Big Mama’s B-B-Que and Soul Food
Burque gets some new soul
Can a white girl make decent sweet potato pie? This has been the debate since as long as I can remember cooking my first meal (I think I was 8), and it came to a head last year when I planned to bake a pie for an African-American studies class. My roommate at the time, whose family has soul food down to an art form, was beyond skeptical of my proposed endeavor. I remember the conversation going something like:
Roommate: “You know you’re white, right?”
Me: “So! That doesn’t mean I can’t bust it out.”
Roommate: “Hahaha teeheehee guffaw guffaw!!!!!
(Laughter for approximately 13 minutes)
Me: “C’mon, dude! I’m a good cook! Really!”
He then walked away, with his head in his hands, and proceeded throughout the evening to call various members of his family so they could laugh at me, too.
I was undaunted. I put the yams in the oven, prepared the pie crust and it was on.
Now truly good barbeque and soul food is an art form, and just like any other fine art, in order to get it right it takes determination, creativity and drive. It also doesn’t hurt to have family recipes going back a few generations. The owners of Big Mama’s B-B-Que and Soul Food, Aiesha Grant, Cheo Terrell, Cheryl (Big Mama) Smith and her husband Mike (Big Papa), have healthy servings of all the ingredients, and personality to match. There is Aiesha’s daughter, baby LaDaiya, who deserves mention because I suspect she is the resident taste-tester, a job rivaling only my own.
I noticed the restaurant a few weeks ago while cruising up to the Heights, and if it hadn’t been for my keen eye and stomach with a built-in G.P.S. system, I may have missed it altogether. The place is located in an unobtrusive business strip on Central between Wyoming and Zuni, and you have to pay attention to catch it.
I walked in around 7 p.m., and I was seated at one of several picnic-style tables, which to me automatically meant good barbeque, because you just don’t serve people the good stuff at oak tables. When I go out for barbeque, I wanna see paper plates, plastic dinnerware and those checkered plastic tablecloths held to the table with a galvanized pail filled with beer. Ambience-wise, I got everything but the beer.
The air conditioner would be reason enough to at least run in for a to-go order (it was deliciously freezing in there) but when I scoped the short menu, I decided to stick around.
Here’s the 50-cent tour: barbequed brisket, chicken, ribs, hot links, shredded pork, with sandwiches and baskets all around $5, and tasty traditional sides like potato salad, fried okra (try it with ranch dressing), baked beans, fries, corn on the cob, beans and rice, cornbread, and simmered greens, all for $1.50 small, and $3 for a large side. The meats are also served in combos with two sides and bread for $6.75 (with one meat) up to $9.75 (for four meats).
There are also specials that change daily, and I was in the mood for what I saw posted on the board out front. Tonight’s homemade offering was meatloaf with gravy, scalloped potatoes and black-eyed peas ($8.75). I cracked open an orange pop (an orange coke, locally speaking) and waited a whole of three minutes before my supper was served up, in the plastic, just like I like it.
This meatloaf was seriously good. It was thick, meaty, smothered in perfectly rich gravy and had a zingy flavor I couldn’t quite figure out, aside from the green bell peppers which are the hallmark of any good meatloaf. I hit up Mr. Terrell for information, and he told me it was Velveeta cheese. Is that the secret ingredient, I asked him? It’s not really a secret, he replied. I like these people.
The potatoes were actually not scalloped, but au gratin, and they were a little drier than I’m used to, but well-cheesed and peppered, with the taters thick and hand-cut. Black-eyed peas, as I have come to notice over the years, are either prepared well, or not, with no middle ground. These were obviously slow-cooked, nice and salty, and creamy in texture, which affirmed my belief that these guys know what they’re doing. I was practically ready to canonize them before I got to the greens, but after a few forkfuls, I was prepared to pledge my loyalty. These greens were spicy, savory and loaded with smoky pork shreds.
But the real litmus test was the barbeque sauce, especially since I was told it is made in-house by Big Papa Mike himself. I requested a sample of the sauce, and Big Mama Cheryl soaked a rib in it, touting, “Sauce by itself is boring.” It got me a fat rib, so no complaints from my lips. The sauce is amazing—smoky-sweet with that lingering aftertaste that makes you want to put it in a baby bottle and nurse it for a few hours. And the rib was beyond good; it was all meat, seared on the ends, and smoked all the way to the bone, not just the first few layers.
I took a quick survey of the desserts: banana pudding, peach cobbler and sweet potato pie (all $2.25) and decided to take a slice of the pie, because I wanted to stay a bit longer and yak it up with the owners. I discovered that they specialized in catering, and that they got so much business they decided to open up the restaurant, with Big Mama Cheryl and Aiesha planning the menu, and Big Papa Mike smoking the meats and making the sauce. Big Mama told me they’d like to eventually expand the menu to include fried chicken, pork chops and fried catfish. I’ll be counting the minutes.
“We’re gonna put Kool-Aid on the menu, too,” laughed Big Papa Mike. He likes to add extra sugar in the red Kool-Aid, and who am I to argue?
I also hit them up to add a burnt ends plate (called “tips”) to the menu, which is all the little charred ends of the meats, sliced off and served with fries.
Big Mama Cheryl revealed that the family recipes they use go back as far as her great-grandmother. She had to beg (and beg and beg) her own grandmother for the sweet potato pie recipe. Was the pie sweet enough to warrant the years of begging?
Before I had a bite, I remembered back to the pie I made and how my roommate ate a slice without comment. In fact, I heard nothing about it until a couple of days later when I opened my laptop to reveal a message on the screen saver that read, “Jenn is a white girl that can make sweet potato pie.”
I was vindicated until the moment I tried a bite of Big Mama’s pie. Flaky crust, sweet spiced filling and an aroma that would stop a fight in the street—mine may have been good, but this is the pinnacle.
The moral of this story? A white girl can make soul food, but she can’t get near Big Mama’s house.