Seasoning the South: food that feeds the soul, unites communities

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Memoirs Fine Catering and Event Planning deliver favorite Southern dishes to its clients. Photo by Will Crooks.

The South prides itself in delicious down-home cooking. Southern dishes have won over the hearts—and palates—of people from various cultural backgrounds. 

With many Southern foods evolving from African-American cooking traditions, lots of seasoning and love go into this delectable cuisine.

Memoirs Fine Catering and Event Planning

Sisters Raygan France and Jackie Saunders combined their loves of cooking and decorating to start Memoirs Fine Catering and

Sisters Jackie Saunders and Raygan France started the catering business. Photo by Will Crooks.

Event Planning, LLC in Greenville. 

The sisters were raised on soul food. “I had very little to no exposure to anything else,” France says. “Soul food is what we did.”

France, the chef, first learned to cook from her mother. “It doesn’t matter what your background is, food is always the gathering point for everything,” she says. 

Food can bring people together for any type of occasion—happy or sad. “A lot of black history is food,” she says. “That’s how people got together and fellowshipped.”

Fried chicken, macaroni, collards, cornbread, and banana pudding are among the popular dishes served at client events. “It always comes back to soul food; no matter what you do, it always comes back to soul food,” France says.

Leafy greens remain a Southern staple. Photo by Will Crooks.

Soul food recipes require lots of flavor, fat, and most importantly, love. “It was always a joy to eat, to smell, to look at, to touch,” France says. “It just always brought happiness.”

Saunders, the event planner, says cooking is generational in their family. “Everybody always came together on Sundays to have a meal cooked in my grandmother’s house,” she says.

Mentioning soul food’s roots in slavery, Saunders says the slaves improved upon what they were given by adding seasonings. As time passed, the slaves taught their ways of cooking to those after them.

“It just became a delicacy,” Saunders says. “It’s not just in the black community, it’s everywhere.”

OJ’s Diner

For OJ’s Diner owner Greg Johnson, food and family go hand-in-hand. Watching his grandmother in the kitchen, Johnson picked up some cooking pointers.

“She actually taught me to make breakfast first so that was the first thing I learned how to make as a small child,” he says. 

OJ’s Diner customers can’t stay away from traditional Southern dishes. Photo by Paul Mehaffey.

Recalling his favorite meal, Johnson says she was the best cook in the family. “Growing up in the Carolinas in Greenville, I loved rice and gravy with…cube steak and any type of bean,” he says.

His grandmother instilled in him a love for home-cooked food. “We didn’t realize, you know as a family, that she was teaching us something that was going to become very special and dear to our family.”

Now, OJ’s Diner is a community favorite. Named after Johnson’s uncle, OJ Johnson, the diner has locations in Greenville and Easley.

Offering a different menu each day, OJ’s Diner serves tasty meals at affordable prices. “Right now, Fridays are our busiest day ’cause of the ribs,” Johnson says. “’Cause where else are you going to get ribs with three sides for 10 bucks?”

Jordan Johnson learned how to manage the family business. Photo by Paul Mehaffey.

Some other customer favorites include turkey and dressing, meatloaf, pork chops, and country-fried steak with gravy and onions.

The next generation will lead the family diner into the future. His son Jordan Johnson manages Greenville’s diner, while his other son Kevin Johnson manages Easley’s diner.

“I like learning new recipes. Just the feeling of putting your hands in something, creating something, and sending it out and people like it,” Jordan Johnson says. “Pretty much everything I make I learned from my dad.”

Cornbread Consulting Firm and Toss Pizza Pub

Julius Tolbert, owner of Cornbread Consulting Firm, started the Upstate’s only restaurant consulting firm. His mission is to help minority restaurant owners succeed. 

Julius Tolbert combines his passion for people and food to serve others. Photo by Will Crooks.

With years of experience in the food industry, Tolbert brings real-life advice to clients. “My true life’s work is to be that mentor. To give back. To take all that knowledge,” he says. “I understand how rare it was to gain all the knowledge that I have in the restaurant business.”

The name of the firm pays homage to good ole’ Southern hospitality. “So anytime you hear the word ‘cornbread’ you think of the times maybe your grandmother made cornbread,” Tolbert says. “It takes you back to a time that’s a happier time in your life.”

With most of his clients being African-American, Tolbert says that demographic is definitely a focus of the firm’s, especially in the Spartanburg area. 

He is currently working with Spartanburg Chamber of Commerce to develop a six-month workshop for minority businesses.

“Food is a catalyst. What I care more about is the people,” he says. “I’m a people person and this is a people business.” Last fall, Tolbert took ownership of Toss Pizza Pub in Greenville.

Toss Pizza Pub adds a Southern spin to pizza. Photo by Will Crooks.

At Toss, he renovated the space and added a Southern spin to the menu. Now, the menu offers selections like Carolina shrimp and grits, pimento fried tomato pizza, and collard green artichoke pizza.

Tolbert says a goal of Cornbread Consulting is to identify other restaurants  he can manage.

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