Pot Liquor Love: Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha
Thanks to the Tyler Perry franchise of popular movies and plays and the character Madea he plays and to the Martin Lawrence series of films, the term Big Mama has come into the mainstream lexicon. This is no doubt part of the appeal behind a soul food eatery and catering operation in Omaha, Big Mama’s, that has enjoyed breakout success since I profiled its namesake owner, Patricia Barron, soon after her place opened. The breakfast and lunch crowds there are steady, the catering orders high, and in the past few years she’s seen her business featured in a slew of newspapers and magazines, then by the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, and more recently by another national cable food show. But I think what people really respond to is the story of her preserving her family’s heritage and recipes through her cooking. The deep current of passion that she and her daughters, who help run the place, have for family and community and tradition is expressed in all the framed pictures hanging there, so many that it’s practically a retrospective of African-American Omaha history. Those pictures, combined with the homey arts and crafts touches adorning the former cafeteria she converted into Big Mama’s, create a warm atmosphere that complements the down home meals she serves. All that, plus the fact that she pined to open her own restaurant for decades while raising her family and working in the corporate world, makes hers one of those magnificent obsession stories fulfilled that I love telling.
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Pot Liquor Love:
Big Mama’s Keeps It Real, A Soul Food Sanctuary in Omaha: As Seen on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader
In some African American families tradition demands the matriarch be called Big Mama. That’s true with Patricia Barron’s family. The 60-something Omahan never cared for the “countrified” term, which her late maternal grandmother Lillie Johnson earned. But when Barron’s grandkids began calling her that sobriquet it became, she said, “the name that was stuck on me.”
Barron proudly carries on the name in her soul food place, Big Mama’s Kitchen & Catering. Located on the Turning Point youth services campus at 45th and Bedford, former site of the Nebraska School for the Deaf, Big Mama’s opened Dec. 10 serving breakfast and lunch. Barron, along with daughters Delena and Gladys and friend, “adopted daughter and chief cook” Valerie, are prepping for a Jan. 15 grand opening, when dinner service should be up and running, too.
For some 30 years Barron operated a catering business from her home. Last August she began a popular soul food dinner at her church, North Side Christian Center. An eatery was a long-held dream. More than once she put her dream on hold to climb the corporate ladder and raise her kids. Stymied in her search for a small business loan and a facility, she stayed the course. That’s typical of Barron and her husband, Earnest Wallace. When the couple and their five daughters moved into their Benson home they endured eggings and racial slurs. They didn’t budge. Now, with the help of volunteers whose work, she said, “has warmed my heart,” she’s converted a kitchen/cafeteria into Big Mama’s. Leopard-pattern oil cloths and flower-filled vases adorn the tables. Earth tone decor warms what could otherwise be a cold space. A display case features her signature desserts.
Barron’s right where she’s supposed to be. “I think I was born to do this. I love to cook. I can be ever so tired but once I get in the kitchen it’s like a rush of energy and I’m ready to go,” she said. “Now it’s time for me to do my second career — what I really wanted to do.”
Aptly, she’s found a home for Big Mama’s on a campus filled with ministries that inspire hope. “We like it here,” she said, “and we’re just pleased to be a part of all that’s going on.” In its own way she sees Big Mama’s as a ministry that rekindles a time when North O was one big clique and families came together over dinner.
“I want to bring people back to the table,” she said.
Anymore, authentic soul food’s hard to find here. She reconnects some folks to their roots and introduces others to the cuisine for the first time. As she likes to explain, soul food’s been handed down through the generations. It’s tradition.
“In our neighborhood we used to hear the term ‘eating high off the hog,’ and that derived,” she said, “from when the master got the best cuts and the slaves were left with scraps. We took those scraps and made delicacies out of them. Made entire meals out of them. That’s really what it is.”
Soul food’s slow-cooked goodness is also a byproduct of slave times. “You worked in the fields 10-12 hours and you had to come home to something to eat, and so your food had to be slow-cooked all day long,” she said. Fresh, savory ingredients cooked for hours at low temps make for succulent eats.
More than the Big Mama name, Barron carries on “Miss Lillie’s” way with soul food. Sundays Lillie put out a spread fit for a wedding banquet. After church the whole family gathered to indulge at her 34th and Bedford home in an area called Plum Nelly. With your chicken, ribs, catfish or gumbo — on holidays there was a choice of entrees — you got greens, chitlins, rice, beans, mac and cheese, cornbread, biscuits and desserts like sweet potato cheesecake and fried pies filled with prune or apricot. All made from scratch, memory and love on a wood-burning stove.
As a girl Barron spent summers with Big Mama, under whose apron a young Patricia learned to cook, propped up on a wooden soda pop case. Later, Barron took it upon herself to preserve grandma’s best dishes. Derived in part from oral history and observation, these dishes form the core of Barron’s menu at Big Mama’s.
(Photo by Hilary Stohs-Krause, NET News)
With your breakfast staples — omelets, casseroles, french toast, pancakes, bacon and eggs — you can get grits or biscuits. Lunch is skimpy on soul food for now with its catfish sandwich, fried shrimp, trio of burgers — including an Afro burger — pizza bread and taco salad. Sides range from greens to cornbread to sweet potato pudding. For dessert there’s pound cake, sweet potato cheesecake, tea cakes and fried pies. Try the sweet raspberry ice tea. Prices are a bit high but not bad.
Big Mama’s enormous, varied catering menu offers hundreds of dishes, half of which are traditional soul food, the other half home-cooked favorites, with some gourmet thrown in. There’s ribs, roasts, chops, oven fried chicken and greens made every which way. A shopping cart is soon coming to her web site — bigmamaskitchen.com.
But will enough folks wend their way to her digs on the institutional, fenced-in grounds? Situated in an old, red-brick structure, Big Mama’s is in Building A at 3223 No. 45th Street. Banners and signs direct you there. Nothing fancy or chic — just real. Clean, too. Barron and crew make you feel welcome with their warm smiles and greetings. Don’t be surprised if Big Mama herself sidles right up beside you.
Open for breakfast and lunch, Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Call 455-6262.
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