It’s noon at Cheryl’s Cafe in Spanish Fort and the chalkboard already has erasure marks. Pork chops are gone. No need to fret, however, there are still many options on the board. Such is the nature of the meat and three, where food options are available until they are sold out and early birds are rewarded with first dibs on the most popular items. Cheryl’s is bustling with customers of all sorts: workers in their paint-stained bibs and heavy boots, office workers in button-down shirts and ties, ponytailed moms in leggings and tennis shoes, and older ladies with white hair perfectly coiffed and lipstick meticulously applied. Everyone is greeted warmly here. Friendly servers informally shout, “Ya’ll come in! Sit wherever you like!” The atmosphere buzzes with conversation and the good cheer that comes from folks gathered for a satisfying meal.
Open only for weekday lunches, Cheryl’s is your classic meat and three restaurant. The chalkboard spells out daily specials, including several protein options – pick one – and a choice of sides of the starchy and veggie varieties – pick three. The combo creates a lunch fit for a hard day of manual labor, a stretch at the office, or a leisurely conversation with friends. Everything is made from scratch, no corners cut. And you can tell it with every bite.
More democratic than a blue plate special, where there is one fixed entrée and predetermined side dishes for the day, and less of a free-for-all than an all-you-can-eat buffet, the meat and three is a customizable Southern tradition. While food historians trace the origin of the meat and three to Nashville, variations can be found all over the South. The Bay area is no exception.
The idea of a hearty midday meal began with farmers and laborers in rural areas needing a heavy, home-cooked lunch to fuel their physically intense days. In time, the notion migrated into more urban areas and became a way for workers and city dwellers to have an affordable lunch served quickly, providing a taste of home before heading back to the office or the factory.
The signature vegetable sides reflect the eating patterns of rural farmers, who tended to eat whatever was in season. Squash casserole and field peas appear in June and July; stewed greens make their debut in the winter months. That said, there is no shame in “doctoring up” a can of green beans with some bacon drippings or using dried black-eyed peas. After all, canning and drying foods to eat later are parts of the farming tradition as well. Lest the variety of vegetables available make you think that this is a low-calorie deal, it’s not unusual for macaroni and cheese, chicken and dumplings or dressing to count as vegetables. And, if you weren’t already sold, who doesn’t want to live in a world where mac and cheese is a vegetable?
And while the meat and three is most often a down-home affair, it has had a resurgence in recent years, too. Across the Bay from Cheryl’s, patrons of The Noble South, in downtown Mobile, gather for more high-end fare. Light streaks in from the windows above the exposed brick walls. A long, well-stocked bar churns out craft cocktails to complement the dishes. Here, the service is friendly and helpful, but with a bit more formality to match the atmosphere. Diners, mostly business professionals and foodies, dine on a meat and three which features catfish, pork chops, chicken thighs and crab étouffée with sides of black-eyed peas, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and, of course, macaroni and cheese. The Noble South prides itself on fresh produce and meats from local sources, and promises unique flavor combinations, complex seasonings and inventive approaches. The black-eyed peas, for example, are pickled. It’s traditional Southern food — elevated.
Head west from Downtown and you’ll hit Mary’s Southern Cooking, where a line forms out the door come lunchtime. One patron describes it as “a small place with big flavors.” At this low-key establishment in a former Chinese restaurant, the entrees are served cafeteria-style with generous portions ladled into Styrofoam containers. This proves convenient since, with this much food, there’s bound to be leftovers. On Fridays, one can find anything from lasagna to hog maws, ox tails to fried fish. Tuesdays, among the many choices, are turkey necks and Tetrazzini. Mary’s Southern Cooking is the kind of eatery where you’ll find the foods that grandmaw used to make. Sundays after church are so busy, Mary has to close Saturdays and Mondays to give the staff a rest.
The impact of African American food traditions on the types of food served in a meat and three cannot be understated. Enslaved Africans brought with them foods such as rice, okra, and greens. They grew these foods in small gardens to supplement their diets. Typically, enslaved people would receive only small rations of meat, most often pork, which they used to season vegetables. Often, they would only be given the parts of a pig that were seen as less desirable such as ears, tails, hocks or feet. They learned through trial and error how to prepare these cuts in a flavorful, appetizing way. Mary’s Southern Cooking is one of the only restaurants in the Port City that still offers this cherished fare.
African Americans weren’t the only ones creating something delectable out of nothing. These practices were employed by poor, rural southerners of every race and heritage as well. Families had to make the most of food that was affordable and available. Ingenuity, born of poverty, created a new cuisine.
The meat and three is an embodiment of all of these cooking traditions on one plate, washed down with a glass of sweet tea and finished off with dessert.
Speaking of dessert, no meat and three dish is complete without it. Cakes: coconut, Italian crème, pound cake, caramel or chocolate layer. Pies: pecan to Snickers to sweet potato. And then there’s the banana pudding. Always banana pudding. Homemade, of course. But we will forgive a store-bought crust or a heaping swoosh of Cool-Whip across the top. After all, the essence of a meat and three is making the best of the ingredients that are available. It is about saying, yes, cheese is a vegetable. It’s about choosing your own culinary adventure. And it’s about bringing friends, family or coworkers to the table, and filling up.
CHECK THE CHALKBOARDS
6580 Spanish Fort Blvd., Spanish Fort
The Iron Skillet
19530 North 3rd St., Citronelle
Mama’s on Dauphin
220 Dauphin St., #2718, Mobile
Mary’s Southern Cooking
3011 Springhill Ave., Mobile
The Noble South
203 Dauphin St., Mobile
1015 Daphne Ave., Daphne