Porter Soul Food Thrives on Home Flavors and Memories | Maryland News
By CHRISTINA TKACIK, The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE, MD (AP) – Located in a former Popeye complex in the middle of a freeway mall, Porter Soul Food offers Southern classics and beats the odds of being a black-owned restaurant on the East Coast.
After opening in January 2020, it only had to operate as a delivery during some of its first months of operation due to COVID. It might have doomed any new ventures, but the surrounding Cambridge community embraced the restaurant. Reviews online reflect the cult status the restaurant has built for itself in less than two years.
“I can’t wait to go back to one of our favorite restaurants across the country.”
“The best catfish on the East Coast !!”
Other draws for their customers include the turkey wings and oxtail smothered in gravy. And of course, there’s fresh cooked collard greens and macaroni and cheese, made just like co-owner Cynthia Porter grew up eating them.
In the kitchen, her husband, Rod Porter, cooks turkey wings, pig’s trotters and a North Carolina barbecue. The restaurant’s slogan is “Southern cuisine with an attitude,” which Rod says reflects the generous seasonings that go into every dish, whether it’s candied yams or catfish.
The Porters tied the knot in 2010 after meeting in North Carolina, where Rod is from. They returned to Cambridge, where Cynthia is pastor in one of the largest black churches in the area, and Rod is an elder and co-pastor.
In some ways, the restaurant has become an outgrowth of their ministry.
“People call this ‘church’,” Cynthia said. If someone arrives looking distraught, she is known to take them aside. “Do you mind if I pray with you?” ” she said. “They are so grateful.”
For black customers, soul food restaurants offer “a taste of home and memory,” said James Beard Award recipient Adrian Miller, soul food specialist. Staple foods like cabbage have roots in slave cooking and combine traditions from several continents – from West Africa to Europe and the Americas.
Beyond subsistence, soul food restaurants also serve an important social purpose, providing refuge for black customers, Miller said.
Many guests stop by Porter Soul after a visit to the Harriet Tubman Museum, dedicated to Dorchester County’s most famous resident. Born into slavery as Araminta Ross, she led her family and friends on daring escapes north. Today, Dorchester County is roughly 29% Black, and its residents include some of Tubman’s distant relatives.
The pandemic has shut down Minty’s Place, one of the only other black-owned restaurants in Cambridge named after Tubman. Owner Teresa Lamar, who grew up on the Lower East Coast, says she is struggling to find staff to restart, but hopes to reopen next spring.
The small number of black-owned restaurants in the area is a testament to the structural racism blacks face in Cambridge and beyond. Lamar calls the historic port city along the Choptank River “a growing and flourishing area that is trying to catch up with the world in some way.”
She notes that although the majority of her clients are white, some people have not been tolerant. “I’m not here to fight, I’m here to bring a community together,” she said.
Randy Potter, chairman of the Delmarva Minority Business Coalition, noted that there are several black-owned caterers in Cambridge, but very few black-owned restaurants. “You have to have a place to put your business,” he said, adding that some potential entrepreneurs either lack knowledge of what is needed to start a business or find it difficult to get loans.
Potter’s group, which reports to the Dorchester Chamber of Commerce, holds free networking events for minority entrepreneurs and conferences on topics ranging from cryptocurrency to starting a business. And he’s seeing signs of progress, including another black-owned restaurant, ArtBar2.0, set to open soon in historic Cambridge, next to the Tubman Museum.
Customer enthusiasm for Porter Soul Food reflects, in part, how long it has been since there had been a soul food restaurant like this in Cambridge. “It’s long overdue,” said customer Gloria Woolford, who lives a few blocks from the restaurant.
The Porters have become a surrogate family for Jessica Heath, 44, who was a regular customer after the restaurant opened and applied for a job as a waiter this summer. “They are all I have.”
She and other restaurant workers call the Porters “Mum” and “Dad,” although neither Cynthia nor Rod has revealed their ages.
Cook Pat Gray, 77, retired from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis before joining the Porter Soul team. (Before the Academy, she was a cook in the White House during President Jimmy Carter’s administration.) But she was “tired of staying home,” she says.
On a recent visit, construction workers Mike Dashiell and Jerome Holbrook stopped by for lunch. Although they live in Salisbury, they work in Cambridge and stop by every day the restaurant is open. “I try a little bit of everything,” Dashiell said. He even comes with his wife on his days off.
Angela Riley from Parkville came with a group of friends from Baltimore. “It didn’t disappoint,” she said.
A sign outside warns diners that the restaurant is not a fast food restaurant. Meals are cooked to order and may take a long time to come out. Woolford, 75, sat at a stall as the cooks at Porter Soul Food prepared her lunch order. “It’s worth the wait,” she said.
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