I've been traveling up and down Interstate 75 and back and forth along Interstate 40 covering the big drought down in Tennessee and Georgia. By the time I arrived in Atlanta, I was pretty-darned thirsty. So I decided to head over to one of my favorite restaurants in Georgia's capital city --- Mary Mac's Tea Room. It's the best place to get classic southern cooking in town -- from fried green tomatoes to country fried steak and gravy.
The restaurant is on Ponce de Leon Avenue, just up the road from the Fox Theatre. I've always enjoyed the way Georgian's pronounce Ponce de Leon ---with the emphasis on Leon --- as in "Hey, Cousin Leon!" It must make the French squirm in their soufflés.
At Mary Mac's Tea Room they treat everybody like family --- Miss Jo sees to that. She's the official director of hospitality at Mary Mac's. She dishes out plenty of hugs and backrubs to the customers --- and if you're real nice, she'll sneak you an extra vegetable on your meat-and-three.
Miss Jo saw that I was eating alone and promptly pulled over a chair and joined me for lunch --- regaling me with stories of Mary Mac's amazing history.
Over a heaping plate of country fried steak, fresh cut corn, squash casserole and sweet potato souffle, Miss Jo told me about the time a streaker showed up for lunch. He was a Georgia Tech boy (which seemed to make sense). "He acted just as normal as he could be," she recalled. "He was sitting next to these two older ladies and had all this Elvis memorabilia. Then, he just got up and pulled everything off." And she meant everything!
Apparently the boy wasn't all that much to look at but one of the cooks popped out of the kitchen and brought the streaker an apron. "It only covered the front," Miss Jo told me. "And he was just running around the dining room with that little white butt just a shining!"
It just so happened that two detectives from the Atlanta Police Department were in the tea room. They interrupted their lunch long enough to dispatch the young fellow out the door and onto Ponce de Leon Avenue -- much to the chagrin of the two little old ladies. "They asked the police officers, 'Why'd you do that? That's the best thing we've seen in years.'"
It's a safe bet that Mary Mac's has fed most of north Georgia --- along with some fairly well-known folks like Richard Gere, Jessica Tandy and Cher. James Brown was a regular. Political types have been known to show their faces, too --- like President Carter (or Mr. Jimmy as Miss Jo likes to call him) And Governor Sonny Perdue has broken bread at the team room, too. "He's a good eater," said Miss Jo. "You can look at him and tell he is."
There's a tradition at Mary Mac's --- every first time guest gets a free bowl of pot-likker and a piece of crackling corn bread. Since I'm a Baptist and don't drink, I politely declined the offer years ago during my first visit --- solely on denominational grounds.
"No ma'am," I told her, "I'm a Baptist."
I confessed to my culinary transgression as Miss Jo marched back to the kitchen to rectify the situation. A few minutes later, I was surrounded by a few other waitresses as Miss Jo presented me with the pot likker. "It's okay, honey," she said, "We're family."
Well, if you can't get drunk with family, who can you get drunk with? Besides, who was I to mess with tradition? I figured, I'm a Baptist and we do believe in once saved, always saved --- so it was bottoms up!
I tasted a lot of stuff in that bowl --- but no liquor. As it happens, there's not really any booze in pot likker. But after that first taste, it sure will make your inside's tingle.
Pot-likker is the left-over juice from a pot of collard greens. At Mary Mac's, they season it up with salt and pepper, and pour it into a little bowl with a few collard greens resting on the bottom. My first mistake was trying to eat it like a soup.
"You ain't eating that right, honey." I'm going to stop here and confess that I am lacking in the way of the collard. But fortunately, Miss Jo set me straight. "You've gotta take that cracklin' corn bread and plop it in the pot-likker," she said. "Then, you break it up and pour some hot pepper sauce in there." I followed her directions to the letter --- and folks, I must say, that was some mighty fine eating. (And with a few extra doses of pepper sauce -- you'll forget all about what troubles you.)
After slurping out the last ounce of pot likker, I looked up and saw Miss Jo beaming. I had feasted upon the pot-likker and it was good. I said my goodbyes and was about to head out the door when I asked Miss Jo whatever happened to the streaker. No one knows quite for sure. The police records are probably long gone. But if that had been me --- I would have blamed it all on the pot-likker. It'll make you do really strange things.