Kindred Soul Food

Kindred Soul Food

I was lucky enough to set foot in Mama Mary Soul Food on a Wednesday, because Wednesday is meatloaf day. Having taken great comfort in meatloaf while almost never seeing it on a menu, I ordered it enthusiastically. Arriving just a few minutes later, the meat was a nondescript pile on the plate, but it was bursting with flavor in the mouth—rich with onion but also a background of sweetness and salt that eliminated the need for any of the toppings, fillings or wrappings that typically perform the apology in a meatloaf recipe. The texture too was beautifully varied—dense here, tender there—which suggested mixing by hand rather than cake-ifying by industrial-grade appliance.

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The side of collard greens—at Mama Mary, you get two sides with a “plate” and four with a “church plate”—had shared a stockpot with broth that was not too sweet or salty, but a nice bit of both, providing both contrast and complement to the meat. Indeed, one of the pleasing aspects of the plate as a concept is how it is there to be filled with foods that touch and interact. Order the chopped ribs with a side of fried okra and you’ll find the golden-fried nuggets to be perfectly handy for mopping up the tangy barbecue sauce that smothers the rib meat.

I had ordered the ribs a week later after first attempting to order the meatloaf again. This time, I had arrived on a Thursday, which is turkey wings day. Sarina Richardson, who is the granddaughter of Mary Harris—the restaurant’s namesake—and who was waiting the tables that day, smiled with compassion. Thursday is always already too late for meatloaf. All the items on the Mama Mary menu, however, are Harris’s recipes—including soul food staples like chitterlings and catfish, which don’t otherwise survive the crude division of soul food into barbecue and Popeye’s (et al.) in this part of the country. On the back wall of the dining room, a vintage framed 8×10 of Mary Harris as a young lady with a pleasant, serene expression attests to how directly and personally the recipes have been passed along. The meatloaf is made in limited quantities, it turns out, by Mary Harris herself.

Richardson explains, “She still does meatloaf on Wednesdays. It’s her specialty. She still makes that. She does the sweet potato pie. She makes those. She still makes lima beans. She’ll come in when it’s nice and quiet in the morning.” Harris, now aged 80, then makes 4 loaves—2 each for the New Haven restaurants owned by her children. Her son, Robert Harris, is the owner and head chef of Mama Mary. Her daughter, Sandra Pittman, is the head chef and owner (along with her husband Miguel Pittman) of Sandra’s Next Generation on Congress Avenue. You could try racing the 2 miles from one restaurant to the other if one of them runs out. But most customers become regular customers over items that are served every day—fried chicken, in a gravy or with a buffalo-like Cajun sauce, as well as the aforementioned sweet potato pie, collard greens and chopped barbecue ribs, according to Richardson.

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Mama Mary Soul Food opened 13 years ago on Congress Avenue, in a space just vacated by Sandra’s. Sandra Pittman had retired after two decades in the business but still owned the building. When she came out of retirement two years later, Robert moved to Whalley Avenue, where he found a generous space with carved wooden booth seating that looks like church pews. The family added seasonal table and bookcase displays and ecstatic paintings of jazz bands. They also hung their family pictures. Counter to the stories you hear of restaurant dynasties spun off by family feuds, Harris family restaurants—there have been four over the years—reflect an inheritance of love for and through cooking among Harris siblings. The first restaurant named for Mary Harris was operated by another of her sons, Renard Harris, on Chapel Street, before he moved to Virginia. He died unexpectedly during President Obama’s first inaugural celebration, after having made Richmond news by offering 99-cent “Obama burgers” at his restaurant there. His portrait—in a natty 3-piece suit—hangs next to his mother’s at Mama Mary.

The third generation even better exemplifies the fluid dynamics between the two restaurants. Richardson says, “I’m here but I started out there . Before my uncle opened, I was always with my aunt growing up…. vice versa. My cousins, who are her kids, if we need one of them, they’ll come here and help… My aunt might say, ‘We ran out of yams, do you guys have yams?’ And they come over here and get yams.” Both restaurants recently assembled “turkey packages” for families that didn’t want to cook for Thanksgiving. You couldn’t be sure that day if your stuffing was from Sandra’s or Mama Mary, but it didn’t matter.

Richardson’s mother, Sabrina Harris, bakes the cakes—also for both restaurants and for her own baking business. Richardson held the door of the refrigerated display case open during one of my visits so she could list all the slices available. I chose the coconut pineapple, which, again, turned out to be a lesson in texture, the coconut a toothy rebar inside the frosting and the pineapple chunks perfectly candied by the oven.

Later, I asked Richardson, “What is your grandmother’s secret?” She nearly giggled and said she didn’t know. For a second, I thought she was being coy, but Richardson points out that the only meatloaf she had ever had was her grandmother’s—why get it anywhere else?—so what part of her method could she even point to as a departure from lesser meatloaves? And if her grandmother had learned to cook by cooking—first as a child in a family with six siblings in Selma, Alabama, then as a mother of six children in New Haven—then what is the secret, if not the cooking itself?

Mary Harris also cooked for her neighbors—really, the whole neighborhood on her Edgewood Avenue block—which suggests the simplest and loveliest motive her children could have had for opening a restaurant. “My grandmother wants to feed everyone. That’s her passion,” Richardson says. At Mama Mary, that generosity carries over in the form of small, unmistakable kindnesses. Richardson could tell I was vacillating between the corn bread and the sweet potato bread, so she set a rectangle of both down in front of me. They were equally outstanding—warm and fresh, cake-soft and buttery.

Richardson has lately been anticipating her grandmother’s retirement with an eye toward the future of Mama Mary’s kitchen. “Me and one of my cousins, we like to go over with her and she will show us things. So when she does retire, we’ll still know how to cook all of her recipes.” Richardson is also going to culinary school, which occasionally gives her ideas for her own additions to the Mama Mary specials board, but will also enable her to one day codify in recipe form what Harris has only ever demonstrated by doing. “My grandmother, because she taught herself, she has never measured anything.” Mary Harris had once taken the time to offer instruction—to a statewide audience, no less—appearing with her meatloaf on a cooking segment for Action News 8. Such is the popular demand for her formula. But Richardson suspects she probably kept some secrets to herself.

Mama Mary Soul Food
372 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Wed-Fri noon-9pm, Sat 1-9pm, Sun 1-6pm
(203) 562-4535

Written and photographed by David Zukowski. Image 3 features Sarina Richardson.

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