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Soul food

He gives food in abundance.

_ Job 36:31.

Gloom. Doom. Death. Do you read the newspapers? Do you watch the television? It's all about gloom, doom and death. Elzo Atwater Jr. banishes dark thoughts. They make a man feel old and defeated.

"How old do you think I am?" he asks. "I'm 45. I am 45 years old! I'll be 46 in the fall. Nobody ever believes it. Ha! I fool 'em every time."

He seems younger. His eyes blaze with youth _ they look alert and happy. "God is good," he says. "God is great." In church he learned forgiveness _ even for the guy who left him for dead.

Then again, someone at peace can find joy in a cold glass of lemonade.

Elzo Atwater Jr. makes a great glass of lemonade. His siblings and his nieces and his nephews are good at lemonade too. They make and sell it at the family cafeteria at 895 22nd Ave. S.

Lemonade costs $1 a glass, though some folks inevitably offer to pay double. Of course, Atwater customers visit for more than the lemonade. In the morning, Atwater's Cafeteria is well stocked with eggs, grits, bacon and sausage. The dinner and supper menu usually feature fried chicken, pig's feet, collard greens and butter beans. For some people Atwater's means country comfort cuisine. For others, what's on the plate is classic soul food. Smart ones wash it down with lemonade.

Elzo Jr. helped his parents, Elzo and Mattie Atwater, start the cafeteria in 1977. Before that his father and mother owned the Harlem Cafeteria near Jordan Park.

The Atwaters had seven sons and a daughter. They all learned the restaurant business from their parents and from Annie Wright, a well-known Southern cook who ruled the kitchen with discipline and love. Any Atwater can fire a stove, cook chitterlings and scrub a pot. It's in the blood. Mike Atwater, 35, runs the cafeteria now. But he counts on kin to help.

In the afternoon Elzo Jr. shows up to cook meatloaf, corn bread and black-eyed peas for sale that evening at the cafeteria, at his concession booth in Tropicana Field or for a catering job.

On a hot summer day, a cold glass of lemonade can't possibly taste better. "It's the real thing," Elzo Jr. says, standing in the steamy kitchen and watching his nephew, 18-year-old Deonta Atwater, making lemonade the Atwater way.

"I'll show you the Atwater way," Deonta says. "Please follow me."

He leads the way to a walk-in refrigerator and grabs a box of lemons.

"Most places, they use concentrate," he says. "Not Atwater's. Here we always start with fresh lemons even if it's more work."

As his uncle watches, he slices his lemons, flips them into a five-gallon bucket and crushes them with a huge potato masher. He adds water and a big spoonful of sugar. He throws in ice and ladles himself a cup. He makes a face, shakes his head "no." He squeezes another lemon and tosses in an extra pinch of sugar. That, Mister, is Atwater lemonade.

"Family recipe," Elzo Atwater says. "We got family recipes, yes we do, isn't that right?"

"That's right," says his nephew. "We won't tell the recipe. That's the family rule."

Elzo stops laughing and gets serious.

"I was just thinking. I was just thinking we're coming up on my anniversary."

He lifts his shirt and shows off the scar on his right side.

"In August it'll be 19 years ago that they found me right on the floor, exactly where I'm standing right now. If it wasn't for the glory of God I would have bled to death."