It is my life’s ambition (well one of my ambitions) to visit Mary Mac’s Tea Room. I’ve been close, but in my short visits to Atlanta, it’s been all about hot dogs at the Varsity. Now, I may not have to visit, and can make this gentle Southern cooking in my own kitchen.
Mary Mac’s is a true community crossroads, where race, class, politics, and social standing are set aside over plates of Southern comfort food—Fried Okra, Country Ham with Red Eye Gravy, Sausage Cornbread, and Blackberry Jam Cake with Caramel Icing.
As a northerner, I find Southern food to be an exotic treat. But wherever I go, I love restaurants that cherish their history. Cooking these dishes at home won’t be the same as eating them at Mary Mac’s, but it will still be delicious.
The book shares the recipes for the classic dishes but also celebrates the restaurant’s history and traditions that have been handed down through owners and cooks. The restaurant is now in the hands of John Ferrell, who clearly knows the value of what he has. Whether you’ve been a customer for generations or are an out-of-town visitor, “no customer leaves Mary Mac’s unnoticed…”. The Sweet Tea flows and first time visitors are initiated with a complementary bowl of corn bread and pot likker.
Over time the restaurant has been expanded and refurbished, but the recipes have stayed the same. And like most good home cooking, the recipe for a dish like Tomato Gravy looks like nothing special, but this simple simmer of tomatoes, okra, salt, and pepper blends into a sparky gravy with bright and savory flavors. Served over rice it is a simple and appealing supper; on its own, it can be part of a generous spread of side dishes.
Likewise the recipe for Sugar Cookies, a standard blend of eggs, flour, sugar and butter, but the good sized cookies are crisp on the edges, chewy and cakey—the kind of cookies you’d serve with lemonade on the front porch if you had one.
There are a few recipes here that are new, but most of them come with real pedigree, like Hank’s Aunt’s Cranberry Pecan Salad. Others, like Pesto, bless their hearts, what were they thinking? No one is going to Mary Mac’s for pesto, they’re looking for pimento cheese and collard greens.
I still want to visit Mary Mac’s, but now I can see how their tomato gravy compares to mine.