"Anybody waited on you yet, baby?" asks a friendly waitress as a newcomer decides between chicken and dumplings or ham hocks. The question of sides is brought up, as if that will affect the main course selection. The answer is a rapid-fire listing of the comfort classics: "We got candied sweets, we got collards, we got corn..." A few tables away someone asks about peach cobbler. "Miss Boo," the waitress shouts, craning her head in the general direction of the kitchen. "We got any cobbler left?" A muffled "yes" is heard from beyond the steam table, and smiles light up all around the dining room.
On a typical day inside Boo's Soul Food Cafe, folks move in and out as casually as a warm summer breeze. There are no reservations, no pretensions, and certainly no frills. Women show each other photographs of their families; a CTA worker stops in for a meal after his shift; two old-timers lick their plates clean and give their waitress a hard time.
The tiny, 12-table establishment shares a common wall with Pat's Hand Car Wash on an unremarkable stretch of South Vincennes, next to a row of small bungalows and across the street from the railroad tracks. For nearly three years, Willetta "Boo" Tatum and her husband have been building the tiny Morgan Park space into a soul food haven. Block-glass windows obscure the view, but the refracted light illuminates black-and-white-checkered tablecloths and posters of African-American art and sports legends. A giant color TV in one corner is constantly on, giving you the feeling you're in someone's home.
"I just always liked cooking," says the 51-year-old Tatum, who got her nickname by standing up to a friend of her mother's who constantly tried to scare her as a kid. "I've been cooking since I was seven," she says. "Both my mom and dad were cooks, and I always watched them." As the middle child in a family of 13 (seven girls, six boys), Tatum grew up quickly on Chicago's west side. In 1959 her family moved to Oakland, near 45th and Woodlawn, where she lived through the end of high school. She graduated in 1967, began working in data processing (first at Montgomery Ward, then Spiegel), and married her childhood sweetheart, Jackie Tatum (aka "Mr. Boo"), two years later. "We've known each other since we were 12 years old," says Jackie, who now runs the front of the house--which means that he not only keeps the business running smoothly but also has time to sit down and talk with his customers. "I always knew she would be doing this," he says. "She had a lot of determination."
Tatum spent more than 20 years working--as a shift manager for LaSalle Bank after she quit data processing--before she realized she wanted to do something that truly made her happy. In 1993 she enrolled in the culinary arts program at the Dawson Skill Center at 39th and State. She moved on to work at Flying Food Fare at Midway Airport, then became head cook for the Chicago Board of Education. "I had always worked for someone else," she says. "I thought, why not do all of this hard work for me?"
In late 1998 her nephew told her this space was for rent. A series of restaurants had come and gone here over the years, but Tatum was determined to make it work. There would be no menus--just a dry-erase board listing the day's offerings up near the entrance, adjacent to the steam table. Only three or four entrees would be available at a time ("always one chicken"), though they would change each day. Every entree would include two sides--sticky, sweet yams ("candied sweets"), smoky collard greens, macaroni and cheese, corn and okra, green beans, mashed potatoes and gravy, cabbage--and a crusty cornbread muffin that's dense and sweet inside. With prices hovering between $4.75 and $7.50 for a complete meal, it's no surprise that the formula didn't take long to win people over. "It started hitting after a couple of months," Tatum says. "We tried to make everybody feel at home. I tell my girls to treat everybody the same." That policy hasn't been lost on her customers, who routinely send Miss Boo stuffed animals, bottles of soda, artwork, and plants--all of which are on display around the cozy, narrow dining room.
Dining at Miss Boo's is a gentle reminder that comfort food should never be compromised. While cardiologists might not recommend it on a daily basis, an occasional foray into hearty meat loaf, smothered pork chops, roasted rib tips, or fried catfish has to be good for you. No matter what you choose, save room for the peach cobbler, which the building's facade boasts is "the best." The combination of peaches, sugar, butter, cinnamon, and nutmeg may not be on the Duchess of York's meal plan, but it'll make a believer out of you.
Boo's Soul Food Cafe is at 10936 S. Vincennes, 773-298-9997.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.