When I first heard about Mama’s, I was just out of college and always on the lookout for good cheap eats. My NYU friends told me about this little food shop in the east village that served fresh heaping portions of stuff your mother cooked—and all for under ten bucks. While the prices may have gone up a bit, the quality and vibe is still interesting enough to warrant a visit when you’re in the neighborhood.
Because my mother is an Armenian woman from Cairo, Egypt, it was via Mama’s that I learned the American way with regard to home cooking. Take for instance, the idea of meatloaf with its compact humility and unpretentious propensity to feed the masses. That was the first class. Then there was the regality of Kale, Swiss Chard’s fire, and Butternut Squash’s intermittent mingling with a character from my part of the world, the good old pomegranate, mysterious gypsy rocker. Mama’s little university gave me fried chicken, yes, but it also gave me oh so much more.
Because the food was so good, it took me two or three visits before I noticed that every framed portrait or photograph that adorned the place was, indeed, somebody’s mother. There were what seemed like (when I first noticed them) hundreds of mothers at Mama’s, and, like Mona Lisa’s crazy band of aunts, they kept watch over me when I ate: The stern mother, the nurturer, the silly equestrian, the Dada artist…even a version of my mother upset at me for not finishing my cauliflower. You’ll never be rich, the voice from the wall chided, if you don’t finish what’s on your plate.
This strange variation on a theme was a Semerdjian family aphorism. (Armenians know too well about people starving in the world and, perhaps, search for new dinner table incentives that don’t bring up as many ghosts.) I finished my plate all right, but I never did get rich, not yet anyway. That might be a good thing though. Mama’s is not high culture dining. Sometimes the pedestal of money can elevate us above what we most need. Too high, we don’t smell the flavors of home, don’t see the love on our plate, and don’t stop in enough on mom even though doing so may be just what the doctor ordered for our 21st Century blues. mamasfoodshop.com.