Wilson’s Soul Food
351 N. Hull St.
Athens, GA 30601
If your attitude is not right, no matter how good you cook, it’s still not going to be right. It has to be homey-based, and that’s the way we’re trying to keep it. If you’ve got a problem and you come in here, I want you happy by the time you leave here—forget all about your problems and cares. – Angelish Wilson
M. C. Wilson worked for the railroad in Colbert, Georgia, and cut hair on the side to make some extra money. In 1954 he retired from the railroad and opened Wilson’s Styling Shop on Hull Street in downtown Athens, a part of town known as Hot Corner for its century-long history of being a hub for African American-owned businesses. Ten years later, M. C.’s wife passed, and he moved the family to Athens. In 1981 another space on Hull Street became available, so M. C. purchased it and opened a café, Wilson’s Soul Food. His second wife, Elizabeth Wilson, and his daughter, Angelish, were recruited to cook. Today, Angelish is at the helm of the family’s soul food empire, cooking collards and cobblers from scratch and serving up some serious soul to the community. She prides herself not only on the quality of her ingredients, but the connections she makes with her customers. While Angelish tends to the family restaurant, her brother, Homer, man’s the barber’s chair next door at Wilson’s Styling Shop. And their father still heads to Hull Street to visit his children for lunch and a haircut.
We're sad to report that Wilson's closed its doors on October 3, 2011, another casualty of the poor economy.
What follows is a portion of the original interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Angelish Wilson
Date: November 21, 2006
Location: Wilson’s Soul Food – Athens, GA
Interviewer: Amy C. Evans
Amy C. Evans: This is Amy Evans on Tuesday, November 21st, 2006 for the Southern Foodways Alliance in Athens, Georgia, at Wilson’s Soul Food. I’m with Angelish Wilson. Would you please state your name and your birth date for the record, please ma’am?
Angelish Wilson: My name is Angelish Kay Wilson. My age is 54…April 16th .
And your family has had Wilson’s Soul Food for how long now?
We opened up in March 31st in 1981.
How far back does your family go here in the Athens area?
We moved to Athens back in 1964 from Madison County [in Colbert, Georgia] right after my mom [Rosalie Wilson] passed, and my dad [M. C. Wilson] wanted to keep a close knit on us while he was working, so he moved to town in 1964.
So what was your father doing, when you lived in Madison County, before you moved up to town here?
My father used to work on the railroad during the day, and then at night he would come to cut hair here at the barbershop and had the barbershop for fifty years.
Can you tell me a little bit about your father?
He’s a man that you think that stands tall. He stands about five-two; has a fantastic smile; always greeting people with a hello; always giving good encouragement. If you would meet him, you would always remember him; he’s just that type of person, uh-hmm.
Now when he started the styling shop next door here [at 343 North Hull Street], did he start out working there or did he purchase the business and start it himself?
Well he started cutting hair—I guess it was about in 1954, and he was doing it at home. So right after he retired from the railroad, he decided to go full time in the hair business, so he came to work with a man named—oh, I can't think of his name now, but he came to work here with a man and the man retired, and he decided to buy the place and he bought the place in—I don’t know what year. I know it’s been over fifty years, uh-hmm.
Now I heard something somewhere about there being a black-owned newspaper in that building or this building where the soul food restaurant is. Do you know anything about that?
It wasn’t in this building. It was in the building next door [on the corner], but that was way before my time. I think right after the newspaper place—I think that burnt down, and then they rebuilt it and then it used to be a Laundromat, and from the Laundromat it became the police department uniform shop. And right now it’s a nightclub so—. I don’t know too much about the corner because when we was coming up my dad always tried to protect us from a whole lot of stuff, and we never could come to town because it was a real active place, and that’s a place where we couldn’t come as a kid.
So when you say active place, you mean lots of kind of nightlife or are you speaking in general about something else?
I’m thinking of nightlife. They used to have clubs, bars, anything you can name was down here, so we just couldn’t come in this area as a kid.
And this area, too, is still known as Hot Corner, where there were a lot of black-owned businesses in the day. Do you remember or know about some of the other businesses that were around?
No, not too many. I can remember one funeral home. That’s right after I came on the scene. And then I remember one nightclub. The funeral home was named Mack and Payne, as I can remember and nightclub was Manhattan Café. And then there was also two barbershops, and they still stand, which is Wilson Style Shop and Brown Barbershop. And I can remember that scene.
So your father was in the hair business for a while; what made him want to get into the restaurant business?
