Big Mama, a.k.a. Brenda Franklin, is not big, but she is a mama to three children — Vamar, Eboni and Shahid — and 12 grandchildren. Her extended family, her customers, includes cops, taxi drivers, Steelers, district attorneys and firefighters. And her Butterfinger cheesecake, pulled pork, mac and cheese and sweet-potato pie protect her from arrest, prosecution or rib-crushing tackles.
Big Mama’s House of Soul, which is primarily take-out and delivery, is a smallish space steps away from the intersection of Penn Avenue and the 16th Street Bridge, in the Strip District. (In season, there are a couple picnic tables set up outside). A reverend as well as a gospel and jazz singer, Mama sang with Roger Humphries, Dwayne Dolphin and Pete Henderson in the 1980s. Now her group is George Diller, her assistant chef, and her children, who work with her in the kitchen.
In the few months since her restaurant opened, her ribs — cooked on an outdoor grill for an hour, wrapped in foil then baked in a convection oven for an hour before returning to the grill — have already captivated her customers, who’ve found her by word of mouth.
The morning I stopped by, a man in his 30s sheepishly walked in. The joint hadn’t officially opened yet, and though he knew he was early, he hoped she might have something in the oven. She did: a peach cobbler, molten and bubbly and browned. Her ribs weren’t ready yet, so she offered him a “Mama’s Soul Burger,” made with peppers, egg and seasonings. “It’ll be about 10 minutes, honey,” Mama told him. She passed him a cup of her cornbread seafood stuffing to hold him over.
Santonio Holmes, her “baby” and the Steelers’ wide receiver, also opens wide for Mama’s ribs, though she says he typically requests the mild version of her secret sauce. For this, he has felt Mama’s culinary disapproval, telling him that of her three sauces — mild, hot and “Are You Crazy Hot” — little old ladies half his size opt for the insanity.
Seventeen ingredients, meanwhile, comprise “Big Mama’s Soppin’ Sauce,” a secret so closely guarded that customers are shooed outside until the covert operation of preparing it is complete. She’d use the business end of her giant rolling pin if she had to.
Among her customers are Strip District stalwarts Bob Wholey, with whom she has danced in the packed waiting area, and “Mr. Sunseri — you know, who smokes those big cigars.
“Mr. Sunseri once told me that my cookin’ was the biggest temptation since the Garden of Eden,” Mama says, laughing.
“I’ve been cooking all my days,” she adds. “I’m blessed to hear that.”
Big Mama’s House of Soul. 1603 Penn Ave., Strip District, 412-471-2910