A Tale of Two Mothers

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A Mom Who Can Out-Sass Anybody

Mother’s, a 10-minute walk from the French Quarter in New Orleans, is something else altogether, city-slick and bristling with attitude. Service is cafeteria style, and as you push your tray along the line at the side of the always crowded, cacophonous dining room, you go one-on-one with servers who do not suffer slowpokes or indecisive types and are happy to sass any customer who deserves it. Not that they can’t be helpful, even charming in a brash sort of way. When we ordered Debris Biscuits (biscuits topped with gravy-sopped scraps from the roast beef cutting board, named for the detritus left by a hurricane), one of the gals dishing out breakfast reminded us that we’d be getting enough biscuits with our shrimp Creole omelet, so we ought to order only a cupful of debris because it’s cheaper. “You’ll have money left to leave a nice tip,” she advised with a mischievous wink—a sign on Mother’s wall forbids tipping. (Another sign hangs overhead informing visitors: “Helen Waite is our credit manager. If you want credit, go to Helen Waite.”)

Mother’s began in 1938 as a family-run diner specializing in po’boy sandwiches for a diverse central-business-district clientele that included working men from the waterfront as well as lawyers and newspaper reporters who had business at the nearby courthouse. Customers are still a gallimaufry of white and blue collars, locals and tourists, who come for heroic po’boys with fillings that include smoked or hot sausage, fried or grilled shrimp, oysters, softshell crabs; and catfish, garnished with cabbage, sliced pickles, mayo, yellow mustard, and Creole mustard. The most famous of the sandwiches is the Ferdi Special, named after the local merchant who asked to have ham added to his roast beef po’boy, along with a spill of debris and gravy. What a wonderful mess!

During World War II, Mother’s became such a favorite haunt of U.S. Marines that they eventually named it “Tun Tavern—New Orleans” after the old Tun Tavern of Philadelphia, where the Marine Corps recruited its first members in 1775. The original Mother, Mary Landry, who opened the restaurant with her husband, Simon, passed it on to her sons, who in 1986 sold it to Jerry and John Amato. The Amatos kept Mother’s menu of effulgent po’boys, adding a repertoire of New Orleans classics such as filé gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, and, of course, bread pudding for dessert. Today, there is probably no other restaurant in the city that so completely and deliciously defines proletarian Creole cuisine.

Mother’s was one of the first businesses in New Orleans to reopen after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. While the place was getting cleaned up, employees who had lost their homes in the disaster lived in trailers in the restaurant parking lot. It was tough going for a while—limited menu, paper plates, and disposable utensils—but Mother’s is the sort of relaxed place where both visiting disaster relief workers and returning displaced locals could feel taken care of and at ease. Its traditional New Orleans food and no-baloney attitude make one think about the honest comforts of a welcoming home, in this case a home that includes a mom who is a crackerjack cook.

Jane and Michael Stern are the authors of Roadfood, now in its the eighth edition, and Roadfood.com, a source for reviews, recipes, and tasting tours of good eats nationwide. Longtime contributors to Gourmet magazine, they last wrote for Gourmet Live about America’s Best Pie Joints.

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