Foods like ham hocks, oxtails, chitlins, and collard greens became part of slaves' diets because they were remnants – not the choicest parts. People called it soul food because it drew inspiration from deep in the soul.
The genius of soul food is taking often discarded parts and turning them into delicacies. Those recipes and traditions continue today. A local restaurant provides a great place to get a taste of a history of delicious.
The 4J's – Ricky, Felicia, Randle, and Symphony Johnson – bring four generations of cooking traditions to their family-owned and operated 4J's Family Restaurant, which exceeds diners' expectations – and often their appetites.
Chicken pot pie, macaroni and cheese, deep-fried pork chops, meatloaf, green beans and Brussell sprouts (both with bacon), fried okra, and yeast rolls made from scratch from Grandma Johnson's family recipe. Top it all off with the best creamy whipped banana pudding this side of Dallas.
Ronnie and Jackie Reagan, both retired teachers, enjoy eating full meals at 4J's – especially when they have leftovers to bring home. The couple dine at 4Js two or three times a month. “That's some of the best banana pudding I ever ate,” Jackie said.
Chef Ricky is adept at accommodating a range of dietary needs, including allergies and weight loss. “It's all about making sure people are happy,” he said.
Johnson varies the menu daily, adding seasonal fruits and vegetables, and offering favorite items on certain weekdays – like fried fish on Fridays.
Johnson learned how to cook from his grandmother, Beulah Johnson. When he needs inspiration, he “channels” Miss Beulah.
Chef Ricky adds his own variations to family recipes.
All of the 4J's pitch in to make the restaurant a success. Felicia often works from home on finances and marketing, but always arrives to help on Friday evenings, when Randle, 27, leaves for Dallas, where he dee-jays at parties and special events. Randle helped his family cater events throughout his teen years, and prefers to work with family instead of working for others. “It's an opportunity to build my dad's dream,” he said.
Symphony Johnson, 11, attends AM Story Intermediate School and plays percussion, but prefers working at the restaurant, especially as cashier.
Prices at 4J's range from $10 for plates ordered from the buffet to $15 for specially-made dishes like chicken-fried steak.
4J's faces Highway 19, just two miles south of Palestine's Loop 256. Call 903-948-8849 for information or visit on Facebook @4Jsfamilyrestaurant.