Never season another man’s collard greens. It’s bad manners and a bit emasculating. When a bowl of collards comes smothered in hot sauce—as it does at Pies ‘n’ Thighs, a boho Brooklyn salon serving fried chicken and stroller moms—it insults the vegetable and the diner. I, for one, know how I like my greens: cooked to a soft knot, smoky and haunted with bitterness, a sweet tingle, sour bushes scrabbling through sand and clay. The taste of good potlikker, born from that struggle, resonates in my stomach like a sympathetic vibration; it boils up my esophagus and lodges somewhere near my heart, a rumbling stroke of thunder without rain. That is not to say collards should come unsalted, unpeppered, or bland—again, as they do at Pies ‘n’ Thighs. I just don’t want my vegetables dressed like Buffalo wings. I see’est thou poised with thine sauce, but restrain thy hand. Be not so presumptuous.
On the Pies ‘n’ Thighs website, navigate to ‘About Us’—check out the illustration of three skinny white chicks, the first wearing rainbow balloon pants and an auburn afro, wielding a cast iron skillet, the second dressed in dark jeans and pumps, holding a steaming drumstick, and the third got-up in some French bistro Halloween costume complete with lattice-crust pie perched on outstretched palm. My tolerant readers, that is what Pies ‘n’ Thighs is about. If I had heard said testimony before walking under the Williamsburg Bridge, I would have made other dinner plans.
Three Caribbean guys sat next to me and asked me about the chicken. “Not Nashville,” was all I said, but they seemed to understand.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing terribly wrong with the food at Pies ‘n’ Thighs. By New York fried chicken standards, this is above average stuff. Dark and light meat smack of savory brine. I appreciate the juicy—well, wet really—meat, so here’s a head nod. Certainly moister and more chicken-y than KFC or Popeyes. But the crust—the crust!—sodden mass of boring starch!—cannot match its fast food equivalents. For crunchier crust—and dare I propose a more authentic preparation—walk over the bridge to Alphabet City and look for Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter. They pressure-fry their thighs. The skin separates from the flesh and puffs into cracklin pockets of fat. Make sandwiches with piping hot biscuits.
I was happy enough with my Pies ‘n’ Thighs biscuit, a dense (but not heavy), flaky (but not greasy) confection. An American rejoinder to cwahsants.* Drizzled with honey—from a cute plastic bear, no less—the biscuit qualifies as dessert. I’ll admit that I skipped pie. Following my experience with the chicken, I worried about investing $5 in a slice.
As with other ‘country’ imports flooding New York markets, Pies ‘n’ Thighs sells a myth of rural poverty. The restaurant reproduces Southern aesthetics without reference to the complexity of Southern food, politics, or life. In effect, Pies ‘n’ Thighs sells atmosphere. The South becomes Southern-ness, losing its particularity. Pies ‘n’ Thighs is an idea of what Southern cooking is—an idea that self-replicates. This ideology of Southern-ness is nothing new; however, when combined with the aesthetic imperatives of hip bourgeois consumers, it is especially pernicious. What would otherwise stand as a crude or unethical way of thinking about a people and a place turns into a product, both tangible and ethereal. Southern-ness obtains the status of cultural capital. Knowing about the South as Southern-ness—the restaurant industry’s false ‘myth of the South’—carries a social cache. “Have you been to Pies ‘n’ Thighs?” “Yes, but I don’t think the chicken is as good as at Red Rooster.”
Such exploitative transformations—region packaged into commodity—interfere with my aesthetic experience. The encounter feels disingenuous; the context of commodity exchange intrudes on the meal. Of course, if the food tasted great my abstracted mumbo-jumbo wouldn’t really matter—even for my personal experience. Unfortunately, Pies ‘n’ Thighs is a nexus of mediocre food and bad politics. The culinary feeds into the political, and vice versa. They are inextricable, but the relationship develops asymmetrically. Although it remains possible to maneuver around the aesthetic blockages of bad politics—for example, a dinner at Per Se or Eleven Madison Park—overcoming bad food proves impossible. (I will not, however, deny the power of denial. If evidence is wanting, just observe the organic aisle action in any supermarket.) Even if Pies ‘n’ Thighs met every one of my unrealistic and, in fact, absurd political criteria, it would fail on aesthetic grounds.
At Pies ‘n’ Thighs, the bad greens have been seasoned with bad politics. Tasty greens, cooked properly, need no hot sauce. Good food needs no affectation. My first rule of restaurants: if the attitude is more intense than the flavor, pass on by.
*Sincere apologies for the Francophobia inflecting my commentary.