I’d come to 75th Street beset by a craving for caramel cake, my ultimate sugar fix, a cherished token of the South I left behind three years ago. I found my quarry at Brown Sugar Bakery, where they call it “carmel cake”: two tall yellow layers, generously iced. The woman behind the counter cut a wide slice with a frosting-crusted knife, using a latex-gloved hand to keep it from toppling before she laid it into a Styrofoam clamshell.
In the grips of another Southern craving, I walked across the street to Lem’s, the granddaddy of Chicago-style barbecue for half a century and also a portal to the South, with its culinary roots in the Mississippi Delta. The Lem’s sign, some 30 feet tall, loomed above me like a totem. The chimney rose even taller. It was just before the 1 p.m. opening, and a line had formed outside. I joined it. People hungry for lunch get chatty, and I listened as conversations turned to the South, to family histories of migration and resettlement, to grandparents still living down in the Delta.
We were allowed into the narrow space five at a time. A cook in front of a massive cutting board pulled snaking lengths of rib tips from the aquarium smoker and whacked them with a cleaver, clean through the bone. I like the rib tips well enough, but I was here for the ribs themselves, pink with smoke, tingly with pepper, and neither limp nor tough but with just the right greasy tug.
There’s nowhere to sit in Lem’s, so we tailgated in the parking lot. Others settled at tables in front of Frances Cocktail Lounge next door, still others outside the deli across the street. At A&S Beverages, a few storefronts down, the owner chatted with a beat cop. After a while, a white ’67 Impala blasting Vic Mensa’s “Liquor Locker” roared up the street and parked in front of the Lem’s sign. As I took a bite of caramel cake, the bass from the subwoofers pounded in my chest as if from within, the beats mingling with the sweetness of the smoke from Lem’s chimney and the warm sun that had brought so many people out to 75th Street on a summer afternoon.
John Kessler was a food columnist at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 18 years.