TUSCUMBIA—Momma Jean’s is a sleepy cafe out in the country. They serve hoecakes here. Not plain cornbread, but the stuff your granny made in a skillet.
It looks like a pancake, and tastes like a home run feels.
This is the kind food that would’ve made my uncle lick his lips and shout, “Go ahead on!”
Which is country talk.
My father would sometimes holler “Go ahead on!” at a preacher who was on a roll. It’s also a phrase that people shout at Little League games when cheering for their kids.
Sometimes, we shout it at wedding receptions when our eighty-three-year-old aunt is shaking her moneymaker to “Viva Las Vegas.”
And we say it when a cook has blessed our heart. It is an all-purpose phrase.
Momma Jean’s is your all-American joint with fried food, good veggies, and paper towels on the table. And I am so hungry I could eat a Presbyterian.
The old man in the booth behind me has tall hair. The elderly woman beside him has hair shaped like a helmet. They are saying grace. The man does the talking.
The woman chimes in, saying, “Yes, Lord.”
I overhear them praying for someone named Maria. Their prayer lasts a long time. Whoever this Maria is, these elderly people are not letting her be forgotten.
On the other side of the restaurant are a few men wearing neon work vests and boots. They are covered in dust and drinking iced tea.
When their food arrives, they hold hands and bow heads. After the prayer is over, a young Hispanic man makes the Sign of the Cross.
I’ve never seen so many people saying grace in one diner before.
I’m scanning the menu. This restaurant has it all. They serve pintos, collards, cabbage, catfish, chicken, and lemon icebox pie.
Lord have mercy. It’s been a hundred years since I’ve had lemon icebox pie.
The food on this menu is a trip backward on the timeline. It reminds me of a period in my youth when the greatest thing in life was supper.
My mother’s table was the highlight of every day. The Corningware dishes, steaming. The mashed potatoes. The chicken. The casseroles. And my mother, telling everyone to, “Go ahead on.”
And this is why the doctor is perpetually concerned about my HDL and LDL.
At a table beside us, a woman is with her three kids. She is feeding the baby while her other kids play with crayons
When the waitress delivers her food, the woman hushes her children. Then, she takes everyone by the hand and lowers her head. Everyone closes their eyes.
Finally, our food arrives. The smells make me lose composure. My wife looks at her plate with a smile. The hoecakes couldn’t look any better.
I know people who pay big money to sample the finest Bordeauxs, or eat at five-star restaurants. They can have it.
Give me homemade cornbread any day.
The waitress asks if there is anything else we need. We shake our heads, and I am about to dig in when I am interrupted by my wife.
“Look,” she says, pointing to the menu.
On the top of the menu’s page are the words: “PRAYERS FOR MARIA, FIGHTING LEUKEMIA.”
And for a moment, I have forgotten all about my food. My wife reaches her hand across the table, palm up. She says, “Let’s say few words for Maria.”
I let my wife do the honors because I’m not very good at public prayer.
We finish eating in record time. Lunch is exceptional. I have officially eaten the best meal I’ve had in weeks. My wife uses her hoecake to polish her plate. I am considering unbuttoning my pants to alleviate the pressure.
When I pay my bill, I notice a donation jar sitting beside the cash register. For Maria.
“What can you tell me about Maria?” I ask the cashier.
“Oh,” she says. “I can tell you she’s the mother-in-law of your waitress, and she has leukemia.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Heard she’s doing much better. They say she’s actually responding to treatment, getting around again, and it’s a miracle. Lotta people praying for her.”
I look around at the average customers in this American eatery. The table of men in work vests, laughing. The couple with the helmet hair, eating lemon icebox pie. The mother of three, feeding her toddler with a spoon.
Today, I counted fifteen people who folded their hands and said a few words before lunch. I don’t know these people, I don’t know what they believe, and I don’t know what their prayers were about. But I think I have a good idea who they were praying for.
Go ahead on, Maria.
Go ahead on.