Worth Recognizing: Community Members Who Go Above & Beyond

Jaron Johnson: Making a positive impact on city youth

Shooting hoops with friends from 8:30 in the morning until 10 at night at Kirkwood Park on East 11th Street was how 8-year-old Jaron Johnson escaped the daily struggles that awaited him at the front door of his house.

Johnson says he and his six friends were latch-key kids from single parent homes, “raising ourselves.” The 36-year-old, also known as Droop, a nickname his great-grandfather gave him because of the way Johnson’s clothes hang on his tall, slim frame, learned responsibility early. “My mom had two to three jobs raising two sons. She said to me, ‘you’re in charge.’ That’s a role that no kid should be put in.”

In need of direction, Johnson says he sought refuge at the Salvation Army on Fourth Street. There, mentors encouraged self-discipline and community service by introducing him to black community leaders.

Knowing the value of role models and how easy it is for kids to go astray in East Wilmington, where he has lived his whole life, Johnson founded Silk League in 2011. He and 25 volunteer coaches serve as mentors for the non-profit basketball league, which teaches players teamwork and discipline. Since its inception, Silk has grown from six to more than 300 kids ages 5-18 from throughout New Castle County.

The league is named in honor of Terry Alls, who grew up with Johnson. Alls was known as “Silk” for his smooth style on the basketball court. He died in 2003, at the age of 22, in a car accident. “It was a period of darkness,” says Johnson. “Our crew did everything together.”

Last month, the City of Wilmington gave Johnson the Wilmington Award for his community service and leadership.

“His impact is great,” says Councilman Va’Shun Turner. “He has league kids doing community clean-ups and feeding the homeless. Hopefully kids see what Droop has done in the past 10-15 years and say, ‘I want to do that, I want to give back to the community.’”

Silk held its first two fundraisers this year, but much of its support comes from Johnson, who donates two months of his income as a control specialist at Choctaw Kaul Distribution Co., in New Castle, to cover the cost of such things as jerseys and trophies.

“Currently we’re working on getting the league fully funded, but the majority of funding comes from myself and private donors,” he says.

After working a 5:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. shift, Johnson heads to Kirkwood Park, where he sets up, distributes uniforms, referees games, and cleans up the park before heading home around 9 p.m. He repeats this routine from May through August every weekday while keeping everything about the league 100 percent free to everyone.

Comfort Food, Local Sources, Exotic Spices

Bibimbap with steak from Homegrown Café. Photo Jim Coarse

Those are some of the trends area restaurants are adapting for the cooler months

What you put in your mouth has surprising parallels to what you put on your body. The restaurant world—much like the clothing world—follows fashions and trends.

Think of it in terms of that scene in The Devil Wears Prada, in which Meryl Streep’s haughty magazine editor Miranda Priestly explains to 20-something assistant Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) the precise provenance of her blue Rayon sweater, from haute couture runway item to the department store rack, to her back.

Food isn’t so different, with trends often starting at the “top” of the industry and gradually trickling down to where you and I are exposed to new flavors and ideas as our regional and local chefs incorporate them into their own kitchens and menus.

One of the great advantages of being in this sweet spot between New York City and Washington, D.C., is that many of our area chefs possess both an awareness of the trends, and the confidence to create some of their own.

So, with the change in seasons from hot and soupy to clear and crisp, we took some of the area’s leaders in the culinary field aside to chat about what they look for in a fall/winter menu, what trends they’re seeing among their peers and competition, and what they’ll be plating for the hungry masses now that cooler weather has kicked in.

Two words that dominated our conversations would be no surprise to anyone who has hunkered down for a long, dreary Delaware winter: comfort food.

Less than a trend, it’s more of a human need to seek out those foods that make us think of the warmth and safety of home, says Amanda Nichols, chef at Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa. But she indicates that even comfort foods should be prepped with the bathroom scale in mind. 

That Homey Feeling

“I’m not afraid to put lots of butter and cream in things, but I do think that healthier comfort food is going to be the trend this year—people finding classic comfort foods and trying to find healthier ways to prepare them. So, what I’m looking forward to is maybe I’ll use a little less butter,” says Nichols, laughing.

At Home Grown Café in Newark, owner Sasha Aber agrees that it’s important to create that feeling of home during the cooler months.

“Fall and winter are always exciting,” she says. “The bright fruits of summer go, and people are always looking for those warming foods. That’s when we transition to root vegetables, heartier salads and different sides.”

That change also means more density in the dessert menu, with things like apple cider bread pudding and maple syrup crème brulee.

“You’re not hibernating, but you’re not getting your nutrients as much from the sun, so if you can watch your portions, you can still enjoy some of those richer desserts,” Aber says.

Nichols is also seeing a trend toward one-bowl meals, similar to what might be found in a ramen restaurant, but adapted to American tastes. In the red, white and blue version, the bowls take elements usually served separately on the plate and layer them together, creating more complex flavors.

Layering flavors is also one of the goals for David Banks, executive chef for Harry’s Hospitality Group and co-owner of Harry’s Seafood Grill and Harry’s Fish Market in Wilmington. The seasonal trend is to exotic spices and herbs—Mediterranean, Moroccan and Indian—that complement the season.

