When a customer complained one afternoon that the beans weren't creamy enough, Lovie talked at her until she cleaned her plate; when another requested white chicken meat via the waitress, Lovie's high-pitched voice traveled from the back room: "You know I don't discriminate. You get what the chef gives you!" There's a familiarity and an undercurrent of friendliness (the customer got her white meat) in all the repartee that suggests these women go at it often -- that the disagreements follow a longstanding lunch ritual. When I tested the waters, asking Lovie how she made her spicy dirty rice, she looked at me like I had requested the keys to her safe. "I make rice and put some dirty stuff in it," she replied, leaving the all-ladies dining room in stitches. From then on, I suppose you could say we were friends. When she sat at my table, I ate her gumbo as if all I ever wanted to be in life is a big mama, because she expected me to and because I couldn't help it.
Lovie's seafood gumbo is a phenomenon, not in the least because it's probably the meatiest seafood gumbo available in the city on Fridays between Mardi Gras and Easter. In my bowl, I found rice, chicken, airy sausage, two tadpole-size shrimp and pork meat so tender I easily licked it from its delicate bones. Wading in a dark, briny broth saturated with fatty juices (a very good thing in big mama-style gumbos), these components gathered around a crab exoskeleton filled with soft, marrow-like meat just as houses in European villages collect around a church steeple. Making your way through a bowl of Big Mama's gumbo is like partaking in life's riskiest and most exhilarating activities: You're afraid it will never end and sure that you don't want it to.
"You look tired," Lovie said with a tone of concern when I was nearly finished. My spine sagged into the chair like a full hammock as I stared into the final, deliberate spoonfuls. My bowl emptied, it was all I could do not to curl up and purr. The moment I finally did see a bed, I was out cold for two hours in a gumbo drunk. Without a drop of liquor, The Inn Restaurant's gumbo might offer the best Friday happy hour in the CBD.
I should mention that Lovie didn't know she was fodder for a newspaper story when she took a chair at my table. Inside, her restaurant looks something like a home -- family photos displayed above a defunct fireplace, paneled walls, warped floors, mix-n-match dinnerware, a television blaring As the World Turns -- and she works the room like a mother hen.
If it's slow, she leaves the kitchen in her baseball cap to talk mayoral, landlord and traffic-court politics. She's up on soap opera story lines, as well as gossip from the surrounding hospitals whose employees have kept her in business for nearly 10 years. One afternoon she speculated on who in the neighborhood might have gutted the parking meter of its innards, including my eight quarters, while I lunched on baked chicken barely 50 yards away.
The one thing you won't get Lovie to talk about is a recipe. There's nothing mysterious about her down-home soul cooking. In general, plates are of the meat-and-three variety: Stuffed pork chops come with rice, vegetable and an iceberg salad; barbecue ribs come with greens, rice and salty cornbread; and stuffed bell peppers come with macaroni salad, vegetable and toasted French bread. But it is tempting to ask her how she makes everything taste so right.
It's not easy to come by a restaurant where Tuesday's lamb shank-size turkey wing is every bit as delicious as Friday's oysters, which Lovie fries just until they're fleshy and chewable underneath a super-spiced batter. If they were offered on the same day, choosing between the tender, herb-crusted baked chicken and the dark, peppery fried kind would be a pity. Expertly fried, stark-white catfish takes five minutes to cool to a safe eating temperature. And I never met a side dish I disliked among the crunchy sweet corn slicked with butter, the hammy white beans with thyme, the bitterless mustard greens with ham hock and the spicy dirty rice with ground beef that tasted vaguely bouillon-esque and reminiscent of Thanksgiving stuffing.
A board fastened to The Inn Restaurant's red brick stoop lists between three and eight specials a day. There's also a paper menu offering po-boys and side dishes, but you won't see a single customer refer to one. For less than $7, you can taste in one heaping plate that Lovie is as much a definition of her cooking style as it is her name.