We don’t get to choose the family we’re born into, nor the color of our skin. My father was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, yet lived in New York City until his early twenties. My mother was born in Washington, North Carolina, yet nothing about the way she talks says southerner. Their birthrights are obviously southern just not in the stereotypical sense; much like mine. What is either further from southern is our palate. I mean, what the hell is shrimp prosciutto?? Comparing shrimp prosciutto to chicken and biscuits is like comparing Oprah to the Kardashians, offensive and disgraceful. I’ll tell you something though.
I’ll call it my southern meal all the same.
Hot, crisp biscuits with a glaze of butter casted magically upon their surfaces. The crunchy, yet somehow gently organized exterior, of fried chicken directly complements the biscuits. The array of vegetables that are no longer healthy due to the conditioning of lard and fat. If you combine all of these foods, you may find a secret message. The message says something to the extent of, “Embrace me and the love that I was crafted with; for I will warm your heart and soothe your tired soul.” These are the benedictions of a southern meal.
These are not my benedictions. They start with a quaint restaurant that I refer to as a loving second mother.
Mama Cucina’s is a small Italian restaurant that stands as the pinnacle of all things Italian. She sits on the edge of a labyrinth-like strip mall next to a Dairy Queen knowing full on well that she is the true queen of the area. The food that her staff, Tony and company, makes for her customers’ almost made me question why we couldn’t have Big Mama for Sunday dinners too. Unfortunately, the reality is that Mama Cucina only served folks on Saturday’s which forced our family to have a hangover from Mama’s previous meal.If there were any leftovers from the night before, they tended to be the quelling I would use to stop mid-day’s hunger until supper. The food was just that damn good and the experience of the meal only added to my delight of the small establishment.
Every Saturday, before the final verdict of our once a month excursion on Mama’s, my father would sit us down and ask if Mama’s was a viable option for the night. I never quite understood why until later. It was like the unconditional agreement you give to your superiors. You don’t deny Mama Cucina because it’s inconceivably disrespectful to her. Especially when the rarity of how often we went was limited to once or twice a month to preserve her cooking. Once he gave out his decree, we all took it upon ourselves to look presentable, as if we were going to a more lax Church for our evening dining. Father dressed business casual and mother put on a nice sweater, dark blue jeans, and black heels. Jenah (the eldest of my two younger siblings) and Chelsea both wore something modest and casual like jeans and a sweater or long sleeved shirt, pending the weather. As for me, I wore whatever bummy outfit that I could find until mother forced me to cycle through at least three to four outfits. I realized later that this was a requirement to let Mama know that she was serving a southern family of class, yet somehow didn’t have a drop of southern eminence from them. After we were all spiffed up, we disembarked to Mama’s house.
Our pull-up to the quaint establishment brought joy to all of our faces. Each tile on their patio acted as its own stepping stone to the meal. Once Mama’s doors opened, we were greeted by one of her highly esteemed waiters, one of whom typically serves us. I never did find out her name and I don’t think anyone aside from my father knew. Still, the comfort of her greeting and her acknowledgement of us as regulars at Mama’s were quite intriguing to me for I had not seen this before. She sat us down and somehow continued that lovely smile throughout the evening; as if considering us family. “Give us a moment,” my father would always say with sternness but also familiarity. He took it upon himself, as a man, to tell me each and every time to make sure I put a napkin in my lap to show that I had a sort of refinement in my mannerisms since this was not home. I got that. This was an establishment in which I refused to show ill-mannerisms of smacking or eating with my hands. No matter the gathering, you must show that you can mingle with the finest and fit in accordingly. She’d come back after five to ten minutes and resume with the simple question, in an accent I could hardly understand, “Are you ready to order?”
We sat, bombarded by scents of Italian seasonings, sounds of distinct sizzling, and radiant flashes of fire from the kitchen. These were not the sights and sounds of the southern food orchestra. As we looked up, our waiter already had notepad and pen in hand; a trait my father expected from his numerous occasions. “We’ll have Italian bread, a dry sausage, and 5 orders of Shrimp Prosciutto. What would you guys like to drink?” In a round table conference fashion, mother, Jenah, Chelsea, and me responded, “Just some water, thank you. Sierra Mist please. I’ll have Sierra Mist please and thank you! I’ll have a Sierra Mist as well, thank you.” This marked the end of phase one of a typical experience, but not before my father’s reminder to put my napkin across my lap.
Waiting for just our appetizers felt like the dreading moments before giving a speech. It was nerve wrecking just to come up with a jovial topic of discussion. Then, as if out of nowhere, my father would break the silence. “So, Vickey…..” My father would always begin conversation with my mother going on about things beyond my comprehension.Trying to be astute, I would attempt to listen and broaden my knowledge of adult issues of the world….. To no avail. Luckily, my parents were kind enough to give me a synopsis of what they were talking about and Chelsea would bring up a topic about school to further breakdown the barriers. Eventually Jenah would bring herself into the conversation under her own power or sip slowly on her Sierra Mist until one of my parents brought her by force (the latter being the typical option). At this point I knew everything was right in the world, until our waiter came back bearing a gift from Mama’s kitchen.
The smell nullified all topics going on at the table. First, came the bread, light yet crunchy with a side of olive-oil. Second, came cured oven warmed salami on a bed of fresh lettuce . Lastly, the Mona Lisa of southern appetizers graced our plates, the shrimp prosciutto.
These shrimp made all else irrelevant. The glory of those 5 shrimp each gently folded by provolone cheese and prosciutto ham were truly appeasing. The 12-15 countable specs of seasoning surrounded by a moat of olive oil sung higher to me than a choir on the 1st Sunday of the month. I knew that this was Mama’s love. We each grabbed our forks and knives and gently sliced away pieces of shrimp to unveil a tender white center wrapped with prosciutto ham as if to show us the very essence of Mama’s unconditional love. Everything about the shrimp prosciutto felt protective, as if the beautiful ensemble covering the shrimp were laid out to cover the simplicity underneath. Yet, we dared to puncture that exterior to find Nirvana in the flavor. My god it was so worth it. I felt as if I could taste all of Italy after I took the first bite. “Nothing could compare to this delicacy before my eyes!” I thought. However, another thought soon followed.
“Is this what southern food is actually supposed to be?”
It never occurred to me the stereotypes I had placed upon southern food. It’s not just the face value of southern food that matters, but that feeling that takes you home. That feeling that brings back memories of a simple meal made whole by the instilled love and memories of friends and family. This is the true essence of a southern meal, no matter the sovereignty from which it hails. The flavor of the food serves to only further cement the experience me and my family shared at Mama Cucina’s. Like I said, the restaurant is like a loving second mother to me. This to me, no matter the formality, is my southern thing.