"Put your hands together!" gospel singer Cynthia Carter Hill shouts joyously, a request her audience greets with blank, stupefied, food-coma-addled stares. "I know you're eating, though," she quickly adds. "That's all right."
It most certainly is not. I will never eat again. We have gathered for the Gospel Brunch at Geoffrey's Inner Circle, an on-and-off decade-old Oakland Sunday tradition newly reopened in October, holding court at 14th and Franklin in an opulent upstairs ballroom, tablecloths as bright-white as Jesus' teeth. Grand reopenings build steam slowly, so it's a small audience today, but we've compensated by eating twice our collective weight in chicken drummies.
My notes from this excursion read as follows: "Catfish, salmon, drummies, quiche, potato salad, mac 'n' cheese, collard greens, yams, salads various, corn bread, dinner rolls, cobbler, cakes various, brawalaooofzzzzz." All fantastic, succulent, delicious, spread out on Jesus Teeth Tablecloths buffet-style. Come back for seconds, thirds, fourths, Beethoven's fifths. Glorious. But Soul Food, evidently, nourishes the soul by expanding the body to truly epic proportions. You don't so much hit a wall as plow through it and then realize it in retrospect, on fifteen-second delay, like a cartoon character who runs off a cliff and doesn't realize it until he looks down.
My removal from this establishment will require a crane.
And now Cynthia Carter Hill wants me to dance. She's bubbly and vocally powerful and spiritually reverent, bellowing The presence of the Lord is here in a gussied-up R&B gospel style, mixing a few live musicians -- a drummer, a few backup singers (including her teenage daughter), a keyboardist doing that groovy left-hand-sounds-like-slap-bass thing -- with backing tracks piped in from somewhere or other. She's workin' her (fanny) off, but the tunes started a bit late, so a few families have staggered out, leaving a small cluster of folks desperate to avoid being singled out for audience participation. A few people acquiesce -- Cynthia corrals a few amateur singers, and some dude emerges from the kitchen and does a dance we'll call the Lower-Back Pain -- but for most of us, watching football is now too physically demanding an activity.
"You wanna go to sleep," Geoffrey Pete himself admits with a chuckle a few days later. "The food is really too rich for me. It really really is."
Geoffrey, a 53-year-old East Bay lifer who traffics in entrepreneurial and political consulting circles, is the Gospel Brunch's mastermind -- he owns Planet Soule, the amorphous entertainment compound in the four-story building that he says will soon host an art gallery, a vegetarian Jamaican restaurant, and an African-American science museum. He moved over here in '93 from Jack London Square, and though Planet Soule occasionally does nightclub, R&B, hip-hop, and special-event hoedowns (such as the recent b-day party for Oakland Raider Charles Woodson), the Gospel Brunch is his star attraction.
That attraction first began in '96, but powered down three years later -- "I shut it down voluntarily," Geoffrey says. "Just just just the city and I, particularly the mayor and I, were at odds. And the city was very hostile to nightclub environments." But he's back at it, and scrambling to make it prominent again. "If you don't learn from history, you're destined to repeat it," he notes. "You're dealing with a much more seasoned Geoffrey. Ha ha ha ha."
So what's the current prognosis? "We're not ready yet," he says. "We're a coupla, uh, we're a month away from having it executed. Food quality has been consistent. Groups, uhhhhh. Ahhhhhuuuhhhhhhhh. They're good, but they have to get better. Better in terms of the audience. And we have to get the word out. So it's in the beginning stages, but it's something we did for years, so it's not like it's untrodden ground. I see it: It needs to get better. Get better. But the untrained eye would say, 'Ooh, this was nice,' and that's what counts."
As a soul-food amateur and infrequent churchgoer, I'll offer myself up as an untrained eye: The Gospel Brunch experience is overwhelming in terms of both culinary ardor, musical cheer, and overall friendliness. "Let's introduce ourselves," announces one of the ladies at my table as we sit down. Minutes later, a waitress asks my companion if she's enjoying the food, and my companion blurts out "Oh my God, yes," and no one smacks us upside the head for breaking the Second Commandment.
Indeed, Pete envisions this as a way to mingle the devout with the devoid. "It brings the community together -- some that are secular and some that are religious together under the same umbrella, eating food and appreciating gospel music," he says. "There's a thin line of demarcation. A great many individuals won't set foot in a church, but will come to a gospel brunch. And there's quite a few that will go to a church and go to a gospel brunch. So it's the best of all worlds, in one environment, and amen to that, 'cause there's so much polarization in the world, relative to religion. This is a happy middle, a common ground if you will. That's that that that that, the elderly people: This is so so nice. "
So the blueprint's in place: Lure 'em in with absurdly rich food in a fancy-pants setting, and mesmerize 'em with live gospel tunes once they're too full to move. For those still stinging from Election Day and thus partial to spitting out epithets like "The United States of Jesusland" or what have you, it's instructive to relearn that religious-themed events don't necessarily resemble scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
Geoffrey, meanwhile, is just trying to stay afloat in an even tougher economic marketplace than he dealt with last time. "It's harder, so you better have a better mousetrap," he says. "You had better have something where nobody else can question your authenticity. You you you you you better be ready to work. You have to work at it. You have to work at it. You have to work at it. Restaurants have a 75 percent mortality rate in the first year, then another 75 in the second year. It's no joke. It's no joke. It's no joke. For anybody. Food is a perishable item. The fish stinks when you get it out of the water, so it only has a certain shelf life. You you you better have the customers."
As for the Gospel Brunch's customers, you you you better have a Stairmaster.
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