Terrie Mangrum, owner of Sweet Mama’s in
Williamsburg and former runway and magazine ad model, is showing
me the tattoos on her arms.
One muscular biceps sports a busty nude - very bawdy, like you’d see on the arm of an old-time sailor - the other shows an elaborate, scrolled, hearts-and-flowers affair with the words "Mr. Terrie Mangrum" written in script.
"Why Mr. Terrie Mangrum?" I ask.
Mangrum laughs and then offers, "My mother asked me the same thing, and I said, ’Well, mom, I’m Mr. because I’m the boss!’" She also has tattoos on her stomach and back.
I took a good look at Mangrum’s face to reconcile my image of a glamorous model with this heavily tattooed woman who met me in her restaurant wearing an apron, a beat-up red straw cowboy hat that stood a foot over her head, and who shook my hand with a grip that nearly brought me to my knees.
At 38, she still possesses the sort of features that cause fashion stylists to drool: a perfectly oval face, prominent cheekbones, full lips and green eyes (real, no contacts), framed by unruly eyebrows that must have been hell to tweeze in her modeling days.
How did this former country bumpkin, who grew up on a tobacco farm in Bethesda, Tenn., with a population of "somewhere between 60 and 70 folks," end up sashaying her way down European runways?
"Oh, well, that’s a story!" she says. "My friend Doug moved up here and he said, ’Why don’t you come and live with me?’ and I said, ’Oh, no, I couldn’t. Well, alright!’ My parents were just, you know, none of them had ever left the farm. My grandmother had a fit!"
After selling her belongings, Mangrum headed to New York and moved in with her friend. To celebrate her first job as a clerk in a health food store (salary: $5 an hour), she and her roommate dined out. "We’re just twangin’ away, twangin’ and twangin,’ talkin’ up a storm in this restaurant, and a lady next to us asked, ’Where you all from?’ And I would talk to anyone back then. I’d talk to a post. She sat down with us; it turns out she was a scout for Click Models."
The agency hired Mangrum, and she began testing with photographers the next day.
"It was the craziest thing. I am not good lookin’ in Tennessee. I’m not blonde or blue eyed. I was just shocked," she said.
For some young women, being discovered and seeing their images in magazines would have been a dream come true. For Mangrum, modeling "just wasn’t me."
"Gee whiz," she said "the weight thin’! I couldn’t eat any good stuff. I stopped eatin’ pork. I stopped eatin’ meat. Nothing fried."
That wasn’t all that bothered her about modeling. "I remember the first time I had a photo shoot," she said. "I’m sitting there like this [her arms are straight out in front of her; her eyes are wide and frightened], and someone was paintin’ my fingernails, someone was curling my eyelashes, someone was fixin’ my hair - It didn’t feel right."
What felt right was cooking. Her mother and grandmother were great home cooks who shared their "Southern soul food" recipes with Mangrum. She longed to get behind the stove and introduce New Yorkers to the joys of fried dill pickles and fried green tomatoes, hush puppies (fried cornmeal fritters), chicken fried steak with milk gravy and Coca Cola ham.
Deciding to leave modeling was easy.
"The money was fine and I got to travel," she said, "but it never made me happy the way cookin’ did."
With no formal training it was necessary for Mangrum to intern in restaurant kitchens.
"I worked for the longest time for free before anyone would hire me," she said. After a short stint at Allie’s End in Manhattan, she was hired to create a southern-style menu at the Hog Pit in Chelsea. Her ribs and hushpuppies, fried chicken and church-supper potato salad garnered raves from customers, but it was the fried dill pickles that brought media attention.
A writer mentioned the pickles in the New York Post. Then the New York Times followed with a Prada-to-pickles Cinderella story focusing on Mangrum’s earlier modeling career.
"The write-ups about my cookin’, not the model part, was the biggest thrill I ever had," said Mangrum.
After a couple of years of dishing out ribs at the Hog Pit, Mangrum was ready for a restaurant of her own. With Manhattan rents being what they are, she settled into Park Slope with its comparatively reasonable rents and warm neighborhood feeling.
Her first Sweet Mama’s restaurant, named for her grandmother, opened on Seventh Avenue in 1999, and was an immediate success. The neighborhood responded to her down-home comfort food and the cozy space filled with mismatched tables and chairs. On Sundays, a line of sleepy-eyed parents with babies in strollers would wait patiently outside the restaurant for their turn to eat Coca-Cola baked ham and grits.
In late-2001, Mangrum was forced out of her space after her landlord brought her rent "up to market value," effectively tripling it.
Six months ago, after an extensive search for an affordable space, she reopened Sweet Mama’s at 569 Lorimer St. at Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg.
"This place didn’t look a thing like it does now. It was pretty much a cave. We gutted the whole thing, put down floors and painted," said Mangrum. "It’s decorated with things from the other restaurant."
The new restaurant has the same yard-sale chic as the first Sweet Mama’s - a long bar on one side with ’50s-style stools, a red-and-yellow checkerboard floor, wainscoted walls painted a pale green and enamel-topped tables. Outside is a garden with seating.
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Elvis’ death, Mangrum recently threw an "Elvis Family Reunion." Waitresses dressed a la Priscilla Presley with heavy eyeliner and puffy hairstyles; one waiter wore a safari-style, beige polyester leisure suit that "The King" would have coveted. Patrons, a mixture of new Williamsburg ("They’re very hipsterish. Very cool-catty over here," said Mangrum) and long-time, older residents wearing T-shirts with Elvis’ image lined the bar and crowded the tables.
Everyone rocked to the Rev. Vince Anderson and his choir. Anderson, bearded and dressed in a stars-and-stripes patterned shirt, began the evening by proclaiming, "Elvis loved Jesus. Elvis loved his mama. But he hated, that’s right he hated, Bob Dylan."
The menu of the evening featured Sweet Mama’s classics. Juicy meatloaf and home-style, buttery mashed potatoes - not gussied up with garlic - and a creamy macaroni and cheese made with small, shell-shaped pasta and a blend of smoked gouda, American and Swiss cheeses. Not overly lean pork ribs (a little fat keeps the ribs moist) could have been a little tangier, though.
The "blue suede shoe," a lethal cocktail made of blue curacao (an orange-flavored liqueur), pineapple juice and moonshine (pure grain alcohol) lowered the diners’ collective IQ a few points. Specials included Elvis’ favorite cholesterol nightmares - fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches, chicken livers in gravy and a sweet potato and apple pie with a flaky, buttery crust.
"It’s going really well here," said Mangrum. "I think when you’re doin’ the thing you’re supposed to do, then you’re havin’ the best time, and good things happen. When I was modeling, I was miserable. I was skinny, and sick, and hungry, and tired. Now I love my life. How many people get to say that?"
Sweet Mama’s (569 Lorimer St. at Metropolitan Avenue in Williamsburg) accepts Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Entrees: $8-$15.95. For reservations, call (718) 599-4444.