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A Tale of Two Mothers

Published in Gourmet Live 05.09.12
Jane and Michael Stern salute two “mothers”—one sweet, one sassy, both no-nonsense—serving up home cooking any kid would be lucky to find on their dinner plate

“Home cooking like Mom used to make” is a curious boast from a restaurant. If your own mother couldn’t boil water, why on earth would you want to eat at such a place? Even those of us blessed with mothers who used to put hot meals on the table every night still might hesitate to suit up, go out, and proffer a credit card for fish sticks or sloppy Joes or any other such American family-dinner-table cliché. And moms themselves probably prefer to eat in a place better known for its superb rack of lamb than for telling customers to sit up straight and to eat all their broccoli. In A Walk on the Wild Side, a 1956 novel set in the underbelly of New Orleans, Nelson Algren put it bluntly: “Never eat at a place called Mom’s.” (That was coupled with two other admonitions: “Never play cards with a man called Doc” and “Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”)

In the course of our travels, we have found two significant exceptions to Algren’s mom embargo, although the two restaurants couldn’t be more different: Mom’s of Salina, Utah, and Mother’s in New Orleans. Salina is a dusty old cowboy town with a few thousand citizens; Mom’s is on its Main Street, in the same corner brick building where it’s been serving blue plate meals since 1929. New Orleans is many things, but a sleepy desert crossroads, like Salina, it most definitely is not. And just as Mom’s meat-and-potatoes menu reflects the slow-loping personality of the Utah town around it, Mother’s embodies the ebullience of the Big Easy, where life in general is unpredictable and no meal is ordinary. In its own way, each restaurant offers a perspicuous goût de terroir.

A Mother a Cowboy Would Love

We included Mom’s of Utah in the very first edition of Roadfood (1977), giving it only one star out of four at the time because there was no Mom in evidence; and service, by a gaggle of goofy teenagers, was sloppy. But the hamburgers were hand-formed and oozed savory juices and the coconut pie was fine, and, frankly, there weren’t a whole lot of other dining options in central Utah. “Next time around,” we wrote, “we’ll peek in the kitchen first. If Mom is there, we’d give it another try.”

When we returned about 15 years later, Mom wasn’t in the kitchen—she was out front, overseeing the entire operation from an office desk planted right in the dining room. Owner and host Carolyn Jensen (no relation to the original Mom) ran a tight ship. We were impressed by the efficiency of coffeepot-armed waitresses who wore blue uniforms that matched the aqua upholstered booths; and more important, we had learned enough about Southwestern food to better appreciate a truly regional meal. Chicken-fried steak with pepper-cream gravy, biscuits with gravy… Heck, nearly everything with gravy was (and remains) exemplary. Pies at Mom’s are road-food paradigms: lovely apple and cherry and custards, blueberry sour cream that is an extraordinary balance of sweet fruit with dairy luxury, and, on rare and happy occasion, cherry sour cream, too.

It was on that return visit to Mom’s that we first tasted the kind of scone that is unique to Utah. Completely unlike the dense, hockey-puck-shaped, English-style quick bread scone that’s served in most of the U.S., a Utah scone is a flat disk of puffy, yeast-risen fry bread—pliable, crisp-edged, and tender within. It’s no doubt related to the sopaipilla of New Mexico, but customarily it is made with sweeter dough. All meals at Mom’s come with kettle-hot scones accompanied by the Beehive State’s favorite condiment, honey butter.

When Carolyn Jensen retired in 2008, the restaurant was taken over by Fred Pannunzio, a former game warden and regular customer who bought it on a whim. Mr. Pannunzio, who replaced the restaurant’s doll-collection decor with hunting and fishing pictures, is more manly than motherly, and he recently added beer to the menu, but he maintains Mom’s as a friendly stop for travelers in search of small-town charm and ingenious Southwestern café cuisine.

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.