Soul Food and Music

By Tom Attig

Dad was a cook in Wally's Cafe, a small-town restaurant he owned with his brother. He made great soups that we all enjoyed but that he never ate because he refused to eat vegetables. My brother and I were allowed to make our own milkshakes when we ate or sometimes worked at the restaurant. And Dad often cooked at home. Meat and potatoes were the rule when he did, and the steaks were often chicken-fried. He loved fruit pie, especially apple. I think of him whenever I enjoy any of these foods, including an occasional steak without the added chicken-fry. I remember how hard he worked to provide a home for us. His favorite foods take me back to that home with a quiet, gentle man I called Pop.


My grandmother came over from "the old country" in time for the birth of her fifth child, my mother. Life in her home seemed to revolve around the kitchen and the large dining room table with her presiding at its head. I have difficulty remembering her without an apron. She loved German sausage and sauerkraut, dark rye and pumpernickel breads, and cabbage rolls. She also loved strong cheeses I have never been able to approach. She made marvelous desserts, including plum and apple cakes, German chocolate cake, and, my favorite, pastry puffs filled with either whipped cream or custard and topped with dark chocolate. I think of Grandma whenever I enjoy these treats. I never miss the chance of eating in my favorite German restaurant in Chicago whenever I return to her home city. Each time I do, I wish I could return to Grandma's table, see her warm smile, and have her put seconds on my plate one more time.


Grandma also loved music, including Christmas carols, Stephen Foster melodies, American show tunes from the first half of the century, and especially music from "the old country." There was singing nearly every time the family gathered for holiday celebrations, usually dominated by my Uncle Billy's powerful and melodious baritone voice and my Aunt Gertie's equally powerful alto. Nothing matched the enthusiasm for the German drinking songs, ballads, and polkas. The piano that Mom played when the nine kids were still at home with Grandma was no longer in her home, so they sang there without one. But nearly every child had a piano in his or her own home. And when we gathered, Mom would again play while we all sang. When Mom and Gertie visited my home, Mom played and Gertie sang again as they always had. These German songs are now my soul music. So too are oompah and polka bands, even Lawrence Welk.