Local food writer, John Kessler, recently wrote about Mary Mac’s Tea Room. Overall, he was not favorably inclined about several aspects of the restaurant, but the response from the dining public was withering. Although there were a few that agreed with him, they were reluctant to give out their name for fear of reprisal. Consider the words of “anonymous coward“: “I’ve been to Mary Mac’s once, and that was more than enough. It was absolutely awful.” On balance, the defenders were harsh toward Mr. Kessler, and a few even compared the restaurant’s cuisine to Mom’s cooking.
I used to go to Mary Mac’s myself, and it was as much for the atmosphere as it was the food. By the time that I got there in the 1970’s, the ladies wearing white gloves for lunch were gone, but it still made for a pleasant lunch which took you out of the bustling world for a few minutes. As I pointed out to the late Mrs. Lupo, the owner, I left her restaurant in a better frame of mind than when I came in. I knew who Harvey Lupo was (her late husband) and I knew at least one of the servers by name and made it a point to ask for one of her tables. I attended Margaret Lupo’s funeral. Her place was a special one to me.
One of the individuals responding to Kessler’s posting pointed out an inconvenient truth. Yes, Mary Mac’s was like Mom’s cooking, but Mom wasn’t that great a cook. Which brings us to an interesting point. If Mom was that good a cook, there wouldn’t be restaurants. Back in the 1950’s, more than a few restaurants promoted their cuisine and services as a way to give Mom a break from cooking. Not better food, just change. Likewise, the number of restaurants named Mom’s have dwindled, probably for due cause.
In looking back at my late mother’s cooking, I reluctantly must agree, Mom wasn’t all that good in the food department. One clue was when I learned how to cook in college. I studied at the hand of a house mate, John Interlandi, who is now a doctor in Nashville. His father was a doctor too, but also had a financial interest in an Italian restaurant in suburban Chicago, a real hot bed for Italian restaurants. I learned well from John, but I discovered that when I went home for college breaks, I was showing my mother how to properly prepare food. It was disturbing.
Likewise, it is only with the benefit of reflection of the 1950’s that I remember that during Lenten suppers at our church, Mom watched me like a hawk. When I started taking too much of some other Mom’s cooking, she would admonish me to eat what she had brought. At the time, I felt that her sentiment was that I shouldn’t be hoggish, but I now suspect that she was concerned that once I had eaten someone else’s craft, I would figuratively wander off of the farm. This is not to say that I was ungrateful for her efforts. It’s just that in that environment, there isn’t a lot of room for criticism, nor did I have the experience base that I have today.
In particular, I have exceptionally fond memories of a breakfast that she would serve, corn griddle cakes. Southern hoe cakes are somewhat similar, but thicker. She had learned how to cook these simple little cakes from her own mother on their farm in Maryland back in the 1930’s. The recipe is very simple; corn meal, egg, milk and a little salt. They were cooked on a flat iron griddle that had been lightly greased with a strip of bacon. The bowl of batter was stirred and three cakes were poured onto the hot griddle. When they started to bubble, it was time to flip them. They would cook until lightly brown on the bottom, then plopped onto a plate.
After graduation from college, I could always be suckered to the table for corn cakes. My memories of those cakes is sacrosanct. A few dozen cakes with a little butter melted over the top and I was in heaven. I have tried on numerous occasions to reproduce the recipe, but my efforts turn out heavy while Mom’s were light and airy.
After my Mom passed on, I asked her sister about the cakes. Amy, a very polite and proper Bostonian, looked at me askance and sniffed. “Those things? I used to feed mine out the window to the family donkey.” Well, so much for memories.
Which brings us to another interesting memory. In the 1970’s, a good family friend came to visit my folks, who by this time were living in Athens, Georgia. He was an old family friend, an Okie wildcat oil driller who was still down to earth even after making a fortune in the drilling business in Oklahoma. They were determined to show him a good time in Atlanta and asked me to select a restaurant that they could take him to for a fine meal. They asked me for recommendations, a big mistake.
I was in my 20’s at that time, and eating out was a luxury which I could not afford. I knew a few places, and we headed to one on East Paces Ferry which I thought was the best bet. The restaurant in question had devolved into a dance club that served food, further proof of the axiom “A restaurant is a fragile thing.“
So we wandered around to another place a few blocks away and took a meal. It was not what my parents had in mind, but everybody was polite. I was apprehensive, so I asked him if the choice was okay. His response briefly lulled me into a sense of security. “It reminds me of my Mom’s cooking.” And I eased back in relief.
Then, “I hated my Moms cooking.“
It took me years to realize that he was having a good joke at my expense. Maybe.