As Denise Powell tells it, she grew up on two kinds of soul food.
The first, which her mother cooked for the family, consisted of smothered fried chicken, homemade biscuits, and fried tomatoes in gravy. The other, which her mother cooked outside the home, included brisket, onion kugel, and chicken livers cooked in schmaltz.
"I grew up on black soul food and Jewish soul food," recalls Powell, who is African-American.
And so perhaps it isn't that unusual that Powell has recently launched Fressin' Delicious, a kosher catering company that serves the Philadelphia area and is a reincarnation of the well-regarded catering company her mother, Ruthie Cauthorn, founded.
"Those are my roots. That's what I know," says Powell. "Both of those [kinds of foods] touch your spirit. They have depths of feeling and meaning."
Cauthorn, who cooked for Jewish families mostly on the Main Line, was born in Virginia. After moving to Philadelphia, she taught herself to prepare Jewish staples like gefilte fish (from scratch!), chopped liver, and an assortment of kugels. Over the years, she expanded her business to synagogues and family celebrations like Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.
Her daughter is now trying to reclaim her stake in that culinary history.
Powell, who lives in Roxborough, is a native of Philadelphia who grew up in Germantown, where she attended local public schools. She graduated from Moore College of Art and Design and is a graphic designer at the Jewish Exponent and Inside magazine.
She grew up in the kitchen, and talking about food — especially the kind her mother made — brings a smile to her face. Powell was in the fourth grade when she went on her first catering job, helping her mother, working her way though high school, and later college, with such work..
"Before there was Cuisinart, I grated all the mushrooms and cut all the cucumbers. I set up the coffee, cream, tea, set the table, and did the famous fruit platters."
Powell is not Jewish — with a soft smile, she says she "almost" is — but her childhood memories nevertheless include Shabbat dinner and Passover.
Her mother "worked for years"at Temple Sinai, says Powell, and was mentored in Jewish cooking by Hilda Greenberg, wife of the temple's religious leader, Rabbi Sidney Greenberg.
Says Powell: "Some of the best experiences with my mother were when we cooked together. I was her official taster. It was a fun job, but I still have plump cheeks."
The recipes for her mother's famous brisket, sweet and sour meatballs, and stuffing with gravy are all secret. "She wouldn't even share them with me," Powell says.
Cauthorn took them to the grave when she passed away in 2002, but Powell has since played with various recipes and believes she has discovered — through trial and error — her mother's secrets to these classic foods. "I knew the smell and I knew the taste, so it wasn't that hard," she said.
Powell is clearly proud of her mother and as she explained recently, "She was an African-American woman who had keys to the best homes on the Main Line. I wish I had the words to describe her determination, responsibility and enormous courage.
"For a black woman, there wasn't just a regular glass ceiling. If for other women, it was 12 feet tall, for black women, it was five feet tall — high enough to hit your head if you wanted to stand up."
Cauthorn, says Powell, never let the challenges of life, however serious or mundane, deter her. If a kugel fell on the floor minutes before a party was set to start, she never let panic get the best of her.
Last year, Powell decided to devote more time to catering and revived the business, operating out of her home, which required special accommodations. She even obtained Orthodox kosher supervision from KO Kosher Service, which has offices in the area.
"All of her kosher equipment is in a separate room and kept covered," explains Rabbi Moshe E. Novoseller, president of KO. "It's all new and distinguishable. When she has an affair, I come and kasher the oven."
Novoseller is also sure to turn on the oven and stove so that the food fulfills the kashrut requirement of bishul Yisrael, that it be cooked by a Jewish person.
For Novoseller, the fact that Powell is not Jewish actually makes things somewhat easier. On Passover, she doesn't have to sell chametz and he doesn't have to worry about whether or not she observes Shabbat — because she doesn't have to.
"She's a lovely person," he says, "and her food is superb."