“As chefs,” says Banks, “we’re all looking for the new flavor profile. We go through our Italian stage, then we go through our Asian phase and then Latin phase, and now I’m on to the Indian phase—those chutneys and spices and aromatics that lend themselves not just to meat, but to vegetables. They’re just great flavors.”

Aber agrees, and that’s a reason her team has long been incorporating flavors of Africa, India and the Middle East.

“Mexican, Indian, whatever you can think of, it’s on our menu because it’s all made fresh and it fits together, so I think we’re unique in that aspect,” she says. “Because we’re smaller, we have that freedom. We run specials twice a week, but if something comes in, we can use it right away. We have a lot more freedom to experiment, and I think our customers expect that from us. They’re looking for something a little different and unique, and we deliver that to them.”

Comfort foods like cassoulets and chilis will appear more often on Banks’ cool-weather menus, as well as game dishes that will often incorporate duck, venison and lamb. But given the fact that seafood and fish are in both restaurants’ names, the fruits of the ocean get their due, as well.

Gourd Season

“For Harry’s Seafood Grill, I always look to October through March as Florida stone crab season,” says Banks. “That’s just a great product that’s literally in season only during that time—they’re not allowed to catch them at other times of the year.”

As far as vegetables go, everyone we spoke to is excited about the squashes, gourds and pumpkins of late fall. They also agreed that the long-percolating farm-to-table movement has expanded to the point where restaurateurs and growers have reached a happy equilibrium. Chefs now know their customers expect to find locally sourced produce on their menus. Meanwhile, the number of farmers of local and heirloom produceas well as sustainably farmed meats and artisan goods like cheeses and pickleshas increased dramatically.

The Hilton Christiana in Newark has reinvented its on-site Hunt Club restaurant into the Market Kitchen and Bar, and Robert Fratticcioli, executive chef, takes the farm-to-table philosophy seriously, looking to source everything he can—fruits and vegetables, meats, beer, and even ice cream—from local producers.

A portion of Christiana Hilton’s herb garden used in dishes for Market Kitchen and Bar. Photo Matt Urban

Those include beer from area brewers, ice cream from Woodside Farm Creamery in Hockessin, and beef for short ribs, flatiron steaks and burgers from Reid Angus in Frankford.

“We’re trying to stay true to our concept of using local, so we’re touring farms in the area looking at things they pickle and jar and trying to do that ourselves through the year using Delaware-grown products,” he says.

Additionally, Fratticcioli buys apples and cider from Milburne Orchards in Elkton, Md. “We’ll run off their calendar for next summer to incorporate their produce in specials from breakfast through dinner,” he says.

And as if farm-to-table wasn’t local enough, Fratticcioli has crossed over into patio-to-table, growing heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers and a wide selection of herbs in the hotel’s own garden. During the winter months, you’re likely to see the examples of the hotel’s summer crop show up in the form of house-made pickles and other preserved delicacies, he says.

The Ugly Squash

To feed Home Grown Café’s focus on locally-grown, Aber says the restaurant lives up to its name by building its seasonal menu around what it gets from its membership in a community supported agriculture (CSA) program that always has a diverse selection of heirloom varieties, including purple and yellow carrots and “ugly on the outside” squash.

“It seems like every fall and winter we do something with that and it’s always really good,” she says. “I just take the flavors as they come and understand that the variety might not be around, but that you use what’s there, because that’s when it’s fresh and delicious.”

With all the focus on using locally sourced ingredients and preserving the summer crop for use during the winter months, it might seem that the restaurant world is stepping back to where the subsistence farmer might have been at the end of the 19th century —using ingredients from root to leaf.

“We’re figuring out how to use things that we’d normally throw away to make something else,” says Cantwell’s Nichols. “In our business, you have to save every penny you can.”

The 26-year-old chef rediscovered the joys of using the entire food and paring down what gets thrown away when she encountered some cost issues after taking over the executive chef role at Cantwell’s. Suddenly, she was reminded that those parts of meats and vegetables typically seen as waste could instead help build the foundations of other dishes. Greens from carrots, for instance, can be incorporated into a vegetable stock. Vegetables cooked down in the stock can be pureed to create the base for a sauce.

Fratticcioli is doing much the same in his kitchen. “We’re using the whole vegetable,” he says, citing the restaurant’s use of the stems of roasted cauliflower to make cauliflower rice. “What you want to do is cut down on your waste by finding ways to use the whole product,” he says.

For her part, Aber stresses that Home Grown Café has been ahead of the root-to-tip curve for some time.

“We’ve been focusing on using all ingredients all along,” she says, noting that even corn cobs go into vegetable stock. “We’re not one of those restaurants getting in things pre-cut and pre-chopped. We get the whole ingredient in all the time and that helps us look at things differently.”

Resurrecting the Beer King

A colorized photo of the King Gambrinus statue on the front of Wilmington's Diamond State Brewery, circa 1947. Photo courtesy of the Delaware Historical Society

The 19th-century statue was an icon of Delaware’s brewing history, and John Medkeff is determined to restore it

When the 11-foot statue of King Gambrinus began its 80-year watch atop Wilmington’s Diamond State Brewery in 1882, it was raising a goblet to the German immigrants who were turning brewing into an industry.

The immigrants brought lager brewing techniques to America, and their traditions, including King Gambrinus, came along, too. The mythical figure, typically bearded and cast in zinc, appeared on breweries across the country.

