The food of Her Soul
Interview conducted by Tanesha Toliver
Janie’s soul food platters are every Friday at the Church of Christ in Harrisburg PA. It is a very open kitchen filled with love. She enjoys sharing her heart with the beautiful people of her community through her food, and welcomes new people, and catering offers upon request.
I first had the chance to taste Janies cooking when my boss brought in platters for our office staff. I choose to interview Mrs. Janie Sampson because the lunch I had at work was beyond amazing, it was like no other soul food I had had before. In my box I had a piece of fried cat fish, collard greens, baked macaroni and cheese, and a piece of corn bread. Being that I am African American, soul food is very much a part of my culture. Delectable collard greens and corn bread are two of my favorites when they are separate but together, they are one combination. I never thought I would enjoy anyone’s soul food more than my own grandmothers. That platter is what lead me to having the honor of meeting with Mrs Janie in her home, in the suburbs of Harrisburg. While sitting at her huge dining room table, my nose was filled with some of the sweetest smells, it smelled like Janie was preparing dinner for herself. The large table I was seated at seemed as if it could seat at least ten comfortably, I began to get a little nervous, because this would be the first conversation I would have with Janie, other than on the phone. As I was sitting there letting my nerves get the best of me, and waiting for Janie to join me, she gently strolled into the room with a large smile and two glasses of ice water, that smile alone put all my nerves at ease.
(Janie Sampson, an image I took of her in her home the day I interviewed her)
Janie is known around my home town area of Harriburg Pennsylvania, as the “fish fry lady” although I just learned of Janies platters over the summer she has been making platters for the public since the spring of 2009, she replied when I asked her how long she has been making platters.
“When did you decide to actually go for it?”, ”in the spring of 2009 nearly a year after being retired from my job, I started a thing I called Fish Fry Fridays and at first it was just once a month. My church family encouraged me to do it, and they even offered to host it. That’s how it started I opened up my church kitchen and friends and family members of my church family came out and supported me.”
“Did you ever believe you would be making platters for people other than family?” I asked. “Not at all” she responded, “my family would always say that my food was good enough to sell, and I always thought they were just being generous when it came to those types of comments. Who would have thought they were right all along.”
I asked Janie, “what made her decide to share her cooking with the people of Central Pennsylvania?” she replied with a smile, I got bored, and then giggled. She then added that she had retired from her job of 35 years at the phone company of Verizon in 2008. After working for a company that long I easily got bored with being retired, and needed something to keep me busy. Janie continued on about how she enjoyed helping her mother out in the kitchen and how her passion began at a young age.
“What was your main goal when you decided to start your fish fry Fridays?” Janie told me it was her way of keeping busy while being a retired with something she loved to do. She told me “ I always loved to cook, but I never had the confidence to cook for anyone other than my family.” She added it was the best thing she has done, not only does it keep her busy, it also helped her gain confidence in the kitchen. “The reviews I got from those who ate my food were like no other, and it gave me to the confidence to continue what I love.” Janie said with a smile. She told me a story of how she second guessed herself as her fist client pulled up the church of her very first fish fry. She said “I had made that food as I made all my soul food, straight from my heart, and I had nervous anxiety when I thought about sharing it with others, and knowing that they could dislike it.” She reassured herself as she gave the first customer a grin and thanked her for coming, but she told me in her mind she thought to herself,” soul food is from the heart and is made from my kitchen to your stomach with love.”
“What were the people’s reactions?” Janie gave me a smirk and asked me why I was sitting at her dining room table, conducting an interview?” and I said, “because your collard greens gave me the urge to smack my mother,” and we both giggled like little girls at my joke. After the laughing died down she said the community’s response was overwhelming, so much love and encouragement, I was so happy that I followed my heart.” People asked her questions like, when they could get another platter, and how often would she be selling platters, and if she would consider catering, for larger events?
“Janie, why soul food?” I asked, she answered, “well, like you know it is one in which we as African Americans grow up on, its apart of our culture, as well as our community. I ate soul food, my mom ate soul food, and her mom and so on. I love to share my food as if it is my family’s history. And most of my recipes are made from memory, and recollection, from making certain foods so many times.”
(image from a platter Janie gave after our interview)
“What does your platter menu consist of?” The menu has two proteins fried fish, or fried chicken, and an array of sides, such as baked macaroni and cheese, corn bread, white or wheat bread, potato salad, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet corn, and collard greens.
“How much do you charge for a platter?” The basic platter comes with a protein, and up to two sides of your choice, and that is seven dollars. But people seem to add on sides, maybe want more protein, so it is whatever the peoples tongues have a taste for, and that can range depending on what you want in your platter, she answered.
“I asked Janie what was her favorite item from her menu?” She responded, “I love all of the food I make, so it is hard to choose just one, but I can tell you my favorite platter combination.” Janie told me that her favorite combination would have to be fried chicken with a side of potato salad, green beans and corn bread.
“ Who inspires you in the kitchen?” Janie told me her mother is a big party of her inspiration when it comes to cooking, because she is who she shadowed as a young girl in the kitchen.
“How is business now?” “Business is great, just what I wanted something to keep me busy and very happy.” “ I now along with my making platters on Fridays, I do take catering jobs.”
“Lastly do you even stress out when catering large groups?’ “At first of course because it was new to me, I could barely sleep the night before my first catering, it wasn’t that I wasn’t sure they would like my food, but it was more so I wouldn’t be prepared for the amount of food I was going to be making.” Janie told me after a few catering gigs, she began to get a little more comfortable. She also told me catering is one of her favorite things to do, because it challenges her, when she began her platters she never saw catering in the picture, she explains it as mind blowing.
(An image from one of Janies Catering events that she shared with me.)
After interviewing Janie I realized that her cooking had a deeper meaning than just filling people’s stomachs, her goal was to touch people’s hearts, and comfort their minds with her food. Her platters do just that, she is one of the most down to earth and kind hearted women I have met in a while. Her smile alone soothes your soul, as I stated earlier all I needed to get comfortable around her was her warm smile, and we had a great talk about her love for food for a little over an hour. I can now consider her a friend and her love for cooking soul food for others, now makes me appreciate her food when I am partaking in it.