Editor's note: Occasionally what looks at first glance to be a conventional guidebook transcends the genre in surprising ways. John T. Edge's Southern Belly is just such a read, which is why I'm pleased that he has allowed us to excerpt selected items from it on Serious Eats, where they appear every other week. —Ed Levine
By John T. Edge | Jane Barton, whom everyone seems to call the Mayonnaise Queen, has been on her feet since 4:30 this morning. Her gray hair is fashionably coiffed. She wears a paisley smock over Bermuda shorts. Her reading glasses dangle from a gold herringbone necklace. This is her 49th year of service at the Waffle Shop, a Lenten-only canteen set in the basement of Calvary Episcopal Church in downtown Memphis, Tennessee. "I've been making mayonnaise for 45 of those years," she says. "I took over when the lady who was supposed to make it broke her leg."
Service to Calvary by local belles is a long tradition. The ladies tell of the early years, back in the late 1920s, when the shop bordered an alley known as the Whiskey Chute, the water for washing and drinking was drawn from corner hydrants, and cooking was done on coal stoves. They talk of the grande dames of their day who dressed for midday services in couture and heels but descended to the basement kitchen postsermon, donning protective rain slickers, and stirring up waffles and chicken hash, corned beef and cabbage, shrimp mousse, fish pudding, and tomato aspic, the latter three embellished by a niggardly flourish of homemade mayonnaise.
The waffles alone are worth a pilgrimage. Cooked on home kitchen irons by a crew at the rear of the dining room, within sight of inspirational plaques with messages like "Bloom Where You Are Planted," they are vaguely sweet and almost crisp. Drenched with Calvary hash, a brown sauce stew of dark-meat chicken, they earn a place in the pantheon of comfort foods. But the ladies-who-lunch salads are the exemplars. Order a jiggly wedge of tomato aspic topped with a cotton boll of chicken salad and you will taste the best of white-glove cookery. Plus, they seem to be a bit more generous with the luxe mayo when you order that double-decker.
One more thing to keep in mind: In 2004, Thomas Pavlechko, Calvary's choirmaster, premiered his "Ode to the Calvary Waffle Shop." Sung to the tune of "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, it includes such memorable stanzas as:
Waffles with sausage and hash made with chicken,
Historic foods that we serve from our kitchen;
Creole with shrimp and some giblets with rice,
Gumbo and turnip greens: isn't that nice?
On a recent visit, I was lucky enough to eat aspic as Pavlechko banged out the tune on an upright Kimball and the voices of the congregation rose in tribute.
CALVARY WAFFLE SHOP
Address: 102 North Second Street, Memphis TN 38103 (map)