The South Rises Again

Cambridge's Hungry Mother serves up terrific fixin's from below the Mason-Dixon. Just don't expect pulled pork or fried chicken.

hungry mother

Photo by Heath Robbins

In my dreams, I wake up every morning to freshly made biscuits, angel-light with leaf lard, fork-split and thickly buttered on one side, filled with a prosciutto-thin slice of savory country ham.

Boston, at long last, has a restaurant that knows the subtle dreaminess of good southern cooking: Hungry Mother, whose chef and co-owner, Barry Maiden, grew up in Marion, Virginia, near Hungry Mother State Park. That park’s picture and a wallpaper of pages from Mastering the Art of French Cooking and The Virginia Housewife announce Hungry Mother’s dual southern and French allegiances. Combined with the earnest, just-out-of-grad-school look of the other co-owners—John Kessen, Rachel Miller Munzer, and Alon Munzer— the restaurant has the feel of a thesis project. But the quality and assurance of the food attest to the professional experience of all four owners. And they’ve already given me a new breakfast dream: corn sticks hot out of the cast-iron pan with a blackened, buttery crust and a tender, moist center, slathered
with butter and sorghum syrup—the juice of sorghum cane boiled down till it’s amber and slightly smoky.

I have other dreams as well, chiefly centered on deviled eggs and shrimp and grits. Both dishes exemplify the high bar for technique and ingredients that can make preparing southern food a lot harder than it looks. Sure, deviled eggs can be a snap—until you try to make them taste as good as Maiden’s. First, find very fresh farm eggs. Figure out how to boil them so you can peel off the shell (never easy with fresh eggs) and keep the white pristine. Mash the yolk not with a fork but through a fine-mesh sieve, and lighten it not with Hellmann’s but with lemony homemade mayonnaise. Season with paprika and Dijon mustard, and add a few drops of juice from bread-and-butter pickles for just the right sweet-and-sour touch. Garnish with crisp little sticks of bacon cured with brown sugar and smoked over hickory and apple wood, not too salty and not too sweet. Tired yet? You can see why Maiden told me, “We ought to charge $10 for those eggs, not $4.”

You won’t find fried chicken, sugary yellow cornbread out of a sheet pan (that’s for Yankees—southern cornbread is white and hardly sweetened), or abundant barbecue on the menu. And the barbecued Berkshire pork ribs ($10) might not conform to your southern expectations: They’re less sloppy than we’re used to up north, where cooks often seem to view southern food in a funhouse mirror. But the quality of the meat and the care in its preparation will win you over, and so will the homemade accoutrements served on the side: those fresh corn sticks and the sweet-and-sour southern relish called chow-chow. Similarly ubiquitous in the South are boiled, rather than roasted, Virginia peanuts ($3). Peanuts are legumes, not tree nuts, and boiling them (for three hours, in Maiden’s recipe—this isn’t a guy who takes shortcuts) brings out their creaminess. Peeling them and popping them is as lulling and addictive as it is with edamame. They make for a perfect bar snack.

Hungry Mother does have a dish almost as emblematic of the South as fried chicken, and it’s the single most successful item on the menu: shrimp and grits ($9), the low-country South Carolina classic. Here, the shrimp actually taste like shrimp, which too few Gulf shrimp do, with sweetness, crunch, and the flavor of the sea. Maiden also makes it easy to get used to grits, which seem like creamy porridge to northerners, by making them with just water, butter, and salt, leaving out the milk (he uses stone-ground white grits, of course). They’re topped with a superior, Creole-style sauce that starts with blackened roux and a homemade stock base spiked with Fisherman’s lager, and gets plenty of red peppers, garlic, onions, Tabasco, Worcestershire, and homemade tasso ham, the Cajun specialty heavy in cayenne and garlic.

If I have reservations about the food, it’s that there’s too much butter and salt, habits Maiden likely acquired as sous chef at Sel de la Terre (where he worked with Kessen) and while training with L’Espalier’s owner, Frank McClelland, and Michael Leviton at Lumière. Take the cornmeal-battered catfish ($17), fried in butter and served with mustard-caper brown butter, collards sautéed in butter, and rice “middlins”—sticky Carolina rice, cooked like a pilaf with lots of butter. The collards were way too French for the southerners I dined with, who compared notes on how their mothers made them: These were absurdly crunchy, with butter instead of smoky, salty ham hock, and oddly seasoned with garlic and lemon juice.

As at Sel de la Terre, there are Provençal touches, like olive tapenade, arugula, and smoked sea salt with the grilled bluefish ($24), the Northeast’s best and richest-flavored fish. The gnocchi ($17) is made French-style, with a cream puff batter of butter, eggs, and flour rather than potatoes, and served in a rich mushroom sauce. It’s awfully buttery and not very southern, but quite good, with seasonal ingredients like mushrooms and fresh peas and pea tendrils cooked with a delicacy any Virginia housewife would appreciate. The most southern main course is roast chicken with olive oil–sautéed asparagus and red-eye gravy ($18)—and it was also my favorite, for the Giannone farm chicken that was moist yet with crisp skin, something of a technical triumph.

Desserts, a glory of the southern kitchen, are a slight letdown, if only because of the abundant near-greatness in what comes before (and at such good prices). The old-fashioned chocolate cake ($7) might qualify as old-fashioned New York deli cake, but its stiff, thin, almost tortelike layers are less tender and gooey than those in the usual southern iteration, which are cake pan height. While the rhubarb sorbet ($6) is textbook perfection—it has an ideal smooth-but-not-icy texture and real rhubarb flavor—it’s pretty dull paired with honeyed cream. Better to try the buttermilk pie ($7) or the bourbon-pecan sticky bun with grainy but great sorghum ice cream ($7), a classy homemade version that will put you off Cinnabon for good.

Like the collard greens, that pie inspired impassioned discussions among my southern friends, who all agreed that the stiff, not-too-sweet custard was pretty close to what their mothers made, even if the individual tart shell and graham cracker crust were far too fancified. I liked it fine, and was pleased—though not surprised—to hear that Maiden makes his own graham crackers, just to break up and whirl with butter into a crust. Hungry Mother pays attention to everything.