Then, in 1920, the 18th Amendment and Prohibition effectively ended Delaware’s golden age of brewing. Even after the misbegotten law was repealed in 1933, the local industry failed to thrive amid consolidation into a handful of major players.

Facing stiff competition from regional breweries, Diamond State closed in 1955. The one-two punch of Prohibition and consolidation, not to mention national brands like Budweiser and Coors, totally knocked brewing out of Delaware between 1955 and 1995.

King Gambrinus came on hard times, too, after Diamond State Brewery was demolished in 1962 to make room for Interstate 95. The statue was shuffled around to a few locations, and spent a decade at the former King’s Inn restaurant on Naamans Road north of Wilmington, the current location of Harry’s Savoy Grill.

Then, in 1978, as a buyer attempted to move it, it was dropped and shattered into more than 60 pieces. The weak point appears to have been a hook on the statue that couldn’t bear the 1,000-pound load.

Craft Beer to the Rescue

But the king may rise again. After the industry—in the form of craft beer—rebounded in Delaware and nationally, it seemed appropriate to pay homage to those who first brought beer here, says John Medkeff, Jr., a 54-year-old Wilmingtonian.

A native Delawarean and marketer by trade, Medkeff was driven to home brewing in the 1980s, he says, simply because he was disgusted by the poor quality of store-bought beer. He learned brewing from his family.

Medkeff published a book, Brewing in Delaware, in 2015, and is spearheading an effort to raise $100,000 to put the statue back together.

“It’s a perfect symbol of Delaware’s brewing industry, and of its revival,” says Medkeff. He’s hoping Delaware’s thriving craft beer industry—19 breweries, at last count—will contribute toward the project. 

He has formed a nonprofit, The Friends of Delaware’s Gambrinus Statue, Inc., to lead the “Restore the King” fundraising effort. The group has received estimates of approximately $100,000 to complete the statue’s restoration. What’s more, the Delaware Historical Society has agreed to exhibit the statue in its Market Street museum once it is repaired.

Whether a King Gambrinus ever existed may be lost to history. As for the myth that remains, Medkeff says, think of him as the Santa Claus of beer.

Medkeff’s research reveals that the first reference to Gambrinus may have come in the year 98 A.D., when the Roman historian Tacitus identified a German tribe called the “Gambrivii.” The beer king himself was likely an invention of later writers.

As the German people struggled with disunification, Gambrinus became a cultural touchstone for a shared heritage. The tradition was brought to America, and foundries actually advertised Gambrinus statues in beer trade journals. The statues tended to be made of zinc, a metal whose chief virtue was its low cost. Few of the figures remain; Medkeff knows of only four others that exist in North America today. The nearest statue is on display in Baltimore, while the others are in Breinigsville, Pa., Syracuse, N.Y., and Toluca, in central Mexico.

The beer kings who sprouted above breweries became symbols of German culture, but for modern audiences they have taken on new meanings. Delaware’s statue represents in part the social, cultural and industrial history of immigration in the late 19th century, says Scott W. Loehr, CEO of the Delaware Historical Society.

When Brewing Was Women’s Work

One modern Delaware brewer sees positive elements in that past, especially the connection between brewing and its local community.

Craig Wensell, founder of Wilmington-based Bellefonte Brewing Company, says restoring the statue is an important way to hold onto history. He sees something else in Gambrinus’ bushy beard: a re-branding of brewing as man’s work instead of a feminine job.

For the thousands of years before brewing became big business, it was typically the province of women, Wensell says. The industrialization of beer led men to claim it as their own, which required a rebranding campaign.

“The iconography of King Gambrinus really is an attempt by the masculine side of the culture to requisition brewing as something males did instead of females,” he says.

Wensell also says Gambrinus represented a connection to the community. When the statue was erected, he says, beer was a local product, made and consumed by local people. The advent of refrigeration and transportation changed this, and during Delaware’s four-decade brewery drought, that connection was severed.

Local craft brewers, Wensell says, are restoring that connection. They enjoy helping to lend an identity to the places where they operate, and their customers return that affection.

The statue’s own return trip was sparked by a pivotal encounter.

Picking up the Pieces

In 2014, Medkeff was researching his book on Delaware brewing history when he visited an estate sale for Robert Howard, a curator at the Hagley Museum and Library who owned the broken statue when he died.

At the sale, a lawyer approached Medkeff and asked if he knew anyone who might want the statue’s remains. And that’s how he ended up with the pieces, which may otherwise have been lost to a landfill.

The fundraising effort has only just begun with a few small events, and Medkeff says the nonprofit may expand to other parts of brewing history, perhaps with historic markers and memorials. The Friends group is planning a living history tour and Victorian picnic (with beer, of course) next spring to help raise money.

For now, though, they’re focused on raising the hundred grand —a rough target at this point—to weld the statue back together. Some pieces, however, are missing. To replace them, restorers will scan another of the statues cast from the same mold and fabricate the missing pieces.

Once finished, Wilmington’s Gambrinus will be painted to match its original colors and planted atop a base in the Market Street museum. Because it will be reinforced by an internal skeleton—the first version was largely hollow—it will be sturdier than before.

Of course, it would be much cheaper to simply cast an all-new statue, but ultimately less authentic and resonant, says Loehr. “It’s that connection to the real thing, to the stuff of history,” he says. “I think that’s what moves people.”

