What puts the soul in soul food?
That should be "who," actually, because it's family members who put the soul in soul food, passing recipes from one generation to the next, preserving and perpetuating the virtues of simple goodness in an era when mashed potatoes are, God help us, more likely to come premade out of a package or whipped up from reconstituted flakes than sourced from Mama Nature's humble tubers, peeled and cooked and mashed in a process that doesn't take much more time but does take more care and results in a product that's incomparably superior.
Not that I have strong feelings about that.
The pure definition of soul food is a personal one, as different to each component of the great American melting pot as they are from each other. For me, it's food of the Germanic-Austrian culture, for others Italian or Mexican or Norwegian or Lithuanian or whatever was on the table at suppertime.
The de facto soul food, though, is African-American -- or Southern, since that's where its roots stretch. It celebrates the ability to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, to transcend hardscrabble farmland and wafer-thin wallets to offer bountiful love and nourishment. While the source of the unofficial official designation is lost to the ages, it likely stems from the fact that, whatever your origins, this one tends to fit comfortably as well, soothing and salving and warming on a chilly day.
And all of that fine tradition is celebrated at Ella Em's. Like fewer and fewer restaurants in these days of faceless chains, Ella Em's has an actual history, related on its menus and its Web site. The restaurant is a celebration of Mississippi native Ella Rea Gray, an interpretation of her cooking by her grandson and his wife.
And so we have fried chicken ($9.99), the same price for white or dark, a generous quarter moist and meaty, its skin golden and crackling.
And smothered pork chops ($13.99), a slim single rather than the double-cuts to which we've become accustomed, but adequately flavorful, the gravy providing an extra shot of substance.
And the sides, the mainstay of any soul-food restaurant. Three are included with each entree, and they're pretty generous and also pretty tasty, the black-eyed peas cooked just enough (so they weren't mushy), a creative mixture of vegetables including broccoli and red bell pepper and beans and turnips cooked in the Southern style (so that they were) and a sauteed cabbage that split the difference.
And rice and gravy, a deft segue for the pork chop. Carefully mashed yams, kissed with honey. Collards that were, well, collards. And corn bread that was crumbly-moist (although we did have to ask for butter).
All of it served in a strip-center spot, a big open space with rich burgundy walls and navy-blue trim, with gleaming stainless tables and chairs and an open kitchen in the back (and, improbably, "My Name Is Earl" reruns on a big-screen TV). And a young waitress who found herself suddenly propelled from a nearly empty dining room into one with most of its tables filled and who simply sped up to deal with it, never losing her smile and pleasant manner.
Ella Em's isn't perfect, but it's as soulful as it gets. The youngsters have done Grandma proud.
Las Vegas Review-Journal reviews are done anonymously at Review-Journal expense. Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at 383-0474 or e-mail her at hrinella@ reviewjournal.com.