Writing for the New York Times in 1994, the Southern author Rick Bragg described the interior landscape of Thelma’s Kitchen in downtown Atlanta as “rivers of gravy (running) through mounds of white rice, the black-eyed peas (simmering) all day as God intended, and the fried chicken ... almost too good to have been prepared by human hands.”
Bragg points out later in the piece, that river was about to run dry. Thelma’s was then only weeks away from getting demolished for Centennial Olympic Park.
“They call it progress,” the restaurant’s proprietor and head chef Thelma Grundy told Bragg, “but it ain't progress to me. They're just going to push us out, and I am so sorry. I don't know what I'll do when they tear it down. I guess I'll just cry."
She may have actually shed a tear or two, but it wouldn’t have lasted long. Grundy knew with pragmatic conviction that being a city legend - the location of Thelma’s in Centennial park is now marked by a plaque - didn’t buy security.
Her son David Grundy said recently that Thelma and his father Riley Grundy always had a Plan B and usually a C and D as well.
“When they had spare time, they’d drive around town, and if they saw an empty building they’d keep it in the back of their heads,” he said. “She was ambitious and she had a strong desire. She never gave up, never had a defeatist attitude. She would always say, ‘God closes one door, opens another.’ “
Thelma Grundy ran her restaurants with a family and egalitarian spirit from 1968 to 2014. Her remarkable career spanned six locations, as she packed up, moved and started over every time “progress” and gentrification nipped at her heels.
Her first place, TG’s Sandwich Shop on Bankhead Highway, specialized in uncompromising soul food like neck bones, pig ears, pigtails, ox tails, pig feet and barbecue ribs. She moved to another Bankhead Highway location and began expanding and mainstreaming the menu. From there she went to the future park location on Marietta Street, and when displaced, she moved to her best-known spot at 190 Luckie Street.
By then she’d fully emerged as “Thelma’s Kitchen,” a meat-and-three with few peers and a fiercely loyal mix-and match clientele. They were black and white, they were day laborers, they were downtown professionals and they were city icons like Ted Turner who came, no matter the location, for the fried chicken. Former Mayor Bill Campbell who, even during his most embattled days, came on Wednesdays for the meatloaf.
Landscaper Lawrence McIntosh said he came so often that, “Thelma or one of the kids would actually call me when they got a cube steak, which was my favorite.”
Marguerite Owens said that she and her husband Frank, who owned a real estate agency, drove from Buckhead to downtown for the privilege of waiting in a lunchtime line that could stretch for several blocks.
The simplicity of home cooking evokes powerful feelings and, at least within the modest borders of Thelma’s Kitchen and if only for a brief time, transcended social disparities.
“I feed a lot of lawyers,” Thelma told Bragg. “I feed ballplayers . . . I fed that man, what's his name? You know, the one who plays Captain Kangaroo.”
Thelma Grundy, 93, died April 18 from a head injury after a fall at home. Her youngest son Carlos Grundy said that right up until the end “her mind was sharp . . . [she was] determined, headstrong, tough as nails.” She was buried last week at Westview Cemetery in Atlanta.
She was born Thelma Smith May 21, 1926, one of 10 children whose parents owned considerable farmland outside of Buena Vista, Ga. David Grundy said his grandparents “raised everything--corn, peas, collard greens, green beans, they had pigs and a big outhouse.”
Thelma had known Riley Grundy - he came from nearby Ellaville - since grade school. Neither went beyond the sixth or seventh grade. They married in the late 1940s and moved to Atlanta.
Thelma got her GED at Washington High and later took classes at Spelman College and Atlanta Area Tech. Riley landed work with a printing warehouse, a job he held for 35 years. Thelma became a live-in nurse, dispensing shots, medication and the emotional nourishment later assimilated into her fare at Thelma’s Kitchen.
With vivid childhood memories of her aunt who ran a grocery and served community food back home, she’d always wanted her own restaurant. When they finally opened on Bankhead, she continued for a time working nights as a nurse, and Riley pitched in after getting off work. Over the years each of their six children took shifts in the restaurant, including David who started as a teenager in 1970 and remained full-time until the end.
They were open 6 to 6, though never on Sundays. Thelma was a decades-long member of the Bethlehem Church of God Holiness congregation, and they never served alcohol.
She perfected the cafeteria-style steam table, a microcosm of the family farm in Buena Vista: pinto beans, black eyed peas, green beans, spinach, turnips, collards, peas, ham, pork, steak, cube steak, beef stew over rice and fried chicken. Thelma’s baking virtuosity produced cakes and pies.
With Thelma, there was a barely-traceable line between a recipe and improvisation. Carlos Grundy said he never saw his mother use a measuring cup, that she would “eyeball, and then go off the cuff, freestylin’.”
He doesn’t think she ever wrote anything down, though adding, “David knows them all by memory.”
At one point she was in discussion with corporate executives about taking her fried okra cakes national, but when the execs wanted them placed in frozen foods, Thelma pulled the plug.
“Mom didn’t trust them with the recipe,” Carlos said.
Thelma loved talking to reporters who came searching for authentic Southern cuisine, often giving them a down-home homily like, “I call it home cooking, fresh food from field.” But as Carlos points out there was something deeper at work.
“Mama believed that ‘soul food’ is the energy you put into it,” he said. “Energy is transferable. She would tell us, if you have an attitude when you’re cooking, if you have bad energy, it will show in the food. Make sure you’re cooking with peace.”
A flurry of punches knocked out Thelma’s Kitchen for good and led to its sale in Sept. 2014. First came the 2008 recession - Carlos said his mother didn’t get a government bailout - and next came the construction of the Atlanta Street Car that blocked customers for months.
But the biggest punch was the 2012 death of Riley who, after his retirement from the printing company, became a restaurant fixture and, Carlos said, a cook nearly Thelma’s equal. They had been married 65 years.
“I would describe Thelma as this wholesome angel,” McIntosh said. “But really, it was an honor to know that whole family. You can’t separate the family from the restaurant. If the critics didn’t rate it a five-start restaurant, I can tell you when I walked in there they sure enough treated me like I was five stars.”
Thelma Grundy is survived by her children, Marvelene Pope, Elma Grundy, Joseph Grundy (Ezora), David Grundy, Samuel Grundy (Janice) and Carlos Grundy (Stacey), along with 16 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren. She is also survived by her sister Mary Shelton of Pompano Beach, Florida.
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