To learn about the statue, its history and the campaign to Restore the King, visit restoretheking.com.

5 Questions with Stephan Jenkins of Third Eye Blind

Stephan Jenkins (center) and Third Eye Blind look to rock The Queen on Wednesday, Oct. 11. Photo courtesy of Third Eye Blind

Audience.

It’s a word and a concept that comes up again and again during a phone interview with Stephan Jenkins, Third Eye Blind’s co-founder, lead vocalist, and force majeure.

As Jenkins explains, whether it’s older fans going all-in with the band’s newer music, or newbies discovering the band’s hits from the ‘90s, he’s overjoyed that there are enthusiastic and engaged listeners out there who enable the band to continue to play, tour, and record new music.

A little more than two decades ago, such a dream seemed unattainable for Jenkins. Living in a shared apartment in San Francisco with other struggling 20-somethings, he had dropped out of graduate school to pursue a full-time career as a musician.

It was years of struggling with little income, making do on coffee during the day and lots of cheap spaghetti dinners.

“Ramen noodles,” Jenkins says with a laugh. “Spaghetti dinners were for special occasions only!”

That special spaghetti dinner was surely on the menu the night the band signed its deal with Elektra Records, which led to a debut album that not only drastically changed the trajectory of Third Eye Blind, but featured songs that would define the late ‘90s.

“Semi-Charmed Life,” “Jumper,” and “How’s It Going to Be,” all hit the Top Ten, and the album itself remained on Billboard Hot 100 for two years.

The success shocked everyone involved. Particularly Jenkins.

“I come from the DIY, indie ethos,” he says. “That was always my mindset, and I was always surprised when anything other than that happened.” 

In advance of Third Eye Blind’s Wednesday, Oct. 11, show at The Queen, Jenkins, who is now 53, spoke to us about those early days, about the music business right now, and his metaphysical take on the spirit of the season.

Here’s what he had to say:

O&A: In a way, it’s kind of a trope: the starving musician who scores a hit album and suddenly becomes famous. But that really is the story behind the band, isn’t it? Or is that oversimplifying it?

Jenkins: Yeah, it does simplify it, because I spent years trying to get bands together to no avail. There was always a revolving set of musicians and trying to get studio time, with year in and year out, nothing to show for it—except that I was constantly developing as a songwriter and a producer. ?

By the time I actually had a record deal, I had developed real chops as a producer, enough so that a lot of my demos became songs on the first record, and I got to produce my first record. So, the time actually was well-spent, but it certainly didn’t feel that way when I was coming along.

O&A: From when you were first starting—and struggling all those years—to when it finally hit, how does it look 20 years later?

Jenkins: Time is always a blur. I still have lots of friends in San Francisco. I mean I have some who are 26 and 27, who are still living six or seven people to a flat and one bathroom, and just trying to make it all work.  That’s where I was [at their age]. And I’ll still come over and sit in the kitchen and make spaghetti. All of that is still something that I know.

But I also have all kinds of different access. Looking back on it, I think [whoever] I was at that time evolved and changed. I can look at that person and be more empathetic to who I was at the time than I perhaps I was for myself when I was actually living it.

O&A: From where you started to where things are today, the music industry has changed so dramatically. In 1997, you were there at the end of an era in terms of the big record companies. How do you compare the way things were to the way they are now?

Jenkins: Well, you were a lot more controlled [then]. There were a lot more gatekeepers [who] had a lot more control over what could happen. There was also the opportunity to actually make money selling records. And now there’s a lot more freedom and a lot less money.

I kind of prefer it now. I think these are the good ol’ days right now.  [Back then] I wanted to bite the hand that fed me, and I didn’t like it that you had to be on MTV—or that you had to be on radio—to reach an audience, [Or] that the record company could tell you what kind of music video to make.

Those things bothered me because, however it may sound, I actually am an artist. I’m not a song-and-dance man and I’m not there to fit into somebody else’s mold. I think I measure things more in terms of a happiness quotient now. I’m definitely a lot happier now.

O&A: Your last record, Dopamine [released 2015], got good reviews. And you’re a band that’s still touring 20 years after releasing its first record. How does that feel? I mean there aren’t a lot of bands from the ‘90s who can say that.

Jenkins: No, not very many. I mean there’s… [pauses to think] Green Day, Foo Fighters, Chili Peppers, Weezer and us. That’s about it. I mean, it’s great. I’m grateful. But I had nothing to do with it. It’s our audience that does that. I have an audience that keeps our music alive. The music resonates with our audience and illuminates as they are living now. And that’s probably one of the most beautiful, best-feeling gifts that I’ve ever received being a musician.

We have a bigger audience [than we did in the ‘90s]. We have a more dedicated audience. You just can see it at the shows. There’s an intensity, and we are comprehended in a way that is beyond what it was before.

O&A: This last question might sound like it’s coming from left field, but for this October edition we’re talking a lot about ghost stories and the paranormal. I’m curious: Have you ever had an experience that you would say was paranormal that you’d like to share with our readers?

Jenkins: What first comes to my mind is something different, which is that Sept. 22nd is the equinox. And October is the period of the equinox, and that’s a time, according to folklore, when witches’ powers are at their greatest because the day and night are evenly split. Anything can happen.