Well my dad always liked to cook. And right after my mom died he just took over cooking, and he liked to make pies and cakes. I think he specialized in hamburgers, and the building just came open, and he just decided to buy it, uh-hmm.
So when he bought the building and started the restaurant, was he doing the cooking?
No, my step-mom [Elizabeth Wilson] and I came in and did the cooking. I can remember times when my dad used to try to teach me how to cook; he told me to go in there and make a burger. He wouldn’t tell me how and what to do, so I put the skillet on the stove, and I noticed that he put black pepper in the meat, but I decided to put mine in the skillet. And I turned the stove on, and about the time I got the burger to the frying pan, the house was smelling so hot that we couldn’t stay in it because the pepper was cooking and everybody had to run out the house so—. I kind of learned. But my dad—anything that I would cook he would always say it was good in order to encourage me, so I can keep on. So I learned from that.
So you weren't a big cook at all, then, before you got into the restaurant business?
No, I was a great cook then, you know. I started—I guess I was about fifteen—maybe about fifteen years old when I started cooking really for the house, uh-hmm. But by the time I got to the restaurant, I was an excellent cook. [Laughs]
Was the food that you were making at home when you were fifteen, was it the same kind of food that you started making once you came to the restaurant?
I believe so, yeah, uh-hmm, home cooking.
Do you remember the first day of business and what that was like?
Oh yeah, I can remember the first day of business. I was scared because I always had been a quiet person. I’m comfortable around family, and I sang in the choir but yet still, I just wasn’t ready for that kind of rush. But we made it through but then it seemed like that helped me to grow that first day. People were asking me—said, “What’s your name?” And I was scared to say my name; you know, I just was that scared.
Do you remember what was on the menu the first day you were open?
Well I know we had pork chops, our daily menu; we always have pork chops every day, fried chicken every day, green beans and macaroni. I know that been on the menu since ’81 but the rest of it I can't remember.
How about the prices of a meat with three vegetables?
It have changed but it hasn’t changed that much. I think within those years we have get our prices up at least about three times since we’ve been here, and we try to keep it basically for the university because we know that students, sometimes they have a hard time. You know, they have a problem with studying and they have a problem with girlfriends and boyfriends, and I mean different things can happen. But we want them to feel as though they can come home and eat, and I think we have did that well by keeping the price down.
I know you look out for [the students], too, like making sure they have their vegetables and all that.
I do. Sometimes I’ll tell a student they might get macaroni and cheese, buttered potatoes, and some fried okra, and then I say, “Where are you’re veggies? You need to put one of those back.” And they say, “Yes, ma’am. You just like my mama.”
You make people feel at home.
Yeah, that’s the key of making them feel at home, uh-hmm, making them feel loved.
So what about cooking in different quantities for folks. Was that a thing to kind of get used to?
No, because I guess sometimes God have a plan for you, and right after I finished high school, I went to work at this place called Snelling Hall [a dining hall at the University of Georgia], and you cook in big quantities there. And then I left there and went to nursing school and did a little nursing, but I didn’t like that. So my dad decided to open this restaurant up again, so I kind of like knew how to do it because we all—we have a big family anyway. My dad have fifteen kids but twelve living, so about the time twelve kids get there and their kids get there and then neighbors get there, so you’re cooking for a big quantity, uh-hmm.
So when you say that you didn’t really take to nursing and you wanted to do something else, was the restaurant something that your father kind of saw would be a good business for family members to be in, or was it just something that happened conveniently that you didn’t take to nursing and this was something that you could do?
Well I guess I’m considered as being the mama of the family. When we have different outings, I’m the one that gets everybody together. And I just like family life, and I guess it’s more happiness for me to see somebody just sit down and enjoy themselves. And when I got my license to be a nurse, I was at a nursing home, and it looked like every time I would get a patient and you fall in love with them and then they die. See, that’s a hurting feeling, so I just didn’t—I couldn’t go along with that, uh-hmm, yeah.
So what’s it been like all these years to be responsible for feeding all these folks and all these young people who come in from the university and all that all these years?
Happiness. Joy. I get a joy out of it, and I think the students get a joy of coming in here and just seeing what’s going on and also going along with the attitude. If your attitude is not right, no matter how good you cook, it’s still not going to be right. It has to be homey-based, and that’s the way we’re trying to keep it. If you’ve got a problem—a problem and you come in here and about time you leave here see, I want you happy by the time you leave here—forget all about your problems and cares, and that is how we are, uh-hmm.
