Dargin McWhorter stood in the kitchen in Chattanooga, Tennessee paying close attention to the older lady’s words.
Miss Anna Mae had taken a liking to him. He was 12 years old and she was another neighbor on his block in the all-black neighborhood where he grew up.
Because she liked him, Miss Anna Mae decided she would share her secret BBQ sauce recipe with him, with one caveat. She would tell him what was in it, but not how much of each ingredient.
All the other kids in the neighborhood always begged Dargin to make the sauce. This helped him learn to perfect the recipe, which he finally did in 1978, and it became the staple sauce of Big Mama’s Inc.
Under the guidance of his mother, Emma Sue “Big Mama” McWhorter, Dargin and his wife opened their first restaurant, “Emma Sue’s Fish & BBQ” on Fair Oaks in Altadena, CA.
This was the first restaurant Dargin had ever opened, but it wasn’t the first in his family. Originally from Louisiana, his mother had two restaurants previously in Chattanooga in the 1950s.
Dargin’s eyes light up at the mention of his mother, who passed away nine years ago.
“She was barely five feet tall, but she was a tigress,” he said. “In the 40s she used to sell pots for people to cook in, and even back then she loved to cook.”
The moment you walk into Big Mamas Rib Shack on South Lake Avenue, your eye immediately goes to the huge portrait of “Big Mama” hanging on the wall above the mantle. There’s the sense that you’ve just walked into her home, rather than a restaurant.
The single room eatery has two rows of booths and several round and square top tables sprinkled around the room. A 42 inch flat screen TV hangs on the wall by the bar, showing Sunday afternoon football games.
Around the room other photos hang on the walls. A black and white photo of Bessie Smith on one, an old Louisiana Jazz photo on the other. Everything has a distinctly New Orleans vibe.
Although Big Mamas serves southern style soul food, which is known to be fattening, Dargin says his mother’s recipes were made to be healthy.
“Down south it was all meat in the veggies, the rice, fat back in the veggies,” he said. “Instead of using the meat to season, we use actual seasonings.”
Even before opening their restaurants, Dargin said that Big Mama “would try to cook things very healthy.”
Healthy is not what you expect the food to be when it comes to the table. The smothered chicken is two pieces of their signature southern fried chicken on a bed of white rice, and covered in a light gravy.
The perfectly seasoned chicken, which still has crunchy skin under the gravy, blends well with the flavors on the plate. This includes a side of warm cornbread, the smell of which hits your nose the minute it’s placed on the table.
The BBQ pork ribs remind you of the ribs your uncle cooks on the grill at the family BBQ. They have just the right amount of BBQ sauce, and meat so tender that it falls right off the bone with no effort.
The spiciness of the fried okra and black eyes peas blends well with the sweet flavor of the BBQ sauce.
As the restaurant begins to fill up for the after-church rush, Dargin begins taking tables with his son Darron. The gentlemen at the next table order their favorite items as usual.
“We come here all the time, this is our spot,” Dwayne Moore said. “Great food and I get to relax and watch my game because I can’t do that at home,” he says with a laugh.
While waiting for dessert—a smooth, delicious sweet potato pie with whipped cream—Dargin spoke more about their menu.
“It’s hard to find as much as we got anywhere else,” he said, referring to their expansive menu. Dargin notes that around the holidays, their biggest seller is the pork chitterlings, or “chitlins’.”.
Through the entirety of the visit, there’s never a sense that you’re eating out at a restaurant, but rather that you’re at a relative’s home for Sunday dinner or the annual family BBQ.
Even if you’re visiting for the first time, you feel like you’re spending the day with family, eating great food and having fun watching football or chatting with the other customers next to you.
When asked if Dargin has a favorite story or memory of his mother, he goes quiet for a long time. He sits quietly with a huge smile on his face, but the reflection from the slight tears in his eyes explains his silence.
“She was just a great mom,” he finally said. “There was no one like her … She found something people loved.”
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