Photos by B.A. Nilsson
My wife phoned to say she’d be late, adding, “I’m not really hungry. Don’t order for me.” We were about to put our college-age daughter, Lily, and Taylor, her friend, on a bus back to Manhattan, and decided that dinner out would be a nice celebration. By the time Susan reached our table, we had fried chicken and barbecued chicken and deep-fried pork chops and all manner of side-dishes piled high. Five minutes later, she, too, was attacking her own generously filled entrée plate.
Aunt Ronnie’s promises you won’t go away hungry. My wife’s experience proves that the whole concept of hunger is deceptive, especially when chicken dishes this delicious are involved.
It’s been open for a year and a half, in a Schenectady space known for many years as the Brandywine Diner. It’s easily accessed from I-890 (take Exit 6) and it’s the finest bargain in the area.
“This was my husband’s dream,” says Veronica (Ronnie) Clarke. “He wanted a restaurant. So I was behind him, because I can cook and everybody likes my cooking. I have a big family, and all of the functions usually happen at my house. And I do the majority of the cooking.”
Husband Darryl has a culinary degree from Schenectady County Community College, and, when he’s not working at the restaurant, has a part-time job cooking at the nearby Altamont Program, housed in a former monastery.
Which means that both Clarkes are putting in long hours. The restaurant “shows you no mercy,” says Ronnie. “If it wasn’t for my family, we’d have been closed a long time ago.” That includes five children and two nieces whom you’ll see at various times in the kitchen and on the floor.
There’s plenty of seating, at tables, in booths, and at the counter that faces the kitchen. The simple menu promises plenty. Chicken, of course, available fried, barbecued, curried, baked, and, the day we visited, as a special with a combo of jerk seasonings and barbecue sauce. You can also make a meal of chicken or turkey wings, barbecued pork ribs, pork chops, or fried fish – and each of these is $10, which includes cornbread and two side dishes. Add two dollars more if you crave a larger portion.
Oxtails with rice are $13. Chicken wings – plain, Buffalo-seasoned, or treated with honey, barbecue sauce, or a garlic-parmesan coating – are $6. Appetizers include chicken tenders ($4), mozzarella sticks ($4), fries or rings ($3), and cornbread ($1). A chicken or fish sandwich is $7, and that comes with fries.
“And I do specials,” Ronnie adds. “Tuesdays or Wednesdays I’ll make stew chicken. Last week, I did a tossed salad with crispy chicken for six bucks. I try to invent stuff. I did fried turkey wings one day. Another time I made smoked turkey with black-eyed peas, served over rice. But that’s a winter thing. And people keep asking me to make meat loaf with mashed potatoes.”
The fried chicken is fabulous in its simplicity. “It’s just flour!” says Ronnie. “Some people want to dip it in an egg and roll it around in this and roll it around in that – nope. I season it first, so it has flavor, and then I roll it around in flour and deep-fry it until it’s crisp.”
Likewise, the pork chops. “Just flour. But you have to fry them right. You can’t undercook ‘em, you can’t overcook ‘em. You don’t want ‘em so dry you can’t eat ‘em, but you also don’t want ‘em too soggy.” I was amazed and impressed.
Although most of the items are homemade, there are some logical concessions. Barbecue sauce, for example, is Sweet Baby Ray’s, a brand that’s tangy and not oversweetened. Good enough for Taylor to fetch extra sauce with which to decorate her side-dishes, along with hot sauce that’s there for the asking.
Our server, Ronnie’s daughter DeAsia, told us that mac and cheese is the favorite side dish, so that figured liberally among our choices. Again: homemade, simple, gooey, good.
“I wish I could say it was an old family secret,” Ronnie told me later, “but it’s something I came up with on my own and it became a hit. You know how you experiment with something? That’s what happened with my mac and cheese. I used to make it the way my mother did it, but it didn’t have enough flavor. Now it flies out the door. People come by just to order a side of mac.”
Collard greens are cooked with salt pork, as is traditional, but it ends up too far on the salty side. Not surprisingly, the candied yams are very, very sweet, but there’s a flavor balance at work even at that end of the sweetness extreme.
The side dish of rice and beans is a good-sized portion, and it’s a combo that pleads – on my table, at least – for an added dose of hot sauce. And the baked beans have added pork chunks to texture them more tastily.
Also available as sides are macaroni salad (with or without seafood), potato salad, and pasta salad. You can get a tossed or Caesar salad for $5, and the $4 desserts, for which we had absolutely no room, include carrot cake, banana pudding, and chocolate or strawberry punchbowl cake.
“Soul food” was enshrined as a culinary designation during the 1960s, but the term dates to at least two decades before then. It’s also a cultural designation, resisting the threat of being subsumed into the more generalized realm known as “southern cooking.” Soul food represents the triumph of a culture’s creativity in fashioning a cuisine out of the meager leavings that slaveowners provided, enhancing it through husbandry. Adrian E. Miller, author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, also notes that southern food is typically more bland than its vigorous offshoot.
Food can’t help but be a political statement, and soul food is aggressively so. It defines a culture, a neighborhood, a sense of family, the act of dining together, all with a lingering sense of oppression. Spike Lee set his movie Jungle Fever in Sylvia’s, a still-going-strong Harlem landmark.
When upscale restaurants no longer serve a changing neighborhood, more interesting eateries tend to appear. Cheap fried-chicken holes-in-the-wall show up, sure, but a culture without wealth learns to cook inexpensive items with greater creativity. Schenectady already has celebrated the complexity of a city’s relationship with this type of cuisine: a popular downtown soul food restaurant recently closed when its owners were evicted in a move of thinly-disguised bias.
But Aunt Ronnie’s soldiers on with its excellent, economical fare, not well known, sadly, beyond its neighborhood. It should be.
Aunt Ronnie’s Soul Food Restaurant, 970 Emmett St., Schenectady, 579-0129. Serving Tue-Sat 11-8. All major credit cards.