So how much of that you do you think is the food and how much is you and the other folks who work here?
I’d say about forty-five-percent food and the other is—have to be caring, uh-hmm.
So you really build the relationship with the people who come in here?
Oh, yeah. That’s important with that relationship. I mean you can't go too far without a relationship, you know. People will stop in and just eat, but you want them to come back, see—that’s the key—coming back and making sure that they feel safe here and then if they’re safe here, that means they’re going to come back to eat. So that’s the way I like it.
So let’s talk about the food. Where did all those recipes come from?
I had an auntie; her name was Lillian Dye, and I used to go down her house all the time right after my mom died. She kind of like would cook, and I was always fascinated with the kitchen, and I wanted to peep over and see what she was doing. And so I got cooking skill from her, also from my step-mama and my aunties on my mama’s side. They loved to cook, and they cooked real good, uh-hmm.
Do you ever get requests for anything that you don’t usually have on the menu that you make special for folks?
Oh yeah, I do. I can have people that are coming in or I know they’re coming in a day before time, and I’ll tell them to let me know and then I go out and get it and then I prepare it for them, so that’s the way we operate around here. It’s not that I make the menu all the time; I want them to make the menu sometimes.
So what are some of those different things that you make special?
Well eggplant casserole, tuna casserole; I can basically make any kind of casserole that they ask me to. Homemade like chicken noodle soup; they like that on the cold days. And I have this ground beef soup that I make also. It’s a whole lot of different things, uh-hmm.
When you cook do you cook by recipe or by taste and by feel?
Taste. I start off with a small amount of season, and then I go back and put a pinch or two more and then—about the time it’s halfway cooking and then I taste it again. Needs more seasoning, I add a little pinch more. About time it gets done I want to see if it tastes right and then if it needs something, I add it; if it don’t, I don’t add it. It’s not a measurement that I do. Soul food is basically cooking from your heart; it’s not a book recipe.
Do you have an opinion about cooking as to like, you know, if my grandmother made fried chicken but it was my grandmother and it was her skillet that made the fried chicken and how the person that you are goes into the food that you make?
I can have a recipe and I can follow that guideline of the recipe, but I’m not in your heart. It’s still not going to be just like mine. I mean it just goes that way, uh-hmm. See, where you might follow the recipe, I might put a little more beat to it, uh-hmm. It’s a certain technique.
So tell me about your day here and when you get here and what you do to get ready for lunch and cook.
Well my job is easy because I have a staff. They have been here for a long time. I guess one have been here about—maybe about thirteen, fourteen years, and she make my job real easy. And then I have another one and she been here about eight years, and I just hired another one, and she’s good. So they make my job easy…Theresa Lumpkin, she’s been here the longest. And then I have Surriendier Curruth; she been here next longest. And then Helen Ellison; I just hired her, uh-hmm.
Do you train them at all, or they come in pretty much knowing what needs to be done?
Well I make sure that they know how to cook, but also I try to make sure they know how to follow my directions, and so that’s important because I don’t want to change my way. I want to try to keep the home base from scratch. I had one employee came in and told me, said, “You can take the okra and buy it already prepared.” But see, that’s not me. I want mine to come from scratch, like my turnip greens, they come in fresh. I don’t want them frozen, and I don’t want them canned; I want to cook them myself. I just like to do stuff from scratch; I’m going to just end it up just like that.
So let’s talk a little bit more about the food and maybe like what was on the menu today and how that changes from day to day.
Okay, as I said I do have pork chops, chicken, macaroni, green beans every day, but then I rotate it. For greens today I had collard greens. Like tomorrow I have turnip greens. The next day I might have cabbage. It’s always rotated. And then it might be a day that I come in, and I might have turnip greens and collards. It kind of like rotates. Most of my customers know that I have steak and gravy on Monday, and I might have another kind of meat with it. Like on Wednesday they know I have barbecued chicken, they know I’m going to have fried chicken; I’m going to have pork chops, and probably another meat with that. And then on Thursday they know I got meatloaf—that is meatloaf day, but I’m going to have fried chicken, pork chops, and another meat with it, so they know about what days that I have—. Then on Friday I have barbecued ribs, and I have fish, and then I also have fried chicken, fried pork chops, uh-hmm.
Now the meats, then, have specific days the people know they can come and get them but then the vegetables, do they just change according to what’s available or what you feel like adding to the steam table that day?
