“Is that all?” The cashier asked with a baleful look at my tray.
“All” was a plate filled to the edges with fried bream coated in cornmeal, a dome of macaroni and cheese (heavy on the cheese), another dome of collard greens, and a generous square of cornbread, plus lemonade.
“Yes,” I said nervously.
She cracked a smile. “Get some tartar sauce,” she said, gesturing to a blue and white crock next to my elbow.
It was a good question to ask, though. It wasn’t quite noon, and customers in line at Madison Day Kitchen had already been told they’d have to wait for more catfish and more fried chicken.
Luckier customers were already seated, happily eating from trays piled high with all that was good and Southern from The Kitchen’s buffet line.
It’s known fondly as UHOP, Madison’s and now The Kitchen, but the lunchroom inside the United House of Prayer for All People on Wrightsboro Road has for decades specialized in the type of traditional Southern lunches that only true Southerners know how to make well.
Open Monday to Saturday, the menu changes daily, but feature items such as fried bream, catfish and whiting, pigs’ feet, pork chops, Salisbury steak, ribs or fried chicken, plus collards, macaroni and cheese, rice and gravy, cabbage, potato salad and slaw.
It’s the kind of place that offers desserts like Sock It To Me cake and specials like chitterlings and rice. (For the uninitiated, let me gently explain – chitterlings are pigs’ intestines typically served either boiled or breaded and fried. Plenty of hot sauce is advised.)
I’d confided earlier to my neighbor in line, “I’ve never had bream before … is it good?”
“Oh yes,” he said, nodding vigorously. He looked as though he knew what he was talking about. “But,” he leaned in a little, “it’s bony. But I eat it right down to the bone!”
The soldiers who had been in line ahead of me were still waiting patiently for their catfish and chicken as I sat down with friends Connie and Sheila. Patience like that means the food has to be pretty good.
My brother, who is a hearty eater, would have been impatient with the fish – there’s not much fillet meat and, yes, it was very bony. I had to be careful to tease out the thin needles of bones as I picked through it. But the meat was incredibly sweet and delicate, not at all greasy. Dipped in the mouth-puckering tartar sauce, together with the seasoned cornmeal, it made a delicious bite.
I had a hard time keeping up my part of the conversation as I alternated among the fish, collards and mac and cheese. The collards were tender, with just the right balance of flavor (no extra hot sauce or vinegar needed). And the mac and cheese! – I could have curled up in a bed of that mac and cheese.
I usually save my cornbread for last, and as I broke off a piece, Sheila’s eyes lit up.
“Aren’t you going to eat the tailfin?” she asked.
“Um, no.” Pause. “Do you want it?”
“Yes!” she exclaimed. I pulled it off the fish and gave it to her.
“There’s nothing more Southern than this,” Sheila laughed, as she bit into the cornmeal-fried tailfin like a crispy potato chip.
Growing up in an Asian household, I had eaten many unusual things, but had never seen anyone eat a tailfin. But, judging by how quickly Sheila finished it, I knew it had to be good.
“Haven’t you ever heard of this?” Connie asked. “No,” I said. “And this is the first time that I’ve ever seen it, right now, right in front of me!”
As we all laughed, a lady in a yellow apron padded over to refill my teeth-achingly sweet lemonade and hand out to-go containers for our leftovers. I didn’t need one – with Sheila polishing off my tailfin, my plate was clean, and I was full.
Inside the softly lit space of The Kitchen, with a gentle light shining through the large plate glass and stained glass windows, I could almost have fallen asleep.
Sheila had bought dessert to share, and I managed two small bites of the incredibly rich banana pudding (firm chunks of vanilla wafers, with sweet bananas and even sweeter whipped cream) before I took myself out of the game.
As we left, it was nearing 1:30 but the kitchen – and the eating – was still going strong.
If you go, bring an empty stomach, a $10 bill (that’s about all lunch will cost you and they only accept cash) and your friends. Because you never know when one woman’s tailfin might be another woman’s treat.
ON THE MENU
WHERE: Madison Day Kitchen, United House of Prayer for All People, 1269 Wrightsboro Road (bear right at the fork)
HOURS: Breakfast, 7:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday; lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday-Saturday
SECOND HELPING: Cash only; (706) 722-3114