Velma Jackson, owner of Velma’s Bar BQ, will be retiring after spending more than 20 years cooking in Clovis. June 30 will be the last day she will cook at the restaurant.
By Jack King
Soul food, that bedrock of Southern cooking, is as rare in the Southwest as a good enchilada in Peoria.
When Velma Jackson started cooking soul food for her customers in Clovis more than 25 years ago, many of them didn’t even know what it was, she said recently.
“My customers used to not eat collard greens. They didn’t eat okra. They’d say, ‘Oh, that’s slimy.’ And I’d say, ‘Do you see slime?’” she said.
“I’d say, ‘You’ll like it. Just eat it and shut up.’ They’d start eating it and I didn’t have any problems. If I cook it, they know it’s good,” she said.
After 20 years as owner of Velma’s Bar BQ in Clovis, Jackson has announced her retirement and the closing of her restaurant on June 30.
Okra gumbo, collard greens, yams, cornbread, fried chicken, ribs, cobbler and other dishes she said she just makes up as she goes along — Jackson learned soul food cooking from her mother in Crockett, Texas. Her father, Adolphus Petton, was a farmer and her mother, Carry, was a housewife and the mother of 11 children.
The family had no indoor plumbing. Her father would rise in the dark to start their wood stove and young Velma would walk two blocks to bring buckets of water home from a neighbor’s tap, she said.
“Soul food is country cooking. It’s something you can put together even if you don’t have anything. Even if you don’t have anything, you can always cook. That’s why it’s called soul food,” she said.
Jackson cooked at Cannon Air Force Base from 1962 to 1982. Even before she retired in 1982, she had started cooking for customers in her house at 300 Hinkle St., she said. In 1982, she bought the lot at her current site, 1420 W. Seventh, from Robert Edmonds. She moved a rent house onto the property and started cooking out of the kitchen for four tables of customers.
But, a year later she found an old building out in the country. She moved it on site and added a larger dining room, she said.
“I had a sheet over the space, when they were hammering and sawing, and just kept cooking,” she said.
Today, Velma’s Bar BQ can hold 60 people and has a banquet room in the back. On a slow day, Jackson serves 40 customers from a buffet. Her customers come from all over the region, she said.
“I have them from Clovis, Portales, Albuquerque, Amarillo. They can enjoy eating, because they know you like ‘em. I don’t dislike anybody,” she added.
Gail Kinyon, who has known Jackson for 30 years and started eating Jackson’s stew, then graduated to her collard greens, said Jackson is the best advertising for her restaurant.
“When you know her, you want to go there,” she said.
After 20 years of cooking from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m. — she remains the only cook at Velma’s. She said a retirement party is planned for June 30, with speeches and singing by members of the church she attends, St. John’s Baptist.
Jackson doesn’t see retirement as a time to rest — she’s planning a cookbook and said she already has about 100 orders for it. The cookbook, she added, will elucidate the mysteries of soul food.
“I’m going to explain exactly how to do it with soul food. Soul food is not something where you can just follow a recipe. You have to have it explained to you, then you do it and each time it gets a little better,” she said.
Kinyon, who Jackson has enlisted to help her write the cookbook, just shakes her head. She said she’s still waiting to see if Jackson can distill the magic of her years in the kitchen onto the printed page.
“I think I’ve got my work cut out for me,” Kinyon said.