Well I know that if I have corn today, I have squash tomorrow—either I have broccoli and rice casserole—I try to change it up. I try not to have the same thing on there every day, and if I have potatoes today, I’m going to have rice the next day—try to—because I do have regular customers that come in every day, and you have a lot of men that stay by themselves or the wife don’t cook because they’re doing other things. See, I’m wanting them to feel at—at home and letting them know that they getting something fresh.
Now tell me about your desserts. Today you had cherry pie and potato pie, I know, and an apple, I think.
Uh-hmm. Well basically, I always have apple pie, cherry pie, sweet potato, but also I add my coconut pie and I add my lemon meringue and I do pound cakes, cobblers—any kind of cobbler, and I have a fantastic blackberry pie. It has to be fresh strawberries and about—you know, this time of a year you can't find fresh strawberries, so I have to use frozen, and I don’t care too much about using frozen because of the seeds in the strawberries; you can taste to those more. But during the summertime it’s a fantastic blackberry pie. It’s awesome.
Has anything been kind of added or taken away to the menu as the restaurant has evolved, and either tastes have changed or you’ve decided to add something new and different?
Well when first started opening up, that was back in ’81, we used to use fatback in our veggies. We used to use ham hocks in our veggies. But I guess I want to say about eight years ago I decided to eliminate the fat in my veggies, and I thought it was going to be a problem with my customers saying that they wanted the fat out of the boiler. Well I went to this seminar at Athens General Hospital, and they was telling about your heart and what is good for you and the grease and your arteries, so I decided—I say, “Oh, I want to live because I got three grandkids.” I said, “I want to see them get, you know, graduate from college and go and get them homes.” So I decided I was going to eliminate the fat in my boiler. So I just did it and I could—I found out that you can get the same taste without the fat as you do with the fat; it’s just not greasy and—and I think I like that better. And I don’t have no complaints because now days—now—now a whole lot of young people they going over to vegetarian, and they don’t want the fat in the veggies. Well I don’t either, so I like it better.
So what’s the secret to keeping that same taste as when you had the fatback to when you don’t have the fat?
Awe, now listen at you—listen at you! [Laughs] I’m going to say love. [Laughs]
So are you open for breakfast? Do I remember hearing people come here for breakfast?
Yeah, we open up at eight-thirty [a. m.]. A while back we usually opened at seven o’clock, but with me being a grandmother and I love to participate in my grandkids—and I want to make sure they is in their position before I get to work. But we open up at eight-thirty in the morning, and we serve breakfast from 8:30 to 10:30, and it’s all country breakfast like homemade sausage, smoked links, bacon. We also have the chicken patty. If you want fish and grits, I have that—just about any kind of meat that I can—fried chicken, pork chop, and we also have grits and eggs. It can be cheese eggs, homemade biscuits, uh-hmm.
Your brother, has he always worked over in the styling salon?
Homer [Wilson]—but that’s my partner in crime. That’s my partner. Okay now yes, he always been over there next door. I think the only job I ever knew that he had right after he finished high school—or I don’t know what year it was. But he’s older than I am, so it’s been a good while. The only job that I knew that he had was he went to one of the poultries, and I think he worked two days and he told daddy he didn’t want to do that.
So what do you think your father would have to say about his children running these businesses that have been established for so long that he started?
He talks about it all the time. He talks about how proud of his—how proud he is of his kids, carrying on the job that he did and I mean, he just talks about it all the time. It’s not nothing that he regrets that he started. It just—he just happy that he did something for his kids.
Does he come down here much? Does he get his hair cut next door and come have a meal with you over here?
Well, yeah, he still comes down and gets his hair cut and come to eat. He still is considered as the CEO of the family, so—in business.
So what do you think the Wilson’s name means to people in Athens?
Well for one thing, they know they’re good people, and that means a whole lot. You can be in business for years and years, but if you’re not good people, people are not going to want to come around. So they know that we mean business, they know that we going to do our best, and they know that we’re Christian people.
So how would you describe yourself and what you do here because you’re not just a cook or a restaurant owner? Can you put that into words?
Well, yeah, I am a person that shows love. I’m a person that is here when you need to talk. I’m a person that when you have rejoice I’m going with you. If you down, I’m going to try to help lift you up. And I know I was planted here for a reason. And in my church I’m considered as being one of the people that the single mom, teen mom, high school girls—they look up to. I don’t know [Laughs] but I’m thankful that God placed me in that field because I think I’m good at it.
To download the entire transcript in PDF form, please click here.