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How to have a Fat Tuesday without going all the way to New Orleans

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Traditionally, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the last hoorah before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the renunciations of Lent. In New Orleans, this means party time with plenty of costumes and masks, parades and beads, as well as heaps of great Cajun food and even larger quantities of alcohol. The feast before the famine, so to speak.

If you can’t go the whole length of the experience and just want a little southern comfort food at a reasonable price, stop in at Sweet Mama’s in Park Slope. It’s not Cajun, but it’s a genuine slice of the American south right here in Brooklyn. Hushpuppies, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, corn chowder - all done the way mama, or at least, chef-owner Terrie Mangrum’s grand mama, used to make them on the Tennessee tobacco farm.

Mangrum cherishes her Tennessee roots, though she knew from an early age that tobacco farming was not her cup of tea. Instead, she dreamed of starting her own restaurant in a big city. So 14 years ago, she left her hometown of Bethesda, Tenn. (population: 60) and headed for the Big Apple to follow her dream.

She first moved to SoHo, where she cooked for the Hog Pit until "the craziness got to me," then, two years ago, after ruling Manhattan out as too expensive for her own restaurant, she came to Brooklyn and opened Sweet Mama’s.

You might call Sweet Mama’s a hole in the wall. Chances are, if you’re not looking carefully, you might even miss the small neon "Sweet Mama’s" sign on the restaurant’s Seventh Avenue facade. Sweet Mama’s is narrow, especially in comparison to its close neighbor, Starbucks, with its commanding breadth and corporate status. It would be hard for two establishments to be more divergent in feel and attitude.

Sweet Mama’s is deliciously cozy and engagingly home hewn.

"We gutted everything ourselves," Mangrum says in her thick southern drawl, of the long, narrow space with a bar and kitchen in the very back. "I got all my friends here to help me and we finished the interior in three weeks. We exposed the brick, put up the tin ceiling, wood-paneled that wall."

One entire wall is exposed brick with small areas of remaining plaster stenciled in subtle pink floral designs, the opposite wall has been elegantly wood paneled with pieces of parquet flooring, and the ceiling is Victorian gray tin. Mangrum, in leopard-print cowboy hat, T-shirt and jeans, cooks at the open grill in the back while bluegrass music lulls you into laid-back Southern mode.

The small tables are covered with checkered tablecloths in blue-and-white and red-and-white with a little tin candleholder on each. There are black-and-white photographs of southern farm life, and from the center of the ceiling hang a huge watering can, a handsaw and an old milking bucket. Mismatched wooden chairs and old, iron garden furniture complete the scene.

"Everything that’s in here came from my apartment," Mangrum says proudly. The overall effect is warm and welcoming.

The food is as true as the decor. This is not subtle fare, nor is it fused with any other cuisine - it’s straight-up southern cooking.

Appetizers include fried dill pickles, fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grit cakes. As one who had never indulged in fried pickles, I was surprised at how good they were, delicately fried with their own fresh crispness intact inside the batter.

The shrimp and grit cakes had a lovely flavor, as did the okra beignets (fritters), though you may have to have southern roots to appreciate the beignet’s gooey texture and the cakes’ mushiness. Hushpuppies, fried chicken and mac and cheese were good, but offered no surprises, while the tender and juicy barbecued ribs, delicately crisp catfish fried in cornmeal and the cabbage with ham were outstanding.

The potatoes were hand-mashed to perfection with the skins. Other vegetables were overcooked in good old-fashioned southern style - green beans, creamed corn and black-eyed peas.

Desserts - including pecan pie and chocolate cake - were too sweet and not very flavorful.

Overall, Sweet Mama’s is a great place to go for a relaxing home-cooked southern meal. Make sure you talk to Mangrum, who is a delightful combination of wide-eyed-and-bushy-tailed country girl and savvy New Yorker. Indeed, she bridges the gap between her two worlds with grace.

"When I go back to Tennessee, my family wants me to cook them New York food," said Mangrum. "Last visit, I took them lox and bagels. They went crazy - just loved it."

But here in Brooklyn, allow her to do what she does best, simple southern fare she learned from her mama and her sweet grand mama.

Sweet Mama’s is located at 68 Seventh Ave. at Garfield Place. Closed Mondays. Cash only. For more information, call (718) 768-8766.

 

Fat Tuesday events

Two Boots restaurant invites you to "travel to Bourbon Street without leaving the Slope" - Park Slope that is. On Tuesday, Feb. 27, Two Boots, 514 Second St. at Seventh Avenue, promises a Mardi Gras menu of crawfish, gumbo, BBQ alligator, jambalaya and King Cake. Wash your troubles, and your gumbo, away with Cajun martinis and Abita beer!

Your pre-Lenten dinner will be followed by Zydeco swing and Cajun two-step performed by the VoodooBillies, who take the stage at 9 pm. There is no cover and no minimum. Wear a costume or mask and Two Boots will treat you to a complimentary hurricane. Reservations are recommended. Call (718) 499-3253.

Also on Fat Tuesday, the Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims promises no less than "Mardi Gras Madness" beginning at 7:30 pm.

British concert organist Carol Williams and Plymouth’s own Minister of Music Peter Stoltzfus combine to offer a fun, family oriented musical program.

The two organists - together on one bench - will perform Prelude, Fugue and Variation for organ and piano by Cesar Franck, a duet for four feet and no hands, toccatas, and more for this third annual Mardi Gras performance.

The festive event takes place at Plymouth Church, 75 Hicks St. at Orange Street in Brooklyn Heights. A reception follows the performance. General admission tickets are $15, $10 seniors and students with college ID and younger. Tickets go on sale at 7 pm.

On Feb. 24th, Brooklyn youth ages 2-12 are invited to a Mardi Gras magic show starring King Henry with a supporting cast of face painters and balloon makers. The entertainment takes place from 1:30 to 3:30 pm at the New Utrecht Reformed Church [18th Avenue between 83rd and 84th streets, (718) 448-1544] in Bensonhurst. $2 donation requested.

- Lisa J. Curtis

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