Chicagoans is a first-person account from off the beaten track, as told to Anne Ford. This week’s Chicagoan is Dave Hoekstra, author, WGN weekend radio host, and former Reader contributor.
“Sense of place is really important to me. I was at the Sun-Times for 29 years and did a midwest travel column for 14 of them. I’d go off to these places in the woods in Wisconsin, and it was like a cheap vacation. The linear architecture, the lake views. Generations taking their kids, and the kids taking their kids.
“So I did The Supper Club Book with the Chicago Review Press, and it went well, and we wanted to do another oral-history-type book. A lot of my work at the Sun-Times was covering black culture and black music and soul food, and nobody had combined soul food and civil rights in a book before, so we put together The People’s Place: Soul Food Restaurants and Reminiscences From the Civil Rights Era to Today.
“With the budget we had, I think we hit 20 restaurants. We didn’t have the money to go west, so there’s nothing in San Francisco, Los Angeles. The book kind of reflects how we traveled: started at Dooky Chase in New Orleans and moved north to Jackson, shot over to Atlanta, up to Saint Louis, over to Memphis. We did the two [restaurants] in D.C. in a couple days. Then we went down to Richmond, and then we took a hot, packed Greyhound bus to New York. It was like Midnight Cowboy.
“My favorite recipe in the book is the lima beans from Charleston. So many of these places are mom-and-pops, so it was hard to fact-check. This place in Charleston, they weren’t going to e-mail me a recipe. I made a separate trip and drove back to Charleston just to sit in the kitchen and get this recipe dictated. And everybody talks about the pig-ear sandwich at the Big Apple Inn in Jackson, Mississippi. That was memorable. Chewy and spicy, the size of a slider.
“On our last trip, my photographer, Paul Natkin, got mad at me. We’re both basketball fans, and the Spurs were in the NBA finals. I was driving, and I did a Wikipedia search on my cell phone while I was driving to see where the Spurs coach went to school, and Paul got upset with me and didn’t talk to me for about an hour. That was the only dust-up we had. He’s a talker, and I wondered why he wasn’t talking to me. I just turned up the volume on the radio.
“The book isn’t heavy on opinion. I try to let the voices breathe, and I give them respect. I’m really just a story gatherer, kind of like what Studs did. There’s one guy, Marvell Thomas, who says in the book, ‘There are so many definitions of what soul means. And 99 percent of them are by white writers who haven’t a fucking clue.’ He’s the son of Rufus Thomas, a legendary blues guy, and he was in session at Stax when Dr. King was assassinated just a few blocks away. I can have empathy, I can share these stories and honor them, but there’s no way I can understand some of the things Marvell Thomas went through.”