It’s this sense of ambivalence: witches’ powers come up at midnight and the crossroads. It’s all these kinds of things that I can actually feel. So it’s like your own magic, witchy powers become more available. This is why it’s my favorite time of the year because I have this sense that anything could happen. Magic could happen.

So I think it’s important for people to tap into their own sense of that. Because we are, in part, moved and influenced by the movement of the planets. It’s not a joke that when you got a full moon that you feel a little bit more crazy. And you didn’t even know it was full—you’re just acting that way. So, I invite everyone to celebrate their own magic powers.

At Theatre N: From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres)

French actress Marion Cotillard has been a fascinating cinematic presence since she first captured the attention of American filmgoers with her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose in 2007. Since then, she has played a variety of emotionally resonant (and often slightly disturbed) roles in Inception, Midnight in Paris, Rust and Bone, Two Days, One Night, and even The Dark Knight Rises. Her greatest acting gift is her amazingly expressive face, which can be simultaneous deeply brooding yet luminous.

Director Nicole Garcia understands how to use Cotillard to her advantage in From the Land of the Moon (Mal de Pierres), and does so with a vengeance. Much of the footage in this melancholic film focuses on Cotillard: her face, her profile, even her back walking away from the camera. And we watch, fully absorbed. Unfortunately, there is not much more to this film than the 42-year-old actress.

Set in rural France in the 1950s, From the Land of the Moon tells the story of Gabrielle, a passionate, unstable woman struggling against the expectations of her family and of society. Forced into a marriage of convenience, she suffers both emotionally and physically until she is sent to a medical spa to be treated for kidney stones. There she meets a convalescing military officer, and a new world of love and desire open up for her. Of course, this being a film, that doesn’t mean life will become easier.

Overall, From the Land of the Moon feels drawn-out, even ponderous. And I couldn’t stop thinking that I had seen it before. That said, there are certainly worse ways to spend two hours than watching Marion Cotillard’s lovely, anguished face.

Also at Theatre N in September: The Trip to Spain, the latest culinary travelogue with British comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (9/1, 9/8 weekends); The Journey, a fictional account of the Irish conflict focusing on leaders from either side, featuring Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney (9/22 weekend).

For the Record With Darnell Miller

Photo Jim Coarse

In this year’s Performing Arts edition, we are launching a new feature, “For the Record,” in which local musicians discuss what they’ve been listening to lately.

Our first entry in this series focuses on Darnell Miller, who, by day, teaches music at Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington. By night, Miller leads his soul and funk band, The Souldaires, at venues like The Nomad Bar, where they play the first Wednesday of every month. This month, Miller will also release his solo five-track EP, Jesus & Jameson, which features the already released single “Bastard.”

“I wanted to make it separate [from The Souldaires],” says Miller. “Sound-wise, it’s two different things: The Souldaires is one thing, and the Darnell Miller thing is a whole other thing.”

In other words, local fans should prepare for the unexpected.

“If I said what it is by genre, I would say funk, rock, soul, gospel,” Miller says. “But that’s too generic. I don’t know how to explain it, so I just call it Jesus & Jameson: a little bit of Heaven and a little bit of Earth.

A self-proclaimed music nerd with a love of liner notes, Miller has an encyclopedic knowledge of the back-stories of the music he likes. Keep reading and you’ll get an idea of what we mean.

Mavis Staples – Your Good Fortune EP
The sound of everything on that album—the song-writing—it’s really one of the most overlooked albums in the last couple of years. It’s a really great album. It was co-produced by Son Little, who is an up-and-coming, amazing guy. I didn’t discover him until later. But he [made his mark] on this Mavis Staples album, totally. Perfect combination.

Gary Clark, Jr. – Live North America, 2016
Oh, my goodness, I love that he can play his ass off! Lately, I’ve been really listening to songs, really listening to what that person is saying, and [paying attention to] black artists moving outside the lines. And he is one of those guys. To me, he’s more than just a blues artist: He’s a little bit of everything. The album, sonically, sounds great. The guitars are nice and dirty. The vibe. Everything sounds great.

CeCe Winans – Let Them Fall in Love
I think of albums that I play over and over again, and this is one of them. I don’t know if you know, but my background as a touring musician and as a professional musician was the gospel world.

[Ed Note: Miller’s career as a gospel vocalist spanned more than seven years and took him on tour across the U.S. and abroad, including England, Spain and Africa.]

When I decided to step back from gospel and transitioned, I stopped listening to anything gospel. I maintained relationships, but I just stopped listening. But then I just happened to see a picture of this album cover. And the picture told me what the album might sound like. So I was like, ‘I should check this out,’ and I was glad I did. For gospel, this album is a game changer. It’s retro. So she’s doing ‘70s country; she’s doing Ray Charles-type stuff; she’s doing Phil Spector-type stuff. It’s really good production-wise. Tommy Sims, who is one of my favorite producers, produced this with CeCe Winans’ son, who I didn’t know had it in him.

Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 1
This dude can sing. Some of these songs made me revamp lyrics for Jesus & Jameson because I felt he was saying some of the same things that I wanted to say. So I just kept listening and listening.
I love the drums on this album. I listen to mixes and how stuff sounds sonically and the different sounds that people use. The drums on this album really pop.

