Oxford residents have been to Boure, taken visiting friends to Big Bad Breakfast and frequented Ajax, but they may not have met Mama Jo Brassel.
The newly retired chef and owner of Mama Jo’s Country Cookin’ restaurant, located on the corner of Molly Barr and N. Lamar, greets each customer with a hello and smile.
When John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History wrote, “Within the South itself, no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctly characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character,” he could have been talking about Mama Jo.
His words are personified at Mama Jo’s, where each plate is a preservation of a history as rich as gravy. Mama Jo is dedicated to perfecting what she knows and what the patrons want.
“This is a country restaurant – soul food, mama cooking, what contains turnip greens, purple hull peas, sweet potatoes, cabbage, butter beans, pig feet, neck bone, chitterlings, ribs, country fried steak, hamburger steak,” said Mama Jo, describing the menu.
The smell of classics, such as fried chicken and pork seasoned green, hang in the air most days. However, the family-run business is always open to requests. Julia, Mama Jo’s sister, said when regulars ask for a specific dish they can usually have it in the next day.
Mama Jo sees her cooking as a gift rather than a learned skill.
“My cooking didn’t come from nobody,” she said. “I cook from a gift from God. He gave me that gift of cooking, I been cooking since I was 8 years old. Even as a little kid playing outdoors, I could pick berries or pick grass for my greens.”
Her first experience cooking was alongside her mother in the school cafeteria where she worked. By the time Mama Jo was 9, she was attempting to prepare her first dishes. It wasn’t long before she was able to cook an entire meal.
Her inspiration to open a restaurant came to fruition after seeing the 1991 movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes,” staring Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy and Mary Stuart Masterson. Mama Jo said the women in the film have a soul food restaurant that showed her she too could have success.
Her relationship with God is also influenced my her food. Using her talents in the kitchen as ministry, the Brassels enjoy sharing meals with their congregation.
“Every first Sunday, we bring food,” she said. “We have a church get together and bring a dish. We have a big fellowship.”
With the help of her three children, she opened the doors of Mama Jo’s Country Cooking in 1996. Her sister joined the team nine years later and has now taken over alongside her husband, Bo Brassel.
It is evident the Brassel’s passion and soul for Southern cooking has left an impact on Oxford and will continue to be a local favorite.
“It thrills me to see the joy what people see coming off that buffet,” she said. “I just get joy seeing when their eyes light up. They just don’t know what they want. They’re so many choices.”