East End Stories: Ella Brown - Nanny's Time

  By , on his site athttp://www.michaelcorcoran.net/east-austin-history

(from 2003 Austin American Statesman)



Sunday always meant supper at Ella “Nanny” Brown’s house in the St. John’s neighborhood in Northeast Austin. After church, Nanny would continue the tradition started by her mother Minnie “Granny” Shaw, now 88, and serve up quite a spread for relatives and neighbors. The feast often contained smothered pork chops, meatloaf, chicken and dumplings, cabbage, pigs feet, sweet potatoes, biscuits and cornbread, topped off by her trademark vinegar cobbler and German chocolate cake. Police officers were welcome, and they’d often stop by for this scrumptiously backyard banquet. As Ella and her three daughters would be cleaning up in the kitchen, guests would invariably pop in and say, “You know, Nanny, you really oughta open up your own restaurant,” and the small woman with the big brown eyes would nod.

“Ever since I was this high,” the 68-year-old great-grandmother says, placing her hand at about thigh length, “I wanted to have my own place.”

And for the past year, she has. From the humid kitchen of Nanny’s Home Cooked Food, which opened May 2002 at the corner of Rosewood Avenue and Chicon Street, Ella stirs the ingredients of her cornbread and recalls, with a laugh, the first time she cooked. She was 6 and tried to make a raisin pie for her father. But instead of the vanilla extract she watched her mother use, Ella reached for a bottle of liniment oil. “My father said, ‘I know you were tryin’, honey, but I just can’t eat this.’ I was just so sad.”

But Nanny kept at it until, as a teenager, she was as good a cook as her mother. “Everybody’s got something about them that they can do better than anyone else,” she says. “And I was always known as a cook.”

When she left her job cooking at the Martin Luther King Hospital in Dallas in 1983, Nanny said she’d never cook for anyone besides herself again. Before moving to Dallas with her family in 1970, she’d worked in Austin at the Ellis Cafe, Luby’s, Chuckwagon Restaurant, St. David’s Hospital and other eateries.

Nanny and her daughters worked 12-hour days, but couldn't save the restaurant, which is now the site of Nubian Queen Lola's.

Cooking was always a job that came easy to her. But she missed the satisfaction of preparing meals her way, with her recipes, for a room full of people who savored the food as a sacrament, who came from all over to eat because it was Nanny who was cooking.

From 1983 until 2001, Nanny worked as a domestic for a few families in West Lake Hills. She did the cleaning and raised kids and, occasionally, she’d bake a cake or make peach cobbler for a special occasion. But she tired of the commute, was unfulfilled by the work and retired.

Then, one day last year, her daughter Claudia Brown, who works for the Austin Police Department, came across a storefront at 1815 Rosewood Ave. with a “For Rent” sign in the window. A former ice cream shop that had been empty for years, the place was piled with junk and layered with dirt and grime. Nanny was a little taken aback by the mess at first, but she could see beyond the dusty clutter and visualize a homey kitchen where she could cook and a small dining area where the folks would eat her food and make her feel better by coming back.

Youngest daughter Jessie Mae Brown, who runs the Noticeable Difference cleaning service, got one of her clients, the Sunrise Community Church, to donate tables and chairs for the dining room. The Browns also found a couple of used stoves, though one of them doesn’t work anymore and the other’s oven door doesn’t have handles, so Nanny has to pry it open from the side. All told, the family scraped together $6,000 to help Nanny fulfill her childhood goal.

“I was here every day when she first opened,” says local tavern owner R.G. “Rabbit” Duran, who sat down to lunch at Nanny’s recently with friend Martin Rangel. Patting his stomach, he adds that he had to cut down to twice a week because he was gaining weight. With its menu of meats smothered in gravy and rich mashed potatoes, Nanny’s is not for dieters. This isn’t heart food, it’s soul food.

“Nothing here is instant, it’s all home-cooked,” Duran says.

But on a recent Wednesday, Duran and Rangel were the only lunchtime diners at Nanny’s. Business has been slow, says Nanny’s brother John Shaw, who runs the big barbecue pit in the back. They tried serving breakfast, Nanny’s forte, according to Shaw, but nobody came in. They opened on Saturday’s for a while, but the income barely covered utility bills.

Nanny’s oldest daughter, Linda Coleman, who often runs the counter, aided by her 6-year-old grandson, Xavier, says $200 is a good day at the restaurant, which doesn’t have a prominent sign, so it’s easy to miss.

But word of mouth, especially from office workers west of Interstate 35, is starting to make a difference. “Just the other day, we didn’t have no one in here and then about 12 people came in together,” says Nanny. “We were scrambling around there for a few minutes, but afterwards every one of them came over and said how much they liked the food.”

It’s hard work, running a restaurant, and Nanny arrives at about 7:15 a.m. to start preparing the food and making sure everything’s in running order. By 9, all the day’s main dishes are in the oven, and then she starts making her biscuits and cornbread. Nanny’s work day isn’t over until 5:30 or 6 p.m., as she, Linda and John scrub the place good.

“I never get tired when I’m working,” says Nanny. “There ain’t no time for that, but sometimes after a long day, I’ll slow down and rest and that’s when my feet start throbbing or my legs feel sore.”

Nanny says she’s got an alarm clock built into her mind. “I’ve woken up at 5:30 in the morning every day, for as long as I can remember.” Her mother woke up every morning at 5 to make breakfast for her husband, a truck driver, and the smell of cheese grits, pork chops and eggs would stir the young Ella from her slumber and she’d soon be in the kitchen helping her mother. “Ella was always hanging on our mother’s dress tail,” John says with a laugh.

Cosmetology was a way to make money after graduating from high school, so after taking hair and makeup courses, young Ella worked for several years at a beauty shop in East Austin. Then came the succession of cook jobs.

It was on her return to Austin from Dallas, after the 1982 death of her husband, Everett, that she got the nickname “Nanny” from her grandchildren, who now number eight. “See, we used to always call my mom, ‘M’dear,’ ” says Linda, “but then our kids were always going ‘Nanny, Nanny, Nanny’ when they’d see her and it stuck for all of us.”

Now if she would only write down some of her recipes so those grandchildren might one day carry on. “All her recipes are in her head,” says her brother. “I keep telling her that if anything happened to her, we wouldn’t have nothing but hot dogs and brisket on the menu.”

Everyone wants to know the secret to the icing on her German chocolate cake. They want to know how she makes such flavorful gravy. Nanny remains stubborn on the subject. “When you’re a cook, your secrets are what sets you apart,” she says.

Nosy guests occasionally will come in the kitchen while she’s cooking at home and make mental notes of her ingredients. “Sometimes I’ll have them fetch something from the fridge and then I’ll throw in some spices when they’re not watching,” she says.

She says she does plan to one day compile her recipes to pass them on. Meanwhile, she sits down at her restaurant after a long day and says, “I’m gonna keep doing this until I’m old.”