Back home in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, soul food was mostly a rumor, yet for a few years in the late Fifties we had a small diner near the railroad station called Little John’s that served "Southern Specialties" alongside clam chowder, red flannel hash, and other Yankee staples. As you might expect, Little John weighed in at around 300 pounds, most of it gravy. The clearance between his stomach and the counter was never more than an inch, raising the possibility (alas, never realized) of seeing him wedged in place while trying to prepare your No. 3 combination of lima beans, Swiss chard, and smothered steak. Little John never strayed too far from the basic dishes - pork ribs, chicken and dumplings, ham hocks in the winter, occasionally red beans and rice. This was fine with us. Compared to the chipped beef on toast and tuna salad sandwiches that we got in the high school cafeteria, this was truly exotic fare. For a brief period Little John’s became the "in" place among the hip students, meaning those who were into Proust and Miles Davis and boycotted pep rallies. We’d drop by after classes for vegetables and corn bread, or maybe just for coffee, laced with chicory and therefore of far greater snob appeal than Maxwell House. Our enthusiasm apparently did Little John no good, because during my senior year he packed up and went back to Alabama or Mississippi. Fitchburg probably hasn’t seen a ham hock since.
During the Sixties, soul food went from being a cuisine to being a cause. The newspapers ran photographs of Leonard Bernstein and friends gnawing on chicken wings and chitlins in his Fifth Avenue apartment. Craig Claiborne came through regularly with recipes for "Pigs’ Feet Sainte-Menehould" and "Ragout de Pattes" (ham hocks in brown sauce). Living then in Boston, where no cause lacks a constituency, it became obligatory to make several trips a semester to a cafe on Columbus Avenue, in the black section of town. I forget the name of the restaurant - something like Marvin’s or Melvin’s - and can’t remember much about the menu except that chitlins was spelled out as chitterlings on the blackboard. My clearest recollections are of riding home on the MTA, listing contentedly from a combination of red beans and righteousness. Nothing like stuffing yourself for a worthy cause.
Back then I knew what soul food was - greens, gravies, and cornbread, food that stayed with you for days, which isn’t a bad situation when you’re a student. It wasn’t until I moved to Texas that I realized how wobbly that definition was. Most soul food restaurants serve ribs, chicken-fried steak, turkey and dressing. But then so does the Highland Park Cafeteria. Where do you draw the line? And what about grits, smothered steak, and collard greens? Are they soul? Southern? Texas? Country? Southern Country? South Texas? It would be easier to explain the Baroque or chemical bonding.
The picture becomes clearer once you move into the more exotic dishes like hog maw (pig’s stomach, usually marinated), braised oxtails, Hopping John (a heavily seasoned combination of peas, rice, and salt pork or ham), and roast possum with sweet potatoes. These dishes reflect clearly their slave heritage, when blacks had to make do with the leftovers and discards from the master’s table. Authentic soul food is black folk cooking, improvisational, cooking straight from the back garden and the nearby woods. Spices, being store bought and expensive, are used sparingly. Rice, sugar, flour, and onions, maybe a clove of garlic, are the essential ingredients. Plus the touch of the individual cook. It’s that touch, and not merely the ingredients, that makes the difference between good soul food and a gooey mess.
I don’t know whether Little John had the touch, but in the course of traveling around Dallas for several weeks we found plenty of cooks who do. If we’re no closer to a definition of soul food, at least we’re more sensitive to nuances. We’re also ten pounds heavier, lending credence to the notion that if you can’t feel your meal the next day you just haven’t et. Here are some of the places we tried and enjoyed:

Vern’s Place

It would be easy to miss Vern’s, a nondescript brick building at the intersection of Main and Exposition that looks more like an abandoned gas station than a restaurant. But a restaurant it certainly is, one of the most popular in the area judging from the lines at lunch. Vern prepares the standard dishes admirably (braised short ribs, chicken and dumplings, ham hocks, smothered steak), but seems to save her special touch for the vegetables, which are invariably fresh and never boiled away into a tasteless blob. You could make it through most days on a plate of turnip greens, limas, corn, and red beans, plus a slice or two of cornbread and maybe a taste of peach cobbler. The decor at Vern’s is orthodox soul food cafe - flashing beer signs, a trophy shelf, a solitary pool table in the center of the dining room (Positively No Gambling! Balls on the Floor $.25 Fine), and a clunking air conditioner that pulls as much heat in as out. The pool table is in use most of the day, but Vern closes the kitchen the moment she’s sold out, which is generally around 1:30 p.m. So move. (3600 Main. 823-0435. Mon-Fri 7-2.)

