cornbread. The cornbread, on the dry side, is good for mopping the gravy off the plate, but not for stand-alone eating. The best of what I tried was the macaroni and cheese. With its unanticipated exotic sophistication, it proved a standout side dish.

If you have the self control of a Buddhist monk and have saved room for dessert, you may want to bypass the banana pudding which tasted prepackaged and radiated yellow dye, and head straight for the lush depths of Crosby's peach cobbler with its crisp, not soggy, pastry crust. Yum.

At Cousin James, your stick to your ribs meal will fill you up, but not empty your wallet. Dinner entrees range from $5.09 for two pieces of fried dark meat chicken to $6.79 for fried croaker. Entrees are inclusive of two "electric" sides and roll or cornbread. Most lunches with drink (no sodas, only sweet tea, lemonade, coffee and bottled water) come to less than $5.

The old Southern saw of "too much is always enough" fits right in at this no frills down home eatery. Cousin James may not fit into your diet resolutions for this year, but don't let that stop you.

Eaters' Digest

On Saturday, February 8, the Fourth Annual Palm Night gala will be held to raise money for The Family Center, a non-profit agency serving Mecklenburg County and devoted to preventing and treating child abuse and neglect. Last year's event raised $350,000. Tickets are $500 each and all proceeds benefit the Family Center. Contact Anne Schmitt, 704-376-7180, ext. 215 or visit www.palmnight.org. Nationally, Palm Restaurants have a tradition of choosing a local organization to which they can make a substantial contribution. This is the fourth year the Palm has chosen The Family Center.

Do you have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Do you know of a restaurant which has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? You can fax this information, at least 12 days in advance of event date, to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136.

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