The Southern Pitch food truck serves soul food with a side of history | Bleader

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Southern Pitch food truck serves soul food with a side of history

Posted By on 10.22.14 at 08:32 AM

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Don Curry and the Southern Pitch food truck.

Don Curry hands me a business card from MacCormac College, a business college in the Loop where he teaches courses in entrepreneurship. Frankly, though, his commitment to the idea of entrepreneurship, especially for African-Americans in Chicago, was already pretty apparent—as unmissable as the 25-foot-long food truck he's standing in front of, decorated with images of Negro League players like Satchel Paige and Rube Foster and old newspaper stories about long-ago games. This is the Southern Pitch food truck, whose slogan is "Enjoy the Food, Digest the History," and he launched it, peddling both items, two weeks ago this Friday.

Curry's interest in the history of the Negro League started as a fashion statement in college. Born in Chicago, his parents moved the family to Omaha for a better life when his mother finished nursing school. "So here I am, a freshman from Nebraska in college at Virginia State University, driving a yellow Fiat Spider, so you know, I'm different already," he laughs. "I didn't want to get the same hats, the New York hats or Sox hat that everybody else has. So I go to this hat store and I see the Negro League hats, and they called to me."

His interest in the old-time players grew—"I liked the way the guys looked, just the stature that they held"—and a few years later he went to his first collectors' event for Negro League fans, meeting Mamie "Peanut" Johnson, one of only three women players in the league's history. He asked her to sign a book of vintage photos she was in, "so she signs and I'm stepping away and she says 'No, baby, that's five dollars.' And I'm like, I'm a college student, I just spent ten dollars on the book! She said 'Sorry, baby,' and gave me a hug, and I gave her the five bucks."

He got degrees in taxation and accounting in the mid-90s, and moved back to Chicago to work for Allstate. At a Negro League night at Comiskey with colleagues, he watched the crowds that lined up to get autographs from old-timers like Al Spearman and Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, and thought, "If these people are willing to stand in line to get these guy's autographs, why wouldn't they patronize a restaurant with that theme?" He spent several years tinkering with the idea, and in 2004 he opened a themed soul food restaurant in Bronzeville, as that area started to attract attention for redevelopment, called the Negro League Cafe, which lasted five years. Ironically, it was another redevelopment plan—the prospect of an Olympics held on the south side—that led to him ultimately losing his lease and closing the restaurant. He admits he was also burned out by then, and he moved, briefly, to New York.

While in New York he saw something he hadn't seen in Chicago: a thriving food truck scene. "I met this guy on a strip of food trucks, I forget the street but there were about ten of them. I get to talking to him and telling him about my restaurant. He says, did you ever think about doing it as a food truck? I said, why would I? And he said, I'll put it to you this way, I'm a five star chef, I worked at the Waldorf-Astoria, and I knew I couldn't afford a space in New York City. I put $75,000 into this truck, and I've already grossed a million."

Ah, yes, the instant wealth of the food truck. Somehow it seems to be more of a struggle in Chicago's less friendly food truck environment. But Curry has a passionate belief in the power of entrepreneurship as a vehicle for African-American self-improvement, and it's not hard to see that that's why he identifies so strongly with Negro League baseball. One of the touchstones for him is, again, the old photos of the ballplayers that decorated his former cafe.

"The look in their eyes says, we're not going to bitch and moan, excuse my French, about not being able to play a game. We're going to master the game and compete. I think that if a lot of people really took that philosophy to heart, the world would be a better place, and you wouldn't have as much crime and whatnot. Because people pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. [Retired Negro League ballplayers] told me, from talking to them over the years, it beat sharecropping and making $50 a month, where if you played baseball, you could make $200 a month if you were good."

BBQ chicken, greens and sweet potatoes

As we're talking about this, he's parked in a truck bay at a warehouse building at Throop and Cermak, which several food trucks operate out of. He and a couple of employees are unloading pans of greens and sweet potatoes which they made the day before, reheating them for today because, he says, the seasonings improve overnight.

I ask him what food goes with Negro League baseball. "When I interviewed the [players], I asked them what food should we have. And they said, the food that we ate on the road! I knew that, but I just wanted to hear them say it. Now keep in mind, they couldn't stay in hotels. They stayed in people's homes. So it was collard greens, it was candied yams, it was fried chicken, one guy told me they'd even cook up a whole pig. I don't eat pork, so I don't do that. And we bake everything. We use my grandmother's recipes for everything, even down to seasoning the meats." Besides traditional soul food, there are sandwiches and wraps, usually named for players—a BBQ turkey sub, for instance, could only be named for Norman "Turkey" Stearnes.

One thing that's different about the Southern Pitch food truck versus many of the others that have popped up in the past few years is where it sells. Although he makes downtown stops, he also has regular south-side stops, including near Vice District Brewery in the South Loop, around Hyde Park and the University of Chicago, and outside the courthouse and jail at 26th and California. "Though it's just gloomy over there, even when the sun's out," he says. "But I guess they gotta eat too."

For now it's one truck, but Curry still has the idea that he first had when he started his brick and mortar restaurant, that Negro League-themed restaurants could work in many cities where baseball was part of the African-American heritage—and could communicate entrepreneurial values to younger generations. Right now, I wonder how sustainable teaching college and running a food truck is as a dual profession. But Curry characteristically looks at it from the bright side: "My students have gotten to see it all happen over the past year," he says. Teaching entrepreneurship in class and serving food on the streets aren't two separate professions, they're theory and practice.

To see where the Southern Pitch truck is selling, follow them on Facebook or @southernpitchft on Twitter.

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments (8)

Showing 1-8 of 8

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-8 of 8

Add a comment

More by Michael Gebert

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Bus Stop Athenaeum Theatre
July 19
Music
The Sea & Cake, Moonrise Nation Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park
August 16

Tabbed Event Search

The Bleader Archive

Popular Stories