Shirley Mae's Soul Food Cafe serves up food -- and love - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Shirley Mae's Soul Food Cafe serves up food -- and love

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LOUISVILLE, KY. (WDRB Fox 41) -- Louisville's Smoketown neighborhood has been described as having some of the meanest streets in America.  But we learned that description certainly doesn't apply to one establishment that specializes in warm food, warm music, and warm fellowship.

"I been cookin' here for well over 20 years," says Shirley Mae Beard, as she bends, perspiring, over a huge iron skillet.  If you're in search of fast food or a microwave oven, search somewhere else. Shirley Mae's Soul Food Cafe is about old-fashioned Southern cooking. Her place at 802 S. Clay St. is open only on weekends: why?

"I'm closed during the week," says Mrs. Beard, "because I have to process the food -- pick the greens, the chitlins, all that stuff."

"All that stuff" includes pig's feet, collard and mustard greens, ribs -- and in those iron skillets, chicken wings and hot-water cornbread.

"Well, there's not really a secret (to the cornbread)," Shirley Mae tells us. "Hot-water cornbread's just been around all my life. It's old. If you had meal and water, you had cornbread.

"See, you just mix it together, and give it a little love. Each piece have a little love. You got to roll it, individually. Finishing touch of it is a little love."

It's that love that's brought to Shirley Mae's some famous faces, like Whoopi Goldberg and B. B. King, American Idol Ruben Studdard... and actor Morgan Freeman.

"Well, because they want the real thing," Mrs. Beard says. "They want the real food. They want the real greens, they just have a taste for the real food. No substitutes, none of that. Only spices I have is salt and pepper, that's my spice rack. Salt and pepper, that's it."

Even non-celebrities come in for carry-out. "My favorite is her meat loaf," says one customer who stops by about 10 p.m. "But I just got a taste for ribs tonight...Got love in it. Got love in it."

Now here's the way it works: You pick up your green beans and your cornbread and your pig's feet here at Shirley Mae's Cafe -- and you carry your plastic bag across Clay Street. That's where the party's really going on -- at the juke joint."

At Smoketown Liquors, the walls are covered with photographs of customers who've passed on. The survivors will be taking care of business until closing time at 4 a.m. -- then go back to the Soul Food Cafe to wrap up the night, while Shirley Mae's daughter Dee Simpson DJ's until dawn.

"We're a blues joint," says Ms. Simpson. "So when you come in, you should be able to say 'I want to hear some B.B., some Bobby, some Etta James...we should be able to rock it for you."

Meanwhile, Shirley Mae's still rocking the soul food... with those big skillets.  "I am lost without my iron skillets -- they keep the heat better... There's no shortcuts to real soul food. You got to peel those potatoes, you got to make those greens, and snap those green beans. There's no shortcuts at all."

The business also deals with another kind of hunger.

"This place is a community -- we're not insulated," says Ms. Simpson as she selects a new blues CD. "I mean, we have to care if this mother died and left three kids here with no Christmas. We have to care if someone is deathly ill. We've had to bury some of our customers because they had no next of kin here... Your responsibility as a member of the community is to make the community better."

Which is how Shirley Mae's serves up soul food -- AND food for the soul.

The restaurant throws free parties for children on Hallowe'en and Christmas, and helps out the hungry by providing food to people in the neighborhood on Thursdays.

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