Marble’s Southern Cookery puts the soul in soul food
Some say Indiana is the northernmost Southern state. With our conservative politics, swampy summers and down-home attitude, who’s surprised that a Mississippi-inspired oasis of soul food thrives on Indy’s Near Westside. Attucks graduate Lee Marble, who built Marble’s Southern Cookery one collard green at a time, keeps a print of plantation cotton workers on the wall, so we all remember the natural history of this all-American cooking. “It’s about authenticity,” he says, “and what springs out of the earth.”
Marble’s pork chop surrounded by greens, macaroni and cheese and peach cobbler.
Today at Marble’s we’re psyched to see that some fine sweet potatoes have sprung out of the earth. Their hot, honeyed, buttery orange hue pops out as we survey the buffet line. What you see is what you get at Marble’s. There’s inch-thick pork chops, slow simmered ribs, baked or fried chicken and, today, Friday, catfish and perch. Just $4.99 for fish, one veggie and cornbread. The most expensive item on the menu is the New York strip ($7.50). Marble’s is kind to the working person’s pocketbook. Come to find all fish is fried to order in the hottest oil. The flesh of my handsome filet is moist, both with the lightly salty grease and the natural catfish juices. The batter bubbles up around the fish, creating pockets of air. My dad’s perch, all three strips, are the same combination of richness and lightness, more like a Japanese tempura than a leaden hush puppy. The perch comes with a homemade tartar slaw garnish, a tangy blend of onions, carrots and cabbage. Dad made sure to sample as many sides as possible, most of which cost $1.40. The run-down: • The cucumber salad is vinegar-y, a cool complement to rich entrees. • The mashed potatoes are the real thing, and extra thick but not too buttery. • The black-eyed peas are the salt of the earth, and probably the only vegetarian option at Marble’s. • The elbows in the mac and cheese are overcooked from an Italian point of view, but hold their sharp cheddary-Velveeta sauce well. • The big hunks of sugar-stewed sweet potatoes are almost like a dessert. • The fruit salad appeared to have a few canned elements, particularly pears. • Our full bellies prevented our sampling the lima beans, gravy, green beans with ham and sizzling apple cobbler on the buffet line. Lest we be overwhelmed by the spectrum of Delta cuisine, let’s not forget that, on the sixth day, God created cornbread. Marble’s cornbread comes wrapped in wax paper, the buttery steam seeping through it. My Evansville-born husband says that you know you’re in the South when the iced tea’s sweet and the cornbread’s not. This cornbread fits the bill. A fine, almost powdery texture, a moist interior and firm, brown bottom are enough to renew my old love affair with cornbread. I’ve made it with black and cayenne pepper, or apples, or lotsa kernels. But Marble’s is the source, the wellspring, the incarnation of the basic cornbread beauty. The stereo sounds of Lionel Ritchie and Luther Vandross stoked our appetite for dessert, all homemade. The sugar cream pie has a requisite toasty flavor and a pudding-like texture. The triple layered chocolate cake is lovely if a little dry for being in the cooler. The coconut cream pie is a headily-sweet combination of thick and somewhat rubbery yellow cream on top and jelly-like coconut mixture on bottom. Next time at Marble’s I’m going to get the most honest dessert: two dozen Nilla wafers swimming in frosty vanilla pudding. Lee Marble has been cooking since age 6, and he’s been in business 22 years. With no advertising, Marble’s hosts lines out the door every Sunday. Marble has cooked for mayors, NFL coaches and international visitors looking for the true taste of America. “We try to be consistent and respect what people want,” he says. Just keep that Mississippi cornbread coming, please.