Muskegon’s growing soul food scene is ‘bringing us together’

MUSKEGON, MI – For LaKisha Harris, no one makes food like people in Muskegon.

The growing soul food scene in Muskegon, home to the turkey knuckle, is a key part of that culinary landscape.

In the past five years, Muskegon’s soul food scene has grown with the launch of five restaurants or caterers starting to serve the traditionally southern cuisine that has deep roots in the Black community.

Harris opened Soul Filled Eatery last year, and she joins Corine’s Cakes & Catering, Lott & Big Weezy’s, The Hideout and Kuntry Cookin’. She believes the burgeoning soul food scene is a sign that persistent segregation in Muskegon is changing through food.

“We’re evolving as a community,” said Harris. “And proof of that evolution is the startup of all these soul food restaurants.”

Home of the turkey knuckle

Soul food generally has the same staples: Fried catfish, ribs, cornbread, collard greens and black-eyed peas. In Muskegon, the turkey knuckle also is a featured staple.

“I always tell people you can only find turkeys with knuckles in Muskegon,” Harris said.

The turkey knuckle is the tender meat around the turkey’s knee joint. It’s typically broiled or broasted and topped with sauce or gravy.

The turkey knuckle is emblematic of soul food; it’s a repurposed item that would normally be overlooked.

“Because of slavery, we were taught to make the best out of scraps,” Harris said. “Soul food is taking those basic items that you would think have no use and no purpose and bringing life to those.”

Related: Local Eats: Corine Rose’s cakes and soul foods earns Taste of Muskegon victory

Soul food can trace its origins back to generations of enslaved Africans in the southern United States. The cuisine made its way to Muskegon during the Great Migration when millions of Black Americans settled in northern cities during the first half of the 20th century.

“They brought all those Southern roots to Muskegon,” Harris said.

In the late 1960s, Pearl’s Chicken Palace was one of the first soul food restaurants to open in the area as Black-owned businesses started to boom.

Owned by Pearl Jefferson Dean, it became This Is It, 2723 Peck St. in 1989, and is now one of the longest running soul food restaurants in Muskegon Heights. The restaurant paused operations when COVID-19 hit, but Dean’s daughter Bobbie Cheeks plans to open it again in coming months.

This Is It in Muskegon Heights

This Is It, 2723 Peck St., is one of the longest running soul food restaurants in Muskegon Heights. Pearl Jefferson Dean opened in 1989 after she’d been running Pearl’s Chicken Palace since the late 1960s. (Photo by Rose White | MLive)

Phyllis Loudermill, a local entrepreneur who owns Lott & Big Weezy’s, Lott on the Lakeshore and a hotel, said Muskegon soul food restaurants like This Is It were prevalent in neighborhoods.

“If you look at most soul food restaurants, they survived based on their community involvement,” she said.

The new slate of restaurants operating are now largely run by chefs who are classically trained, according to Harris, and each venue has its own take on dishes. Soul Filled Eatery takes inspiration from cultures around the world, whereas Lott & Big Weezy’s specializes in rib tips and seafood boils.

While each restaurant has different macaroni and cheese recipes, there’s one consistent trait: “Soul food is comfort food,” Loudermill said.

A ‘new generation’ of soul food restaurants

Growing up in North Muskegon, Harris said she always felt like there was a “great divide.” According to the most recent national census data from 2010, segregation remains in Muskegon neighborhoods.

Loudermill says there is a “gap in participation” based on where restaurants are located.

“In order for us to have an integrated customer base, we need to have integrated communities,” she said.

Most of the soul food restaurants are based in Muskegon Heights, which is predominantly Black, but Loudermill says a “new generation” of entrepreneurs are working to blend the community.

“Food is bringing us together,” Harris said.

Related: Local Eats: Community buoys Kuntry Cookin’ in downtown Muskegon

Corine’s Cakes & Catering is based at The Lakes Mall, and Kuntry Cookin’ is planning to launch a food truck this summer. Soul Filled Eatery currently offers takeout at 3232 Glade St., and Harris wants to bring the soul food experience to other lakeshore towns like Whitehall, Montague and Grand Haven.

Soul Filled Eatery is also partnering with local businesses to bridge the gap between communities, including collaborations with Hamburger Mikey and Hey Sugar Cotton Candy.

“It’s food for the soul, and everyone has a soul,” Harris said.

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