Solange – A Seat at the Table
This album will probably be on everyone’s list, but for my last pick I’m going to have to go with this one. By the way, I’ve been a Solange fan for years. I’ve been always hoping that she would get her break. Everything about her is artistic. With Solange, either you love it or you hate it.
Her last album was very ‘80s-sounding. This one is stuff I’ve never heard before. And it features production by two of my most favorite people in the world: Raphael Saadiq and Questlove. Everybody knows I love Questlove. So, when he’s involved, it just has to be good. But for people to like this album was a complete surprise to me, because it’s so different. It’s not mainstream. She decided to tell a different story.

Labor of Love

Maria Perdikis and her daughter, Petula, worked long shifts to keep the diner afloat.

She no longer puts in 18-hour shifts, but Maria Perdikis still works the grill at her restaurant, a Newport landmark for 35 years

The Original Newport Restaurant is celebrating 35 years in Delaware, but it can trace it origins to 1963 and Toronto, Canada. That’s when and where 17-year-old Maria Ricci, her mother and brother immigrated from Pisterzo, Italy. Her father had passed away 10 years prior, and Maria became the family breadwinner. She began working two jobs, as a dishwasher and a factory worker making lingerie, for a total of $7 a day.

Two years later, she married Sam Perdikis, a Greek immigrant. They soon had a daughter, Petula, and moved to the United States. Packing everything they had into their car, they moved in with Sam’s sister in Wilmington for two months. Sam eventually found work at the Hotel du Pont, while Maria stayed home to raise Petula. After a few years, she went to work at Strawbridge & Clothier at the Merchandise Mart in Wilmington, and they bought a home in Edgemoor Terrace.

Maria Perdikis says she is "blessed" to be where she is today.
Maria Perdikis says she is “blessed” to be where she is today. Photo Anthony Santoro

After 15 years in the U.S., they decided to sell the house and move back to Toronto to be with their families. But Sam struggled to find a job, they had to live in a small apartment, and within a year they moved back to the States in North Wilmington. That’s when a friend informed them about a little diner down the street from them that was for sale.

The couple sold their house and put their life savings into the restaurant, naming it The Newport Plaza Family Restaurant. Tragically, Sam passed away from a heart attack soon after, leaving Maria and her daughter, who was now in college, to run the restaurant by themselves. This meant that whenever employees backed out of working their shifts, Maria had to cover for them. She worked the grill, waited tables, and cleaned up after closing time.

“Sometimes,” Perdikis says, “Petula and I would be crying together, because we had to make it. I didn’t want to close.” Some days they both worked 16-18-hour shifts, even while Petula was taking a full course load at West Chester University. (She went on Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., for her masters in music performance.)

In 1994, when the lease came up for the diner, Perdikis decided she wanted to move down the street a quarter of a mile to 601 W. Newport Pike, where The Original Newport Restaurant stands today. The larger location enabled her to expand the restaurant and accommodate more customers, many of whom followed her from the old location. Among her customers are former Vice President Joe Biden, along with governors and other public officials. Singer Johnny Mathis has even stopped at the diner.

And no wonder. The restaurant has a solid reputation for tasty, ample and affordable (cash only, no credit cards) food. Breakfast is served all day, and includes the usual bacon and eggs and pancakes as well as a western omelet with salsa on the side. Chicken and dumplings is the diner’s most famous dish. Perdikis makes her own crab cakes with lump meat, chicken croquettes, rice pudding, and bread pudding. Cole slaw, potato salad and chili are other popular choices.

There is a family atmosphere at the restaurant, and that applies to the staff as well as the customers. Perdikis, a petite, shy woman with an Italian accent, prefers to be behind the grill, but she also loves to interact with her customers and be certain they are satisfied with the food and the service. She still has goals, including being named in the breakfast category on The Best of Delaware list, the annual awards bestowed by Delaware Today and its readers.

Reflecting on more than three decades in business and the life she has forged for herself, Maria Perdikis is grateful. She remains close to her daughter and her granddaughter, Luciana, 14, and her restaurant is thriving.

“I appreciate everything that my people did for me, my customers and my employees,” she says. “I appreciate America and what it did for me. I worked really, really hard to be where I stand, and I appreciate everything, because I didn’t have anything. I’m so blessed to be here today.”

A Sizzling Competition

The annual Delaware Burger Battle returns Aug. 26 and benefits the Ministry of Caring and Delaware ProStart

Prepare your taste buds for the annual Delaware Burger Battle, the state’s three-fold celebration of area chefs, parks and—of course—burgers.

The sixth annual Burger Battle will be held on the grounds of Wilmington’s Cauffiel House in Bellevue State Park, on Saturday, Aug. 26.

Some of the state’s most competitive chefs will put their best burgers forward, offering guests unlimited samples as they vie for fame and glory in three categories: Critic’s Choice, Alternative Burger and People’s Choice.

This year’s competitors include Ernest & Scott Taproom, the Brunch Box, Ulysses American Gastropub, Tonic Bar & Grille and more.

In its first five years, the Battle served more than 16,000 burgers to 3,000 people, generating more than $37,000 for Delaware nonprofits.

Proceeds from this all-volunteer-run event will benefit two Delaware nonprofits: Ministry of Caring’s Emmanuel Dining Room, which meets the immediate needs of Wilmington’s hungry, and the ProStart Program of the Delaware Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, an industry-driven curriculum that provides real-life experience opportunities and builds practical skills for high school students studying culinary and restaurant management.

