[The master] did not always provide utensils. Without these, cooking was a simple process, as a former slave recalled: "When the corn is ground, and fire is made, the bacon is ... thrown upon the coals to broil.... The corn meal is mixed with a little water, placed in the fire, and baked. When it is 'done brown,' the ashes are scraped off, and being placed on a chip, which answers for a table, the tenant of the slave hut is ready to sit down upon the ground to supper." The majority of masters provided iron pots, for cooking vegetables and fat pork and "grits," and frying pans for preparing bacon and corn pone."
- Kenneth Stampp, THE PECULIAR INSTITUTION
One wonders what Marx would've made of a place like Larkin's Joint (Colorado & Loleta). In thrall to the vampiric dictates of Capital, slave owners kept their slaves alive as cheaply as possible, often feeding them offal meats (i.e. pigs' feet, oxtail, ham hocks, chitterlings (pig small intestines), pig ears, tripe, skin). Lard, hard to come by, was reused again and again. The offal meats were made palatable with deep frying in lard. The slaves brought their own vegetables with them (okra), and made do with what was at hand (dandelions, tops of turnips). The origins of soul food are misery and pain.
What does one make of this history of pain? Food is almost always a refuge -- and that's what we think of soul food. But we often forget the nightmarish origins of this original comfort food: the need to survive, to make do on the unsightly scraps left by the master, the need to cook one's own meal with rudimentary tools after a day of hard labor. Each greasy bite of soul food is a taste of a sordid, shameful past.
Chef Larkin Mackey (LA Weekly photo)
What does one do with this? One elevates it to art. One reclaims it and makes it beautiful. One makes it into an expression of self and possibility. One absorbs the pain of the past, and uses it as fuel to construct the future, a future framed by the past, but with no borders, and no frontiers.
Larkin's is the most futuristic restaurant in Eagle Rock. As Saint Augustine wrote, praesens de praeteritis (the past is ever present), and nowhere is it more true than at Larkin's, where each meal is, in some way, a history lesson, full of pain and hurt, if you dig deeply enough, but at the same time, an exuberant expression of American possibility. This is America. This is a country built on the backs of slaves and the organized extermination of Native Americans. But this is also a country where Chef Larkin Mackey, a native Californian, can take his training in French and Asian cuisine, the Latin influences of his home state, and create neo-soul food. This is a country in which a Muslim born in Connecticut can marry a Buddhist and love his adopted neighborhood in Los Angeles with all of his heart. America was born in pain and violence, but aspires toward the new, toward a transcendental unity.
The top step of Death.
Soul food will never be good for you. It is soul food -- it comes from profoundly humble origins of hoarding lard, of prizing pork and bacon, of frying the unrecognizable parts to make them palatable. The dumbest thing in the world is to come into Larkin's and complain that the food is "heavy."
The fried chicken here is among the best I've ever tasted. The catfish is perfect -- almost too perfect -- the cornmeal hitting all of the notes of comfort, heartiness, and texture that you didn't think possible in the plastic world of everyday food. The jambalaya is spicy and rich, a massive platter too large for any one diner. The weekend brunches are even better than the dinners, in my view, with glorious pancakes, and fantastic herbed omelets and scrambles. And cornbread. Always cornbread. Mmmm. Take a Lipitor and wash it all down.
Southern caviar (black-eyed peas, other stuff), w/ fried pita
There have always been issues here. The top step on the front steps is a death trap. I've tripped over it myself about half a dozen times. They've got a "CAUTION" sign up there now, but they need to spend the money to just fix it.
The restaurant is nearly invisible. Our waiter -- we always seem to have the same guy, and he's awesome -- said they've thought about a neon sign or some other kind of sign, but they've decided they'd like to try to stay on the downlow a bit. When I mentioned that a lot of people in the neighborhood didn't seem to really know about Larkin's he said something like "And we don't want everybody to know about it."
With all due respect, this seems dumb. Larkin's, with its not-cheap fare, is obviously hurting. (Side note that it's remarkable that people have no problem putting down serious cash for French food at Beaujolais, but balk at paying for soul food, though it's prepared with exquisite care and thought here. Vive la différence?) Larkin's no longer accept credit cards - it's cash only, which is absurd for a place where some of the entrees run to $20. They say they're working on a franchise place downtown and their energies are focused there.
Whatever. We want Larkin's to survive and thrive. It's a crucial part of Eagle Rock, and we'd be poorer without it. Put up a sign. We see the goofy chalkboard with the "WE'RE OPEN" sign from Staples. Put up a real sign, be visible, and put away the pretensions about wanting to be a secret club for only the initiated. Your food deserves to be appreciated by a wider audience.
Catfish, like ham, is actually not kosher.
Larkin's says that it strives to be a modern day "juke joint." "Juke" derives from "jook" or "juk" from Gullah, and before that from West African languages, "in a Wolof word 'jug,' meaning to lead a disorderly life, and a Banbara word 'jugu' meaning a wicked, violent, or naughty person." (See also "jukebox".) "Juke joints" were apparently originally social rooms built for slaves to socialize, evolving into roadside shacks that featured gambling, drinking, dancing, and, occasionally, prostitution. We've got a "juke joint" on the corner of Colorado and Loleta now. Chef Mackey is taking that term and, Humpty Dumpty-like, bending it to his will. His "juke joint" is a place to remember, to savor the past, and to embrace the future.
We are all Tashtego, Daggoo, and Queequeg now, riding in the same whaling boat. Know the past, embrace the new. Eat at Larkin's.