Robbie Montgomery isn’t about to stop making her customers’ favorites. Still, her pronouncement is almost a sacrilege, uttered just feet from Sweetie Pie’s steam tables:
“I’m burned out on mac and cheese.”
Hmmm. She’s talking about the beloved comfort dish Guy Fieri showcased on Food Network and the one selected for both a new book on soul food restaurants, “The People’s Place,” and Montgomery’s own “Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook” (Amistad, 211 pages, $28.99).
Of course making thousands of pounds a week of anything could turn off a cook. But the mac and cheese recipe is probably one of the cookbook’s top draws for many Sweetie Pie’s eaters, even if they won’t want to bother with a curious addition that Montgomery doesn’t actually follow: homemade “Better-Than-Velveeta Cheese Spread.” That recipe was suggested by her recipe tester and co-writer, Ramin Ganeshram of Connecticut. The packaged brand is fine, though, with Montgomery.
Still, the mac recipe isn’t the only reason to read “Sweetie Pie’s Cookbook.” Another would be the memories told in the personable style of the reality-show star. (The new season of “Welcome to Sweetie Pie’s” begins Nov. 21 on OWN.)
Even her dedication is delightful: “For my mom and pop, who were excellent cooks with amazing palates. For my sisters and brothers, who ate up every damn thing our parents prepared. Wish we were all still together.”
The Mississippi native, 75, learned to cook from her parents. No recipes were written down, but she had long ago reconstructed some for her restaurant workers and has reduced the amounts and slimmed down other recipes for the cookbook.
When her father, a railroad porter, got home, he’d sometimes cook liver and onions, or his special yellow cake with hot vanilla cream sauce. Her mother, Montgomery writes, “was a miracle worker, somehow stretching my dad’s paycheck six ways to Sunday.” When Robbie wanted what seemed like an upscale dish — stuffed peppers — her mom showed her that it was really a simple recipe with a meatloaf-type filling.
The family (Robbie was the eldest of nine children) was one of the first to move into the Pruitt-Igoe projects, a huge step up because the apartment had four bedrooms. Before that, they’d had three rooms total.
Montgomery also writes, of course, about her years as a backup singer to Ike and Tina Turner and later Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle, James Brown, Dr. John and others. While on the road with the Turners, she tired of eating sandwiches on the bus. So after collecting a couple of small appliances, Montgomery would make spaghetti and fried chicken in motels, serving the whole crew. “Trust me, if you can turn out soul food for 20 people on a hotplate and an electric skillet, then you know you’re good,” she writes.
At her restaurant on Delmar Boulevard, Montgomery says the cookbook was her son’s idea. Tim Norman is “young and inspired,” she says, and told her, “Mama, you could do it.” She appreciated help from a professional cookbook writer: “I didn’t know anything about writing a cookbook. It was more work than I ever imagined.”
She’s happy to share recipes for foods that young people tell her fondly remind them of their grandparents — and that they have no experience cooking.
“I want these recipes to be around.”
Which brings us to the third-best reason to read the cookbook. Many people have never made some of the dishes, such as chitlins, so the descriptions are fascinating. And where else would we find “Neck Bones Three Ways”?
Montgomery says one of her favorite dishes is Oxtail Soup. Oxtails are a special on Thursdays at Sweetie Pie’s, and the restaurant usually sells out of the 80 pounds prepared.
But if she has leftovers, Montgomery will take a good bowl of oxtail soup over mac and cheese.
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