It's a cold, gray Wednesday afternoon, and 58-year-old Saray Israel-better known as Mama Saray- would normally be in class, working towards her certification in bartending and hospitality services. But today, she's scanning the aisles at Eddie's of Mt. Vernon, looking for the ingredients for her famous mac 'n' cheese. "Two blocks of extra-sharp cheddar and a one-pound bag of six-blend Italian; that's what you use to get the mac 'n' cheese just right," she says.
For the past year, Israel has spent Wednesday nights slinging home-cooked meals at the Depot to help draw a crowd on one of its slower nights. Tonight's fare consists of nine roasted chickens, pounds of candied yams, mashed potatoes, vegan rice, stuffed fish, and cooked greens. Just over 5 feet tall, Israel stands behind the dishes, wrapped in loose-fitting layers that conceal her tiny frame. Dreadlocks, partially covered by a golden scarf, hang below her waist, as she peels the foil from the chafing dishes, sending aromatic gusts of steam up into the air.
At first, the club's crowd of artists and musicians seems hesitant to approach the table in the same way that no one wants to be the first one to step onto the dance floor. When a customer finally approaches Israel, she starts to pile heaping mounds of food onto the Styrofoam plate until it begins to buckle.
Although she's only been at the Depot for a year, Israel has been a regular presence at concerts, bars, and parties since 1994, when her late husband, a master jeweler, began selling his work at the 8x10 in Federal Hill. One day, he was talking to a bouncer and mentioned Israel's cooking. The bouncer spoke to the club owner, and, without consulting Israel, they struck up a deal; before she knew it, her food had become a staple at the 8x10's Thursday reggae night.
But Israel's real start in the culinary arts can be traced back to the 1960s, when she was 4 years old and living in Sandtown, and her mother taught her to cook for her little sisters. "Back then it was simple stuff," she says. "Oatmeal, rice, mac 'n' cheese, you know, anything that wasn't too hard for a little girl to make." It's not that her mother wasn't willing to cook, but she wanted her eldest daughter to be prepared to provide for her sisters in the event that her mother passed away.
"My mom was terrible back in her day," she says. "She ain't take no stuff from anyone. She always had these boyfriends. You know, back in those days it was cool to smack your woman around. Ask your grandmother or your mother about it. They'll tell you. It wasn't nothing. There wasn't no charges to be filed or anything. It was just part of the culture. But when they smacked my mom, she would cut them. She didn't play. She'd hit you with whatever she could. She taught me how to survive, and she taught me how to burn." "Burn" is the word Israel uses to describe great cooking.
And Israel's family knew how to burn. Some of her fondest memories growing up were of the grand meals where family and friends would gather around the table during holidays and special occasions.
"It's not like that anymore though," she says. "Now my family has converted and become Jehovah's Witnesses, so they don't celebrate holidays anymore. It's bittersweet, because my mom has calmed down a lot, for the better. You would never have believed how much of a hellraiser she was back then, seeing her now. Still, I miss the big family meals we would have."
So the communion Israel finds with the bands she met at the 8x10, like Jimmie's Chicken Shack, Kelly Bell Band, and Can't Hang, is, in some sense, an opportunity to regain what she lost when her immediate and extended family traded parties for piety. On her 50th birthday, Israel's self-appointed relatives awarded her with the endearing title of "Mama."
"People I don't even know call me 'mama' and I love it," she says. "It makes me feel close to the people I cook for."
This sense of community is evident as the crowd around Israel grows, creating a bottleneck between the bar, the bathrooms, and the dancefloor. Israel is pleased as she scoops mountains of food onto the youngsters' plates, dancing with them and offering hugs. "I'm everyone's mama now," she says.