The event begins at noon, with trophies awarded at 2:30 p.m. Advance tickets are $50 or $60 at the door, and include all-you-can-eat burger samples. Beer and wine are included in the ticket price for adults, while soft drinks are available for children and designated drivers. Tickets for teens ages 13-20 are $30, and children ages 5-12 are $10. Children under 5 are free.

For more information, visit deburgerbattle.com.

Burgers Worth Trying

We think you’ll like these local creations

Chelsea Cheeseburger – Chelsea Tavern

Arguably the best burger you can get in downtown Wilmington, the secret here is quality ingredients. Premium beef patty, beer-braised onions, aged white cheddar cheese and on a fresh brioche bun, with of course the bacon add-on. Pair it with hand-cut trio fries and a few of the quality craft beer selections. Makes for the perfect burger experience.

— Tyler Mitchell, Graphic Designer

Kid’s Famous Charcoal Grilled Burger – Kid Shelleen’s Charcoal House & Saloon

What sets it apart? Is it the simplicity of quality, fresh ground chuck? Is it the famous char-grilled flavor? The powerful Wisconsin cheddar? Is it the vine-ripe tomato and crisp iceberg lettuce? Yes, it’s all of these. Simply delicious.

— Matt Loeb, Creative Director & Production Manager

The Dirty Burger – Home Grown Café

This burger is piled with brisket and short rib, cheddar Jack cheese, bacon, tomato, caramelized onions, a secret sauce, and topped with a sunny-side-up egg. Somehow this is also available in vegetarian form, although I haven’t tried that option yet. Arguably a little pricey at $16.50, but remember, this is Home Grown (Main Street, Newark), which means ingredients always made from scratch, with a local, health-conscious focus.

— Krista Connor, Senior Editor & Media Manager

Turkey Burger – Buckley’s Tavern

I know, I know, this historic Centreville tavern has long been known for its Buckley’s Burger. However, I’m a bit of a turkey burger fan and this is a go-to sandwich for me. The key to Buckley’s turkey burger is the lemon herb vinaigrette coupled with arugula. They add guacamole and top with Monterey Jack to provide a healthy yet satisfying alternative to their house favorite.

— Jerry duPhily, Publisher

The Tavern Special – UDairy Creamery Market

The Tavern Special is my favorite burger at the UDairy Creamery on Market Street. It’s a simple, straight-forward burger, just Monterrey Jack cheese, mushrooms and caramelized onions. But three things make it a standout: wonderfully fresh beef, coming directly from the farms of UD’s Ag Department; a choice of regular, ranch, or Old Bay-flavored handmade potato chips, and the option to easily (perhaps too easily) add an ice cream chaser at the same counter. 

— Mark Fields, Contributing Writer

Hereford Beef Burger – Goat Kitchen and Bar

There aren’t a lot of special components to this delicious burger, but the meat is fresh and tender and cooked to juicy perfection. The Hereford Beef Burger ($13.50) does come with one magic ingredient—pimento cheese, which gives an added flair to what would have been a great burger regardless. It also comes with bacon, lettuce and tomato and, for an extra 50 cents, you can add a fried egg to the combination. And the house-made pickles are worth the price of admission to the North Wilmington eatery all by themselves.

— Kevin Noonan, Contributing Writer

Aged Cheddar Burger – 8th & Union Kitchen

Inventiveness is the name of the game at 8th & Union when it comes to burgers, and several could likely make this list. The Smokey marries Gouda and a BBQ dripping aioli for delicious results. With bacon, egg, Swiss and mushrooms, the Kennett is basically two daily meals on one plate. But the Aged Cheddar Burger edges out the others with a sweet, earthy combination of caramelized onions, crispy shallots and sharp cheddar. Its flavor and texture make it a burger that will bring you back again and again.

— Jim Miller, Director of Publications

The Scorpion – Grub Burger Bar

For me, spice is the spice of life. That’s why I love the culinary adventure North Wilmington’s Grub Burger Bar serves up in the form of the “Scorpion,” a super-juicy burger topped with pepper Jack cheese, grilled jalapeños, and Grub’s own Trinidad moruga scorpion sauce. Not for the faint-hearted, but spice lovers, rejoice. P.S. Looking for something less adventurous but equally tasty? Grub’s Jive Turkey (ground turkey seasoned with pesto and topped with bacon, Swiss cheese, sprouts and avocado) or Guacapotle (cheddar cheese, chipotle aioli and house-made guacamole) burgers could be right up your alley.

— Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald, Contributing Writer

Big Bold Blue Burger – Iron Hill Brewery

Iron Hill Brewery on the Wilmington Riverfront is well-known for both beer and tasty burgers. One of the many burger choices is the Big Bold Blue Burger, which is quite a mouthful. For $15, you will have various flavors exploding in your mouth, thanks to the Danish blue cheese, the Applewood smoked bacon, fried onion rings and a soft brioche bun.

