If you boil Baton Rouge down to its roots, you’ll find a city built by factory workers and river boatmen. These are blue-collar folk who put in long, tiring days, and they expect hearty fare with their family when the day’s done.
As briefcases replace lunch pails, the lunch hour is now nothing more than a meal moment—a break to ingest what WWL-TV Photographer Larry Schirling calls “Styrofoam peanuts for the belly.” We’ve strayed from the lunch hour as an event to lunch as just another appointment. Body maintenance. That’s all.
Friend--that dog don’t hunt at Momma’s Silver Moon Cafe.
You’re going to slow down under Momma’s roof, ‘cause you just can’t eat this much good food in a hurry.
Some writers and reviewers have labeled Silver Moon’s fare as “soul food,” and that’s a disservice. Ox-tail soup, turkey necks and liver--the staples of soul food, are absent here. This is down-home, north Mississippi cooking. The menu serves as a timeless reminder of what I had for dinner and supper (that’s lunch and dinner respectively to you Yankee folk) when I was growing up.
Momma has neither mission statement nor business plan—she has a mandate from God. “You see over there?” she says, pointing out the open door with a dangerous-looking spoon that just stirred sliced bell peppers into bubbling brown gravy. In her crosshairs is a scraggly, bearded, sandal-clad LSU student on his way to some class on Greek Mythological Dysfunction in Modern Times. “There are 25-thousand of them babies across the street, and their momma ain’t here,” she says. “God told me years ago, that if those babies came to the Silver Moon, they would leave here having had one good meal.” “I will do that for their mommas, and their mommas would do that for me.”
That one good meal is posted on a white board outside the café, a copy by the jukebox, and still another over the cash register. Menu items usually consist of a choice of meat items, a side, and something to drink. Note: you must understand that I just crammed a boatload of food into about 18 words.
One usually finds sausage, smothered chicken, spaghetti, jambalaya, and meat loaf in the entree section. Gumbo is served on most Friday’s during lent, and Momma just might lay some surprises on you from time to time. When you cook off the top of your head, great things can happen suddenly.
Plan on a wild party in your mouth—Momma says her secrets reside in her spices. Like good Cajun food, it’s OK to be spicy as long as one does not commit the cardinal sin of being hot! The idea is to excite the taste buds while tap-dancing around incineration. And Momma can throw a sweet-potato pie full of lovin’ your way… Baby!
If one prices food by the pound, throw away your calculator. Bowls come to your table slopping over full with gravy, meat, and jambalaya. All accompanied by cornbread. Momma has even been known to put complimentary bowls of something you didn’t order on empty parts of the table “just because it looks better that way.” Former Governor Edwin Edwards’ brother Marion likes to slip in the back door and fix his own food, because he says Momma gives him too much. (He’s also addicted to Momma’s black eyed peas.)
Bar none, these are the best red beans and rice I’ve ever had. Big chunks of bell pepper live here. Their oniony cousins live in the gravy—kept bubbling and thickly brown on the old stove. White beans, black-eyed peas, man-o-man! And you just know there is some fried chicken lurking about if you can work the deal.
This is hearty stuff—Momma says what field hands in Mississippi would eat during their lunch. The idea is to sustain the body for a day’s work while feeding the soul. It’s all cooked on a crowded gas stove using pots with thick blackened bottoms. You and I would opt for the shiny silver pots, but Momma knows what the years have lent to her cooking. She’s always stirring, always adding spice, chatting up “her babies” from the doorway. Hand always on hip, teaching and loving.
Some of her ‘babies’ can draw her ire as quickly as her praise. Case in point: an LSU physical plant worker who loudly asks (way too early) if the Gumbo’s ready yet?
The spoon leads the way as Momma charges from the kitchen, and the strapping young physical plant worker is backpedaling. “Baby--you KNOW (pausing for effect) Momma’s gumbo ain’t ready till 10:30!!” The worker is smiling—this is an old game and a beloved one. But he is still backing up, as are his buddies who fear collateral damage from that 50-caliber spoon. Our hero calms Momma down with some light banter, scores some fried chicken in tin-foil ( Yankee translation: aluminum foil), adds hot sauce and is on his way.
Let’s talk about breakfast for a second. Nothing, but nothing compares to Momma’s place for breakfast. While others get away with a ten-dollar day starter, Momma gets you ready for the day, baby. Are you ready for this? Scrambled eggs, grits, a biscuit floating in Momma’s “love” gravy, and a couple pieces of fried chicken for less than seven bucks! Eat elsewhere?!? You got to be out yo’ mind…! On a cold morning with the windows steamed over, a table full of Momma’s love, the old jukebox (all 45s, no CDs) cranking out the blues to Momma’s soft humming from the kitchen, and it’s time to tell Lord Jesus to take you Home. It just doesn’t get any better.
On a diet? Momma has you divinely covered, as the love cooked into her food will more than offset any caloric damage. You see, it’s all about taking care of her babies. Momma prays over her food every morning, seeking blessings for her food and for all her babies who will eat it that day.
Don’t judge the place by its graffiti-tagged exterior on Chimes Street . Momma can tick off a million-dollar roster of NFL and NBA legends who have sat where you now sit. Shaquille O’Neal would eat double helpings of everything! I defy you to try that.
Recently, Momma had to gracefully bow out of a bidding war between two titans of sports. One of her ‘babies’ in Baltimore wanted to fly Momma up to cook for him and his buddies. Word of that offer got out, and he was trumped by an even larger “baby” in Washington DC who wanted Momma to cook for the offensive line. All of this was to happen on the same weekend. The bidding and the phone calls were hot and heavy, building to fever pitch as “Game Day” approached.
Who won? Momma did. And both her 300-pound babies got away with empty bellies and intact egos.
Take note children--Momma don’t fly.