Rubin: There’s no big mama at Big Mama’s in Detroit, but there’s great Southern cooking
It’s only natural. Spot a restaurant called Big Mama’s Southern Kitchen and a question comes immediately to mind.
Two questions, actually.
The first is, “Just how big is Big Mama?”
Answer: She’s not there, and for those who might be feeling shallow just for thinking of it, owner Patricia Clay will tell you that everybody wants to know.
The second is, “How are the smothered pork chops?”
As if that’s not enticement enough, first-time customers at the restaurant in North Rosedale Park get a free mini sweet potato pie.
Order the $12.99 two-chop dinner instead of the $6.50 one-chop lunch special, and you’ll need to save the pie for later — unless you’re as big as you expected Big Mama to be.
Big Mama was Lucy Carr, Clay’s paternal grandmother. She’s the one who made Clay feel at home in a kitchen and taught her to put a squeeze of lemon juice in the sweet potato filling.
She made it to 96, which is an endorsement for either cornbread dressing or good genes. Now she’s immortalized in the sign out front and a couple of photos on the wall near the plexiglass-protected kitchen and cash register.
Big Mama could take whatever you brought her and turn it into something tasty. She would grab her boots and fishing pole on Sunday morning, catch dinner, and be back in time for church.
“She was something,” Clay says, and you can say the same for her granddaughter.
Across the years, Clay took in 14 foster children and adopted two of them. Last week, she had six lower teeth removed — no sense stretching it out, she told the dentist, just go get ‘em all — and the next day, she slapped on a surgical mask and went to work.
“She’s a bad woman,” says her brother, Arthur Carr, from his seat at the front of the dining room. And a heck of a cook.
Closing fast on 67, Clay looks back at her childhood on Hastings Street and sees pots and pans.
“It’s born in you,” she says. When the kids played house, she would always be the mother, and she would actually cook.
Fried baloney. Apple slices. Kool-Aid. Greens. Her playmates would eat the first two, drink the third, and wind up throwing the collards at one another like water balloons: “I didn’t understand that greens needed an hour and a half.”
Then adulthood arrived — and the born chef went to work for the post office. It wasn’t until she retired, she says, that she had a dream one night, and in the dream a voice in her head said, “Cook.”
In short order — and in a former sub sandwich shop at a Redford strip mall — Big Mama’s was born.
That was in 2007. Two years ago, she moved to 19650 Grand River, a long block east of Evergreen.
The first spot was carryout only. The new place still serves everything in partitioned takeout boxes, but if you’re dining in, Arthur will put the box on a tray and bring it to your table.
Food is the blessing
Most of the lunchtime business departs in plastic bags. There’s a man in a tan Carhartt jacket and a young woman in yoga pants, and then a gentleman in a black suit and red tie, directing where he wants the gravy to be and where he doesn’t.
The soundtrack is Motown, and the atmosphere is homey. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” says a sign hanging on a high beam, “and again, I say rejoice.”
“If you are grouchy, irritating or just plain mean,” says another sign, “there will be a $10 surcharge for putting up with you.”
Clay can get a bit tense herself, she concedes. When she was a little girl shadowing Big Mama, she never thought about staffing, training or taxes.
Fortunately, there’s always joy in the kitchen: ham hocks, liver and onions, black-eyed peas, peach cobbler.
Put a spoon in her hand and she’s a little girl again, watching her grandmother turn dough into dumplings with one magical squeeze of her fingers.
You can find Big Mama’s influence across most of the menu, but it turns out the one thing she made best was memories.