“I had my brothers help me make a shack at the side of the road,” Smith said in a phone interview from her restaurant, CoraFaye’s Cafe, in Denver. The boys jumped out and stopped cars, she said, forcing the occupants to pay 15 cents for food before allowing passage.
“They said it was the first toll road in Anniston,” she recalled with a laugh.
The many years that followed, until Smith moved with her family to Colorado as a young adult, were spent with her mother in an Anniston kitchen, learning the secrets to great Southern home cooking. Those secrets resulted in food so good that Guy Fieri, host of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives,” went to CoraFaye’s at the end of January to film an episode of the popular show, which will air June 24 at 9 p.m.
“He’s a big personality,” Smith said of meeting Fieri, who is known for his spiked bleach-blond hair and cherry-red vintage Camaro. “A very nice guy … a little taller than I thought.”
The taping took place over three days, of which Fieri was present for one. He tried the restaurant’s smothered rabbit over rice, collards and black-eyed peas, hushpuppies and the staple of many Southern kitchens — chit’lings.
“Chit’lings were not one of his favorite dishes,” Smith said. “It took him a minute to go after the chit’lings.”
Off camera, he also had fried chicken, oxtails and neck bones.
“These are all things that I grew up around … my mom, grandma, great granny,” Smith said. Her recipes, including a secret seasoning blend for her side dishes, were “passed down word of mouth” through many generations of her family.
Before opening CoraFaye’s in November 2006 — “right before the recession started, but we made it through” — the only restaurant experience Smith had was from working in one her family owned for about a year.
“But you’d think we had a restaurant in our house,” she said. “People would bring food to my mom to have her cook it.”
Her mother, Cora Lee Goodman-Smith, learned to cook at age 9, choosing to work in the heat of a kitchen instead of in the sweltering sun picking cotton. One day a man came by her mother’s house looking for something to eat, Smith recalls. With no hesitation, she said, Cora gave the man some food. When later questioned by her teenage daughter on why she would give food to a “bum,” her mother answered, “Girl, that man could be Jesus Christ.”
“That’s how she was and still is,” Smith said. “My mom loves unconditionally.”
That’s why the restaurant is named after her, as well as Smith’s sister, Wanda “Faye” Smith-Freeman. The restaurant, Smith says, is a tribute to all the women in her family, as well as “other women who had to make cuisine out of nothing.”
That cuisine is what keeps Denver residents coming back for more. There are not many authentic Southern restaurants in the city, Smith said, and “catfish and froglegs are huge here.”
Denver’s a little far of a drive for most Annistonians to enjoy Smith’s food, but they can make it themselves, thanks to “CoraFaye’s Cafe First Little Cookbook,” available for purchase for $11.95 (plus shipping) by calling 303-333-5551.
1 ½ pounds catfish fillets
⅓ cup flour
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper
2 eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup oil for frying (no more than 2 cups)
Rinse the fish under cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Mix the flour with salt and pepper, and spread it on a piece of wax paper. Put the eggs in a shallow bowl and the cornmeal on another piece of wax paper. Lightly dust each fillet in the seasoned flour and shake off the excess. Dip the fillet into the egg. Hold over the bowl to let excess egg drip off. Dip into the cornmeal.
In a large skillet, heat ¼ inch of oil. Put your hand over the oil in the skillet, and when you can feel a good amount of heat rising, put in the fish and brown on each side. This should take 1-2 minutes on each side. Don’t crowd the skillet — do only a few fillets at a time. Serve with lemon wedges.
Features Editor Deirdre Long: 256-294-4152. On Twitter @star_features.