Rodney and Stephanie Wilson

Rodney and Stephanie Wilson, owners of the new restaurant Rodney’s Soul & Grill in downtown Anniston.

For Rodney Wilson and his wife, Stephanie, real soul food comes from the heart, never ever from a can. “That’s an insult to soul food,” Stephanie said.

Rodney’s fondest childhood memories are of Sundays in the kitchen with his mother. “I helped pick and pull greens and shucked corn,” he said, then shook his head and laughed. “I hated shucking corn with all those silks.”

But that’s what it took to create a down-home family dinner. “Pots were boiling and steam was everywhere,” he remembered. “It was a lot of work for just one meal, but that’s what I grew up with.”

Ten years ago, Rodney was living in Nashville and managing a Hardee’s fast food restaurant. When he grew tired of grabbing meals from his own workplace, he would occasionally sneak over to the competition — Wendy’s — where he first laid eyes on Stephanie. He became so enchanted, he returned often. Instead of getting up the nerve to ask her out on a date, he offered her a job working at Hardee’s.

She accepted, and the rest, as they say, is history. They were married in 2012, and two years later, they relocated to Alabama so that Rodney could manage the Hardee’s in Oxford.

Shortly after they arrived, however, things went terribly wrong.

Rodney, who had battled kidney disease in the past, even to the point of undergoing a transplant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, began experiencing renal failure. The illness, as well as the dialysis, took its toll, and he was unable to continue working. His weight dropped from 220 pounds to 140.

Another transplant was needed, and Rodney’s name went on the waiting list. Stephanie turned to social media for help. She wrote a Facebook post explaining her family’s situation and Rodney’s need for a donated kidney. It went viral, and people from all over the country added their names to the list of potential donors.

When his phone rang and Rodney saw it was Vanderbilt calling, he figured it was in regard to a routine visit. Instead, he learned they had a compatible kidney for him, but time was of the essence.

Rodney went to gas up the car while Stephanie rushed home to pack. She threw all of their clothes on a bed sheet, then pulled the four corners together and tied them in a knot. When Rodney arrived home, he was stunned to see the bundle lying by the door.

“What is this?” he asked Stephanie. “Why didn’t you pack our suitcases?”

Frustrated, she responded, “You want a kidney or not? We gotta go!”

The transplant took place immediately upon their arrival at the hospital in Tennessee. That was two years ago, and today Rodney has made a full recovery.

After 24 years of corporate fast food management, Rodney always dreamed of operating his own restaurant. When the opportunity presented itself, he and Stephanie, who owns Images Salon in Golden Springs, decided to take the plunge with a new venture for their family. That family, by the way, consists of four children and a fifth on the way.

Rodney’s Soul Food & Grill at 1307 Noble St. (across from Lyric Square) opened last week to a rush of hungry patrons.

The menu is tried-and-true soul food.

“Good soul food will take you back to your childhood,” Stephanie said. To make sure that happens, Rodney is using his mother’s recipes, the ones he remembers from his own childhood. In fact, his mother, age 74, traveled here from Nashville to taste the dishes and make sure they were all being done right.

Fried chicken, pork chops and meat loaf are just a few of the items offered on a daily basis. Vegetables include cabbage, black-eyed peas, fried corn and a unique take on sweet potatoes. “That’s one of my mother’s best recipes,” Rodney said. “It has a secret ingredient that really makes it stand out.” (And no, he’s not telling what it is.)

Stephanie brings her own flair to the menu as well. Her specialty of Jamaican oxtails is “made with love and Jamaican spices” she said, and a meal of her chitterlings is just waiting “to be doused with some hot sauce.”

Breakfast is also served weekday mornings and includes biscuit sandwiches as well as platters with eggs and all the fixins. Lunch and dinner are served cafeteria-style with patrons choosing from dozens of made-from-scratch options.

Rodney’s Soul Food & Grill is open Monday-Friday from 6 a.m.-9 p.m. and Sundays from noon-7 p.m. (closed on Saturday).

Donna Barton’s column appears every Sunday. Contact her at donnabarton@cableone.net.

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