Mama Mary’s Soul Food, New Haven, CT

I don’t know what you’re doing to celebrate the return of Our Lord Jesus Christ in his much-hyped 2011 Rapture tour, but Swagger and I went into New Haven to toast one of our last three meals on earth with some soul food at Mama Mary’s.
Mama Mary’s Soul Food, predecesed by Sandra’s, is a surprisingly upscale establishment on Whalley Avenue, a restaurant in muted earth tones and metals with quirky, blasphemous touches one notices mid-bite. Some are funky, like sitting in refurbished pews and taking menus out of the hymn book racks, and some a little strange, like the haphazard mismatched living room set tables to the right, where plush armchairs crowd each other around small bar tables, flanked by booth seats three feet away from the tables they are supposed to occupy. Michael Jackson, gospel, and soft R&B plays softly above as the fans whir and a steady stream of people filter in and out.

The service, though painstakingly slow, is worth the shift from a hectic schedule to soul food time. Upon ordering, we were promptly served our respective drinks, a delicious homemade sweet tea and lemonade, and two thick slices of the most tender, fresh cornbread I have ever been privy to consume, the top half inch of it soaked in butter. When the Rapture comes, it would do you wise to wander around Mama Mary’s. Remember, when the looting begins, the cornbread can be yours. This is a side dish that I would gladly come back for. Not only is it free, but it is laced with just a slight sweetness and a soft, moist crumble that falls apart at the slightest fork prod.With this as a small tease in mind, I expected nothing short of mind-blowing entrees and sides. We took a sweeping approach to their menu, taking advantage of the easily customizable dishes to order the maximum number of different items we could possibly sample. Swagger dove right into the scarier parts, ordering chitterlings with collard greens and candied yams and I opted for a more prosaic, yet blatantly Southern dish, fried catfish with macaroni and cheese and fried okra.The small plate, roughly the size of a small watermelon, was heaped with orbs of fried okra and a large pile of pasta. The star of the plate, the catfish, occupied a scant quarter of the plate, but was piled high. After sampling pieces of each dish, it was apparent that this was a restaurant where one would go for the chicken (or fish) but stay for the sides. The catfish wasn’t particularly outstanding on its own, but with a few squirts of the well-loved Kurtz hot sauce, present at all tables, it was transformed into a vinegar-heavy, spicy fish with a delicate crunch and buttery, flaky texture.

Both sets of sides were even more sumptuous, the fried okra my new alternative for popcorn chicken. That was a flavorful snack, with a light batter that belied its weighty center, with a slight heat and a heavy crunch. This was the first time I’d ever eaten okra, and it was an absolutely perfect example. The vegetable inside was firm and fresh and needed no seasoning to eat, simply providing an earthy, salty flavor on its own. It stayed crispy for a few hours and made an excellent afternoon snack. The macaroni and cheese was regrettably unimpressive, with a cheese-heavy yet flavorless texture and a presence that seemed only to serve the purpose of filling rather than sating the palate. Wholly ignored by all.Swagger says, “I, on the other hand decided to go for a more exotic and possibly more authentic dish at Mama Mary’s. From the moment when I was essentially challenged by the menu by it saying “for a true Southerner”, I felt that it was my duty as a former Southerner to get the chitterlings or as I was taught to pronounce “chit’lins”. For the people who don’t know, chit’lins are pig intestine. The chit’lins at Mama Mary’s was absolutely delicious. They had the smarmy distinctive stink of what a good chit’lin should have. (Note from Foodette: They carry the pungent odor of boiled human skin.) It had a soft melt in your mouth texture with a little bit of chewiness. They were cooked in a spicy sauce with just the right amount of heat and flavor as to not overtake the natural taste of the chit’lins.

The sides I opted to get were the candied yams and collard greens. The collard greens were nothing too special but the candied yams were a whole different story. When biting into a piece of heaven that was the candied yam, I may have literally saw Jesus’s eyes. This type of sensation has only happened on one other occasion. The yams were cooked to a soft melt in your mouth softness in light cinnamon flavored syrup. I could probably eat these yams all day and every day. Candied is an understatement here. These were more like dessert yams, with a caramelized sauce and a fork-tender yield. They brought the ignoble tater to a beautiful place, where the starches were melted down to a pudding-like consistency, married to the very sugar molecules themselves. Just for the candied yams I would go back again. The candied yams and cornbread at Mama Mary’s are possibly the best things ever. (Note from Foodette: Swagger let me eat his last yam and now I must name my first born after him.)

If the world ends, we’ll probably be around until October 21st. After all, this blog is a sure sign of hell on earth and none of us are going up with Jesus, unless it’s to slip him some whipped cream vodka for whatever heaven-tastic party he’s planning up there. See you on the other side of the Rapture, folks. It’s been a good run.

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