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Soul Food

Dining with Guy Fieri, Aunt Mary and Jimmy Dean

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The soup has crossed the 30-ingredient line, but is still missing something; it's a little bland, it needs help, some key but as-yet-unidentified addition that will bring it all home.

I open the refrigerator door, but every last scrap of vegetable has been scoured from the produce bin, given a bath and a trim, and chucked into the simmering pot, which now bubbles and froths, casting a fragrant steam through my silent cottage.

It's quite a rolling experiment in kitchen frugality and efficiency—the sort of thing you do when the wolf is at the door and the refrigerator's brimming at the edge of stinky decadence with uncooked gatherings. You cook that wolf, as the protean foodie M. F. K. Fisher famously wrote in 1942. My aunt would not have been interested—her culinary tastes lined up more with the likes of Guy Fieri, and this soup is coming in as a self-involved exercise in the creation of sanctimonious medicine. You should have seen my aunt the time I suggested she become a vegan, after the doctors removed a foot of her large intestine. That just wasn't going to happen, and she'd have thrown all those vegetables away if they'd been in her fridge.

The red potatoes are a little soft but, hey, I want them to break down and become one with the broth, so in they go. I find two half-cut onions from previous stovetop adventures, brown and dry at the fragrant edge but salvageable at the core. I save from oblivion a trio of delicious, withered parsnips at the bottom of the vegetable box, along with some wee old sugar beets I'd forgotten about, and a wad of old butter stuck to a jar of salsa. It goes on and on like this down to the last wilt of parsley, every damned daikon and flaccid carrot—in you go!

But the soup, sadly, still isn't quite there yet, after hours of simmering and lots of salt to ramp up the flavor factor. I reach in the fridge for another ingredient-grab and poach that box of blue-tinged local eggs, crack three of them right there into the bubbling mess. A light stir, keep those yolks intact. Then I find another onion wedged between an old half-bagel smeared with peanut butter and an empty mayo jar.

Up to this point, the soup has been a meatless and generally local and organic affair, with allowances for, say, that half-bag of Trader Joe's shredded Brussels sprouts, which kicked off the soup hours earlier as ingredient number one, along with some similarly shredded broccoli from TJ's.

I peer into the freezer for another hopeful look, and locate some frozen ginger on the door and run it through the grater and into the soup. I take another look and rummage around the freezer, and then—there it is, emerging like a vision from my blue-collar family roots: the key ingredient, lost under a frozen loaf of flavorless spelt bread, something I used to see in my late Aunt Mary's freezer. Total white-trash trayf. The soup needs some of that.

I pull the red bag out of the freezer and stand over the soup pot awhile and think about Don DeLillo and a scene at the beginning of his novel Running Dog. Two detectives have just come onto a murder scene in an apartment:

"I don't know what it is but with me the body's in the kitchen. Always the kitchen."

"Poor people like to be close to the food."

"What do you think, seriously here, one entry?"

"They don't like to stray from the food, even in the middle of a knife fight."

II

If I had told Aunt Mary I had gone to Garlic Johnny's in Santa Rosa? I could only imagine the conversation that would ensue. Was he there?! Did you meet him?! What did you eat?!?

Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives was one of Mary's favorite television shows—right up there with Dancing with the Stars and Atlanta Braves baseball on TBS. It was one of those shows where, if I dared to call my aunt while Guy Fieri's Food Network hit was on the air, I'd get a quick and harried order to "call back later, Tommy! Guy's on!"

I was waiting on a meeting in the late afternoon at Johnny Garlic's in Santa Rosa recently, Fieri's formerly co-partnered joint in his home turf, out on Farmers Lane at Neotomas. Fieri's not there anymore, and neither is Aunt Mary, who died just over a year ago. I'll have these funny imagined what-if conversations with myself in the car, and I know she'd have gone totally nuts if she knew I was headed to Johnny Garlic's.

POUR IT ON Comfort food comforts not because it’s ‘authentic,’ but because it gives us what we crave—connection to each other.
  • POUR IT ON Comfort food comforts not because it’s ‘authentic,’ but because it gives us what we crave—connection to each other.

And Fieri's signature, branded dishes are still part of the menu, even though Fieri is no longer a partner in the business. The Fieri menu holdovers are highlighted as Guy's Thangs or something like that on the menu—and the biggest jumbo signature dish of them all is, of course, his elaborately comforting and award-winning burger.

I visited the place in the in-between time before dinner; there was more staff than patrons and a kind of pre-bustle feel filled the air. It was just me for a while before a family four-top came in. I eased back alone and checked out the three televisions that offered sports, noted that the lemonade and iced coffee were both tasty, as was the boar special offered on a board and in the menu proper. The pig-with-apples dish is sort of a he-man offering that lends to a feeling here of sub-exotic culinary survivalism of the Anthony-Bourdain-meets-Bear-Grylls variety, if such a thing can be imagined. You're not slaying that boar, but they sure make you feel as though you did at Johnny Garlic's.

But there's another hybrid feel to tough-guy, micro-chain Johnny Garlic's (there are two other locations): its everyman signage and slick, fun menu clearly offer mass-market aspirations that would bespeak a celebrity starchild fronting the place, even if he's nowhere to be seen. Sorry, Aunt Mary.

Even the receipt can't decide whether, moving forward in the post-Fieri era, this place is "Johnny Garlic's" or "Johnny's Garlic." And that, to me, is a kind of homey, appreciated touch.

I read a foodie story online recently that wondered what happened to the food-tower trend of the 1990s? Gee, I wonder. It's right here at Johnny Garlic's, whose burger represents a recasting of the trend from its 1990s haute cuisine pretensions to an everyman theme in this era of reality TV and blue-collar how-to hits of the Dirty Jobs persuasion.

Aunt Mary would not have cared about any of that gibberish and would have changed the subject to when was I going to try out for Jeopardy. She would have asked after that burger, and she would really have wanted to know: What happened with Guy?

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