L&J Cafeteria

A snug chrome and formica cafeteria, complete with assorted plastic bric-abrac, that just happens to serve other than standard cafeteria fare. We’re very partial to the ham hocks and lima beans at L&J, not to mention the ribs, smothered in a zesty barbecue sauce, and the okra gumbo, which could hold its own with any in town. L&J also does a brisk business in turkey and dressing and smothered steak ("Honey, our regular customers couldn’t get through the week without a taste of our smothered steak," the cashier told us), but since we’d vowed to investigate the more exotic dishes we passed up both. Desserts range from very ordinary puddings and fruit salads to an outstanding sweet potato pie. Even if you can’t get up from the table, have at least one slice of pie. (2410 Pine Street. 428-9743. Open daily 8 am-9 pm, Fri & Sat till 11:30.)

Watson’s Cafeteria
A bustling neighborhood restaurant on Hall Street that caters to everyone from mechanics and truckdrivers to fashion models and downtown business types. Here’s the place to find more hardcore soul food dishes like chitlins, pickled pigs’ feet, braised oxtails (which are really cows’ tails, of course) and hog maw, a dish made of pig’s stomach that is very good once it stops shifting around on your plate. Finish off with peach or blueberry cobbler and coffee. Watson’s appears to make fewer concessions to the uneducated palate than other soul food restaurants, which is one of the reasons that it is so intriguing. Another is simply the mixed clientele. (1819 N. Hall. 823-9061. Mon-Sat 6 am-9 pm.)

The Haunted House Cafe

Since we last visited the Haunted House the owner has painted the interior, put in glass doors and several large windows to relieve the cave-like gloom that formerly prevailed, and strung carved coconuts across the ceiling to add a South Seas flavor. Otherwise, things are pretty much the same. A good restaurant for vegetables, especially yams, turnips, and lima beans. Among the main dishes we like the smothered steak, chicken giblets and noodles, and the various stews, which are generally more imaginatively seasoned than those in other soul food restaurants. Prices are representative: $3.00 for meat and one vegetable, $2.50 for meat only, $3.25 for a vegetable plate. A very dependable restaurant. (2807 Hatcher. 428-9012. Mon-Sat 11-9:30.)

B&J Cafeteria

A popular South Oak Cliff eatery located midway between a body shop and a funeral parlor. Nothing very unusual here, though like most soul food restaurants B&J has daily specials - ham hocks on Wednesday, meat loaf or short ribs on Friday, and so on. They serve a good chicken-fried steak (at this point in our travels we stopped being purists and ordered what looked best), excellent smoked links, and a nicely prepared barbecued chicken, though the sauce tasted suspiciously like Kraft’s. A pleasant, family-run restaurant that’s worth a visit if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Wonderful juke box featuring Isaac Hayes, B.B. King, the Pointer Sisters. (3717 S. Lancaster. 376-7974. Mon-Sat 7-5:30.)

Tweety’s Disco 9000
The name aside, Tweety’s is one of the slicker soul food spots in South Dallas: two large rooms with dark paneling, bead curtains, and attractive original graphics along the walls. The menu is limited to three entrees and a few vegetables for the customary $3 tab. We had a good smothered steak and even better short ribs. The vegetables are fresh, though all seemed to benefit from a good dose of Red Devil hot sauce. We were told that if we wanted to treat ourselves we should come back for some of Tweety’s fried chicken or ham hocks. We may do just that. (2726 Forest Avenue. 428-9274. 7 to 7 daily.)