Mamee’s Kitchen is the closest Jamaican restaurant in the area and is unique not only among Lee County restaurants, but among Jamaican restaurants, too.
Michael Anderson, a Jamaican-born Auburn University graduate and the owner of Mamee’s (pronounced “MOM-eez”) Kitchen, explained that no two Jamaicans cook alike.
“Every Jamaican cooks differently,” Anderson said. “You’re not gonna have one Jamaican cook the same [as I do].”
He cooks like his grandmother, mother and sister cooked when he was growing up. He is faithfully devoted to recreating the tastes that remind him of home.
“Back in the days, [we] couldn’t afford meat,” he said. “So when you steam the vegetable, you steam it for it to taste like meat. The cabbage is supposed to taste like meat when you finish it.”
He prepares cabbage that tastes like meat and meat that tastes good enough to warrant, according to Anderson, a 30 or 45-minute drive for people from nearby areas like Columbus, away from their more conveniently Authentic Jamaican located Jamaican dining options. He does so without his family recipe.
It’s not that his family members are clinging to their secret ratios of spices and herbs, but because there are no recipes that exist, at least not on paper, for what Anderson makes.
In fact, he’s offended and dismissive of any suggestion of a written set of instructions for, say, his curry goat.
“You don’t– no ‘two teaspoon of this,’ you don’t use no measurement,” Anderson said. “Taste and taste, taste constantly, make sure you have the right blend. You put a bit in, you taste, you go, ‘That’s enough.’ A real Jamaican don’t cook off a recipe.”
Pressed on what spice blend he uses on his jerk chicken, he chuckled and said, “If you’re not Jamaican, you’re not really gonna understand. But if you taste the food as an American,” he paused then delivered in a relaxed, steel-drums-in-the-background voice, “you will understand. You will taste the seasoning.”
He was equally evasive about the mixture used in “Island Punch,” which Anderson recommends drinking with every plate of food.
Anderson opened Mamee’s two and a half years ago after he retired from law enforcement. He was a corrections officer in Lee County for 10 years, and he’d spent eight years doing the same in New York and North Carolina.
“[Cooking is] a passion,” he said. “That’s why I left the department. Because you don’t know your gift until you try. You always doubt yourself. But if you’ve got a gift, you have to explore the gift. If you don’t use the gift, it should be taken away from you.”
It’s not surprising that Anderson is a preacher, and he said his faith has helped him tremendously with Mamee’s.
“This business is some serious business, and one mistake, the whole thing shuts down,” he said. “I have to give God thanks. I don’t even worry about slow days no more, I just know the door is open.”
Anderson credits his wife with supporting him in his desire to open a restaurant. He said that without her, there would be no Mamee’s.
“I was tired of working for other folks. Once I called my wife and my wife told me, ‘I got you,’ that’s all I needed.”
Anderson’s vision for the future of Mamee’s includes opening more locations.
He currently does all of the cooking for the restaurant, so that expansion is dependent on finding someone (a Jamaican, Anderson emphasized) who can at least come close to replicating what people have come to expect from Mamee’s: cabbage that tastes like meat, meat that is practically jumping off the bone and a flavor that can only be experienced, not explained.
“I don’t have the foot traffic, but it’s coming,” Anderson said. “I can feel it in my spirit. When people come here, they enjoy the food.”
Mamee’s is located at 16583 US-280 in Smiths Station – if you see a recipe, you’re in the wrong place.