This article was initially reported prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of August 4, the Soapstone Fish Fry was up and running again. It’s scheduled for the third Saturday of each month. To get the most up-to-date information visit the Soapstone Church website or the Soapstone Baptist Church Facebook page. To learn more about the church and slave cemetery and to contribute to a fund to help support them, visit this GoFundMe for Soapstone.
Checks can also be mailed to:
296 Liberia Road
Pickens, SC 29671
It was the third Saturday of the month at the Soapstone Baptist Church, and Mable Owens Clarke—short-cropped hair, sparkly eyes—was greeting a first-timer with a favorite line: “Where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting to feed you!”
Behind her, irresistible aromas rose off the steam table. Folks lined up out the door, standing close together (as this was pre-pandemic), waiting to pay $14 a ticket for a feast cooked by Clarke—enough food for the 400 who would come to this back-roads promontory in northwestern South Carolina. Clarke’s “food dippers” were holding serving spoons, ready for decisions.
Most guests requested the meal’s namesake: Clarke’s cornmeal-and-spice-crusted flounder. But that was just the beginning. Don’t like fish? Then how about cranberry chicken or smothered pork chops? Alongside, maybe collards, their taste bumped up with chicken stock, or the mac ’n’ cheese, a custardy triumph. And the gooey tomato casserole? People would talk about it long after Saturday.
“Put your ticket in that little jar,” Clarke directed. “I got wheelbarrows in the back. I can just wheel you out.”
But the food wasn’t really why anyone came. They came to support Clarke’s mission to save an African American treasure. Clarke lives with her husband beside the church on land once farmed by her parents, Lula and Chris Owens, grandchildren of some of the 600 formerly enslaved people who formed a community they called Liberia. They traded their labor for acreage from landowners left penniless after the Civil War. And on a soapstone outcropping overlooking the Blue Ridge Mountains, they built a chapel.
The Owens had eight children who all attended the one-room schoolhouse that has stood for a century beside the church. They sold produce door to door, and when arsonists burned Soapstone in 1967, Lula solicited donations from their customers to get the church rebuilt.
Lula’s cooking had brought diverse neighbors to her table, and she taught Mable at her apron strings. “When I turned 8, she said, ‘The rest of the children are big enough to work the farm, and you’re going to have to get lunch ready for us,’” Clarke recalls.
Over time, folks moved from Liberia, some lured to the Greenville mills nearly 25 miles away. The congregation dwindled from hundreds to, today, just nine. On her deathbed a decade ago, Lula told her daughter, “Your great-grandfather was the founder of Soapstone Church. Don’t let the doors close.” Tears ran down Clarke’s cheeks recalling it. “Three days later, Mama left. The angels came, and she flew.”
Clarke used her cooking to fulfill her mother’s final wish. She launched the fish fry in a rented space until Soapstone could build a dining room. To pay for the addition, the church’s 6 acres and Clarke’s house were mortgaged and monthly payments were due. “But God gets me through it,” she said. “Every third Saturday, He sends people.”
Fish fries like Clarke’s date to slavery, says historian Adrian Miller, author of Soul Food (buy it: Loyalty Bookstores, on sale for $21), “when enslaved West Africans brought their love of fish to the Americas and fished to supplement their poor rations. Fish fries became a regular part of African American social life in the South, especially at churches. During the Great Migration, African Americans brought the tradition to other parts of the country.”
Clarke’s cooking also honors the abundance of her childhood. “We were poor but never hungry. We grew everything we ate,” she said. Her fish was hot and fresh, its crisp exterior yielding to flaky moistness. But the season’s harvest carried the meal: lima beans so rich that they clinch their nickname, “butter beans”; summer squash, silky after steaming; cinnamon-spiced zucchini bread.
After eating, it was time for a walk. Every few hours, guests would take a break and meander out to a shady clearing. Some years ago, surveyors marking property lines happened upon graves in the woods. Clarke called on local churches to help clear the land around the Soapstone ancestors’ headstones. “I said, ‘Lord, what can I do to give them some dignity?’” she recalled. After she threatened a one-woman sleep-in at county offices, officials funded a road, fence and historical kiosk for the cemetery.
Today, as real estate speculators take advantage of tax liens, missing titles and unfair legislation to dispossess African American people of ancestral lands in the South, Clarke struggles to hold onto Liberia’s legacy. With the bank wanting money and the fish fry suspended for a few months during the COVID-19 shutdown, there’s pressure to succumb to developers offering cash for Soapstone’s unfettered mountain view.
“What is happening here is what has been happening to African American landowners especially in the last half-century, as real estate development spread across the South,” says Andrew W. Kahrl, professor of history and African American studies at the University of Virginia. “Local governments and the courts are often in collusion. Black-owned land is seen as a path of least resistance. They take advantage of historic inequities and compound them.”
A supporter started a GoFundMe campaign on Clarke’s behalf—“Soapstone Church and Slave Cemetery”—to make up the shortfall, and Clarke is looking into grants and legal protection. She wants Soapstone secured as a monument to African American resilience. “It’s not just a local story. It’s a part of the nation’s story,” says Clemson University anthropologist John M. (Mike) Coggeshall. He collaborated with Clarke on Liberia, South Carolina: An African American Appalachian Community, royalties from which go to the community (buy it: Loyalty Bookstores, $30). After reading it in their book club, Nicole Bennett and Selena Parker came to the fish fry.
“My family comes from the Reynolds Plantation that runs out of Virginia down into North Carolina. We had to go back and mark graves of family that was in slavery,” said Parker. “So it’s interesting to see how this plays out here because it’s our history.”
Plus, said Bennett, pushing her emptied platter aside, “It’s for-real food, down-home food. Food for the soul.”
Location photography by Nick Burchell. Food photography by Johnny Autry.
This story originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine September 2020.