— Olivia Ingman, Intern

Best of Philly Burger – Brandywine Prime

Brandywine Prime’s reputation as a top steakhouse in the area is well established, but on Friday nights it’s the burgers that bring them in. That’s Prime’s Half-Price Burger Night, a promotion that started eight years ago and is still going strong. The beef is top quality, so you can’t go wrong with any of the selections. I recommend the Best of Philly, a burger topped with caramelized onions, local mushrooms and Monterey Jack cheese served with house-cut fries on a Le Bus-baked brioche roll. You can get burgers any night at Brandywine Prime, but other than Friday they’re available only in the bar.

— Jerry duPhily, Publisher

Hangover Helper Burger – Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen

My burger-and-fried-egg obsession continues with this tasty item from another Main Street eatery. It’s beefy goodness enhanced with tater tots, bacon, cheese and barbecue sauce. What more is there to say?

— Krista Connor, Senior Editor & Media Manager

Peppercorn Blue Burger – Tonic Bar & Grille

For those of you who tend to order the wedge salad at restaurants where it’s offered, this is a burger for you. Gorgonzola melted on a black-pepper crusted beef patty, dressed with roasted red peppers. Tonic has earned a reputation in downtown Wilmington for its steaks, but their burgers should not be overlooked—particularly this one. It’s a burger with bite. For more, see tonicbargrille.com.

— Jim Miller, Director of Publications

Redfire Burger – Redfire Grill & Steakhouse

My first introduction to a Redfire burger was several years ago at Burger Battle, back in the days when the event was held on the grounds of Twin Lakes Brewery. It was the best burger I tasted that day and many others agreed, as it was named a People’s Choice winner that year. The Redfire features aged cheddar and maple pepper bacon, but it’s the addition of Redfire’s own Thousand Island dressing that sets this burger apart.

— Sophie duPhily

Summer Cocktails Worth Trying

A few drinks we think you may enjoy

T.S.O.H. Mule – Trolley Square Oyster House

Like a drink that’s spicy yet refreshing? Yes, I realize that doesn’t make sense, but don’t knock it until you try it. With the T.S.O.H. Mule at Trolley Oyster House, you can build your own mule. My favorite is the Jalapeño Tequila with ginger beer and fresh lime.

— Matthew Loeb, Creative Director/Production Manager

Davie Jones’ Locker – Copperhead Saloon

Maybe it was the seafaring—or rather, sea-sinking—title that originally drew me to this house specialty cocktail at Copperhead Saloon, a refreshingly charming bar half-hidden away off Kennett Pike in Greenville. It’s the kind of place where Robert Louis Stevenson, Zelda Fitzgerald, Jesse James and Jane Austen could all sit down together and enjoy stimulating conversation, I’d like to believe. This particular cocktail is a rum-lemony blend, but there are others to choose from, too, featuring equally period-specific language like A Maiden’s Blush and Gallows Humor. The bar also includes classic cocktails categorized by pre-Prohibition, Prohibition and post-Prohibition styles. 

— Krista Connor, Senior Editor & Media Manager

Lavender Drop Top – House of William and Merry

Made with Grey Goose, Chambord, lavender honey, fresh lemon juice and lavender sugar rim, this is a refreshing, unique cocktail that is not too sweet or overpowering but has an unusual summer twist. With the appealing scent of lavender—often used to help bring on sleep—this beverage has a calming effect at the end of a long day.

— Julie Wenger, Out & About Contributor

The Classic Margarita – Cocina LoLo

I make this recommendation with cautious optimism. Right now Cocina LoLo is “closed for the summer but will reopen in September.” I hope that’s true, because their Classic Margarita is exactly what a margarita should be: Blue Agave Tequila (Gold tequila? Who wants that?), Cointreau and fresh-squeezed lime. No neon yellow or green nasty sour mix. Perfection. If you like tequila and a little kick, I also recommend the Hey Mamacita, served at LoLo’s sister restaurant, Merchant Bar (currently open). Jalapeño-infused tequila, Mezcal, lemon, fresh pineapple juice and vanilla. It’s the perfect balance of not-too-spicy or sweet.

— Marie Graham Poot, Out & About Contributor

Frozé (frozen rosé wine) – Constitution Yards

As a vino enthusiast, it’s sometimes challenging to find other offerings to gratify my grape-loving palate. In the heat of the summer, I usually enjoy a chilled dry rosé. Now, I’ve found my wine in the ultimate summertime form—as a frozen drink. This recent national trend has hit Wilmington’s Constitution Yards, where the bartenders make the concoction themselves and assured me “it’s really made with a rosé, not white zinfandel.” (White zinfandel is often a cloyingly sweet wine; rosés can be either sweet or dry.) The slushy, just-a-hint-of-sweet Frozé is perfect for hot nights along the river. But I warn you, it goes down easily. Cheers!

— Michelle Kramer-Fitzgerald, Contributing Writer

Basil Smash – Ubon Thai Cuisine

A local veteran in the restaurant industry recently shared with me a disturbing lament: the fear that bartending was in danger of becoming a lost art, and that newbies were relying too much on premade mixes for their drinks. That vet would be proud to meet Ty Naughton, Ubon’s young mixologist, who makes most of his drinks on the spot with fresh ingredients whenever possible. Other than the ingredients simple syrup and basil, Naughton’s recipe for the Basil Smash is a radical departure from the “traditional” version: replacing gin and lemon slices with Knob Creek Rye and lime—as well as adding bitters and a touch of St. Germaine.

— Jim Miller, Director of Publications