Well before the market deli opens at seven sharp the smell of chicken frying and biscuits baking drifts outside wafting over those waiting for the doors to open. Always among them is a small group of older men who convene in the brief seating area after the end counter, four or five, I’m uncertain of the exact number, probably having a little breakfast, but they assemble more for coffee and company, sitting and watching the passing traffic on the street and sidewalk, joking and laughing, often debating, but always together until the deli readies for lunch, when they line up outside under the eaves of the building before going their separate ways. They remind me of the old men I saw as a child playing dominoes at the local pool hall, steadfast in their thorough knowledge of one another, comforted by the company and secure in their deliberated decisions on the state of the world. In time their numbers will lessen and their gatherings end, but it’s certain that another such group will come to sit, laugh, argue and watch the world pass by. Perhaps I’ll be among them.
The deli is to the left as you enter, right past the first checkout behind a case that stretches some forty feet down five aisles. First are the cakes and pies, then cold salads and cold meats followed by a line of steam tables. Most of the people who enter after the doors open are on their way to work, picking up something for the office—flowers, cupcakes or a cake perhaps, for some coworker’s birthday or donuts for everyone on no special occasion—then you have those who drop by the deli for breakfast to go, just a biscuit with bacon or toast and eggs, but the deli always offers a groaning board. Fried chicken is the only constant staple throughout the day, an impressive heap of breasts, thighs, legs and wings that occupies the first pan in the steam table, followed in the breakfast line by the eggs. The deli serves two kinds of grits, plain ole grits and cheese grits, both in generous helpings. Fried potato wedges and chicken tenders are often offered, but rice is always on the breakfast menu, which might seem odd to some, but when I asked, one of the ladies explained that many people prefer them to grits, since the rice (to those customers) goes well with sawmill gravy, a milk gravy with crumbled sausage. Three kinds of sausages (smoked, link and patty), broiled bacon and salmon patties are the usual meat options; buttermilk and honey biscuits, white and wheat toast round out the morning buffet.
Southerners of all stripes like hearty breakfasts, and the deli makes every effort to provide in abundance. I remember a time when at the end of the line they would have an iced tub on the corner with small containers of milk beside a basket of breakfast cereals, Rice Krispies, Sugar Pops, Corn Flakes or Frosted Flakes, but no longer. I also seem to remember oatmeal on the steam table, but that was proved to be a passing fancy as well as the bowl of bananas, apples and oranges near the deli checkout register. The steadily diminishing sector of my soul that still holds some faith in the basically benevolent intentions of mankind likes to believe that the management of the market initiated these novelties in order to promote a healthier menu for their customers, but my ever-burgeoning lack of faith in man’s goodness towards his fellow tends to hold that expired stores of oatmeal and breakfast cereal (if not dairy products and produce) were most likely the motive. Either way, none of these purportedly healthy innovations seem to have been missed at all.
Standing in line beside someone at the deli has nothing of the impersonal nature of standing in line behind people in a fast-food joint. You can actually look at one another and talk, and the banter is continual and friendly. Our deli serves people from all walks of life. This eqality comes in part from its location near a key intersection in Jackson as well as from its casual walk-through character, but it’s the food that matters, and while the offerings do have a solid blue-collar slant, you’ll find the well-heeled legislator or Junior Leaguer there getting a serving of grits right after someone in a pair of boots taking a morning break snagging a sausage and biscuit (or three). Simply being in line for a serving of peach cobbler is a lesson in social niceties, and those rules are rarely broken. Oh, you’ll occasionally follow someone on a cell phone ordering lunch for three people in her office (excluding them), so she has to go through the menu a couple of times and deal with sorting out the portions and options, but welcome to the digital age. The prices are just as democratic: fifty cents for a biscuit, six ninety-nine for a hearty plate lunch, with endless options in between.
The lunches are lucullian, and any restaurateur would envy their traffic. Lunch officially opens at eleven, but even before ten-thirty when the steam tables are being loaded, the line has begun to form. Fried and baked chicken, meat loaf with red gravy, pork chops breaded and smothered, chicken and dumplings, chicken pot pie, chili mac and cheese, spaghetti with meatballs, barbecued ribs and chicken, beef stew and fried fish make their appearance in the line on a rotating basis every week, often twice in any given week. Two types of variety meats are on the menu: stewed chicken gizzards, which are outstanding, and braised liver with onions, equally as good. The roast turkey with vegetables served in brown gravy is practically indistinguishable from beef. The various vegetables ( including peas and snaps, a definitive Deep South dish, butter beans and limas, green beans, creamed potatoes and candied sweet potatoes) are cooked and held on the line for a very long time, and the longer in the heat, the better they become. Dressing (without chicken), mac and cheese and rice with broccoli and cheese are “vegetable” choices as well. Rolls, Mexican and regular corn muffins, sometimes corn sticks come with the plate, and baked cobblers–apple and peach, but on the rare occasion a sumptuous blackberry–are the usual dessert fare.
No, you cannot order a sandwich, and if you order sliced meat or cheese during the lunch rush, you’re going to get dirty looks from the other customers, since it takes the entire staff to keep the line going, and one leaving the line slows it down. If you want a sandwich or a salad, you’ll find them pre-made in the refrigerated case between the deli and the main aisles of the store. There you’ll find containers (3 sizes) of their pimento and cheese, which is justly renowned throughout the neighborhood, though it is rather pricey ($6.99 lb.), as valued commodities tend to be the world over. This case also holds what you might consider “true” deli offerings, such as hummus, salsas, pickled vegetables and small portions of cheeses.
You’ll not find what are these days called artisan foods in the market deli; the foods are decidedly pedestrian in the most literal sense of the word. No doubt there are many food faddists and culinary snobs in the city who will deride such fare, and they do so not because the deli’s food isn’t good, but because they feel it’s beneath their dignity not only to eat such common fare but to engage in social commerce with the people who do. These are the same people mind you who will watch Food Network gurus such as Anthony Bourdain, Andrew Zimmerman and others seek out people who routinely cook and eat the foods that feed the people of the streets and urban neighborhoods of other cities across the globe. On top of that odious variety of elitism, you have professionals in the restaurant industry itself who seek out such foods in order to upgrade them into a dish that people will pay top dollar for in their own ritzy establishments. As proof of this, I submit to you the recent craze over pork belly, which is about as far from eating high on the hog as you can get, that has become a staple in upscale restaurants across the country in the past decade or so. While pork bellies might be on their way out as a culinary trend, who can say that the next hot item might not be the smoked imitation sausage you find frozen in brilliant scarlet ropes in the market’s frozen meat section, sausages that occasionally find their way into a steam pan with kidney beans on the deli line?
While the deli staff usually doesn’t give away trade secrets (after three years of asking, they still won’t tell me what they put on their baked chicken and you can forget about getting their pimento and cheese recipe), one cook did tell me how to make peas and snaps as they do: but I’m not telling either.