Putting Events in Context
Fifty years ago we saw the first astronauts walk on the moon. I recall it well: July 20, 1969. Four generations of my family were gathered around the TV in Rolla.
As I watched, I folded diapers (we had cloth diapers in those days) and, Tom, the youngest of our four children, squealed happily in his play pen (yes, we put kids in play pens back then).
My grandmother watched skeptically from the rocking chair. When I explained the historic importance of what was happening, she sneered. “There’re just trying to make you believe that nonsense. People can’t walk on the moon.” And with that she got up and left the room. I don’t think she ever believed the moonshot occurred. To her it was fake new—though we hadn’t invented that term yet.
Another Moon Shot
That same year, 1969, in St. Louis, an African-American woman named Jo Houston, (mother of six), and her husband, Herman, were forging some history of their own, taking a long shot by launching a new business—part Chinese carry out; part soul food.
Fast forward five decades and Jo and her family are this month celebrating the 50th anniversary of Diner’s Delight located on South Compton. You won’t find any chop suey or fortune cookies there today. The family-run business has long since transitioned to serving soul food, well prepared and in good quantity.
Soul Food Fans Come from Near and Far
DDs has a host of longtime neighborhood fans, as well as downtown workers, who stop by for a hot carryout lunch. Russ and I were there about 3:30 on Tuesday and people were still wandering in. Servers behind the warming buffet dished up meals, boxed them in covered Styrofoam plates, and customers were on their way quickly.
Soul Food enthusiasts know the daily offerings by heart. Monday you’ll find liver and onions included on the cafeteria-style menu. Tuesday, chicken and dumplings; Wednesday and Sunday, pork steak; Thursday, meatloaf; and Friday, catfish, jack fish and buffalo fish.
The sides fill out the menu: sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, spaghetti, mac n’ cheese, northern beans, cabbage, green beans, fried corn, cabbage, greens, peach cobbler, and more. Fried chicken, hamburgers, and salad can be had anytime of the week (they’re closed on Saturday).
Few go away without the cafeteria’s signature cornbread, cooked pancake style. Like fried ravioli, it came into being by accident, when the oven broke down and customers insisted on cornbread even if it had to be cooked on a grill.
Today Jo Houston is retired and her sons Gregory and Markeith run the day-to-day operation. Their sister, Valerie, takes care of the bookkeeping. Greg took a timeout to sit down with us in the spacious dining room, that includes a large TV screen, a plate glass window, and a gallery of photos, many of Obama’s visit on the Arch grounds.
Greg is a friendly guy with a warm smile and personality to match. He remembers cooking in the family kitchen when he was only eleven years old. He’s particularly proud of the face lift given the place about 10 years ago, when the facade was renovated and an addition put on the back.
Soul Food to Go
It was too late for lunch and too early for dinner. So on our way out, we joined the line of folks getting dinner to go. I got the pork chop and onions, cabbage, and mashed potatoes and Russ and I split a chunk of meatloaf with tomato gravy.
What a Treat!
I’m telling you, this is good Southern-style cooking: meatloaf, moist and flavorful, not greasy or over-breaded and whipped potatoes fluffy and well season. And I’ve not tasted cabbage that good in years! The pork chop was fork tender! This was a walk down memory lane with food that made me think I was back at the table of my Virginia relatives.
The Houston family has brought a lot of good down-home cooking and comfort to their customers over the years and lived up to the name given the place years ago: Diner’s Delight.
Diner’s Delight. 1504 S. Compton. Open: Sun: noon-6p; Mon-Thu 11a-7p; Fri 11a-8p. Closed Saturdays. Owners: Houston family.