Each at 60 years of age, it was love at first sight for an Atlanta hotel bartender and a weary conventioneer from Nashville.
Gayle Houston, a former elementary school social worker, was attending a conference at an Atlanta Doubletree, when she decided to go to the bar for a glass of wine before retiring for the night to her room. Behind the counter, she found Sam Houston.
"He was playing really groovy music and dancing by himself. I said to myself, 'You know what? I am always in my adult mode. It's time to be a little childish,' so I got up and started dancing with him," Gayle Houston said. "He got on the microphone in front of everyone and said, 'This is my future wife.'"
Her response to the two-stepping Romeo and a curious audience: "Excuse me, sir, I don't even know your name, and I'll be wife number what?"
Houston told her she'd be wife number two. And a year later after countless phone calls and a long-distance courtship — just as the bartender had vowed — Gayle Reed became Gayle Houston.
Nashvillians will soon know of the Houstons' romance as the impetus for the city's first fried chicken and waffles joint — an unlikely combination made popular in the 1930s in Harlem by musicians finishing work in the early morning hours and indecisive over whether to order dinner or breakfast food.
Chains, like Roscoe's House of Chicken N' Waffles and Gladys and Ron's Chicken and Waffles, brought the dish into the mainstream in major cities like Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis, Detroit, Houston and Dallas.
The Houstons, along with Gayle's son, Stephen Reed, recently opened Muddea's Famous Chicken and Waffles on Clarkesville Pike. Together, the new family has made the restaurant business a family affair, transforming an old McDonald's building into a restaurant on the ground floor and a full-service banquet hall in the basement.
The concept was Reed's brain child, and the Houstons opened their wallets, drawing cash saved during their more than 40 years a piece working. Reed, 36, mans the kitchen, Gayle, 62, the books and Sam, 62, manages the floor.
Where did the chicken and waffle combination come from?
Gayle Houston: It started in the Harlem age in the 1930s at the Wells Supper Club. The musicians would get off work in the early morning hours and they couldn't decide if they wanted dinner food or breakfast food, so someone [at Wells] decided, 'Let's do both!'
Why did you decide on the chicken and waffle idea?
Stephen Reed: I always knew the chicken and waffle concept was popular in big cities. we used to have a hot wings operation. It was more of a "to go" place. It seated maybe 12 people inside. It was on Jefferson Street, near the colleges. There was a big boom in the wing spots, a lot were clustered in the same area. I sold it, and I knew if I ever got back in the restaurant business, it would have to have a different concept and not just be another greasy spoon or meat and three. Being that so much time has passed and no one had a chicken and waffle place, we decided to go for it.
What does 'muddea' mean?
GH: Muddea is from the African American culture. It means, 'your nanna,' 'your big momma,' 'your memaw.' My muddea is 97-years-old, Aunt Anna. This is named in her honor. She lives with me now. She is our role model. My brother and I grew up with her living with my mother and father. She was our role model for stability, financial stability, dignity, confidence, managing your money and investing in opportunity even though her income was limited. We learned pride watching her. Her favorite saying was, 'A lady never goes out without a hat, pocket book and gloves.' That instilled pride, dignity, being your best, getting an education.
What is your favorite memory with your muddea?
GH: Cooking in the kitchen with her on Saturday afternoons. She'd make bunt cakes. We called them 'puddins.' I can remember her and that bowl and you could hear that spoon all through the house. She beat that batter — bam, bam, bam. We didn't have a TV, so we'd listen to The Shadow Knows or Dick Tracy on the radio while she made those puddins.
Where did your recipes come from?
SR: Most of it we grew up on. A couple we snatched from The Food Network, but the majority is stuff we ate in the house growing up, so it really isn't new to us.
GH: The Cordelia's waffles with strawberries and whipped cream, that was my mom's. On Saturday mornings we knew we'd have waffles with strawberries and whipped cream on top. Even now, before I go to church on Sundays, I give my mama and my auntie their waffles. The roles have reversed a bit.
What was your motivation to go into business for yourselves?
GH: My husband and I were looking to do a banquet facility, and we located a place on Fourth Avenue near the Symphony Center for a 350-person banquet hall, but it was going to cost us three times what we had budgeted for. Stephen sat us down and started talking to us about a chicken and waffles restaurant. We mulled it over. He said, 'Think of it like this: Low overhead, instant customers and in a year we can be our own banker for the banquet hall. We didn't know we'd have our own banquet hall underneath us.
SR: For me, it was a little more. Watching my mom as I grew up, she was always all business. She had the degrees. And, my perception of when you retire, is like the TV. It always shows people on boats or some island having a good time. It seemed like the money was just there. But nowadays, you see someone retire and the social security and retirement plans aren't what they were supposed to be, and it is a hard thing to swallow. I thought, 'We have to break the chain, and make our own money.'
When did you start the project?
GH: We signed the lease April 12. We've done a lot in four months. [Sam Houston] was the one buried in sawdust, the one down here at 7 a.m. and fussing at contractors and putting in long hours. I think one day I did ask, 'Are we sure we really want to do this?' It has been interesting working with the family and pulling everyone together. We go home tired, but it's a good tired, and you wake up the next morning and say, 'Let's go try it again.'
What kinds of food were you raised on?
GH: Soul food. I was born and raised in south Nashville on Ninth Avenue. When I was growing up, Jersey Farm Milk Company was on the corner of Eighth Avenue. The back of Jersey Farm was the front of my house. It amazes me that we lived in walking distance of downtown, but we had chickens in our backyard. If we wanted a chicken my dad would go out and wring one's neck and my mom would do the plucking. My folks had relatives who lived in the country — Franklin was in the country then — so we'd have wild rabbit, fresh turkey.
Sam Houston: Soul food. Chicken. Back in the day, we didn't have waffles, we had biscuits, pancakes, pork, beef, turnip greens, peas, tomatoes, tomato cobbler, molasses bread.
Is there a dish at Muddea's that you are most proud of?
GH: The chicken. It is awesome. It is Stephen's special blend of seasonings. It is his secret recipe — a flour-seasoning blend, fresh chicken parts, nothing is pre-battered or preprocessed. He won't even let me touch [the recipe] to put it in the safe.
What is your favorite cookbook?
GH: I use cookbooks. Cooking is just a passed-down tradition. You know how to do it because you watched your mom or your auntie putting it together and you were in the kitchen with them. It's not like modern times where everyone is on cell phones, computers, video games — the family was in the kitchen together so you learned. Even today, when my mom is sitting in my kitchen and I am fixing turnip greens, she knows I know how to do it because I watched her do it.
SH: I cook old school. I cook on the level of [Gayle's] mother even though my mother wasn't around. I was just thinking I was going to try my candied yams in the restaurant.
GH: You should see all the little old ladies at church get in line when they have a bake sale or it's the holidays. He makes pies on top of pies.
What is in your CD player?
SH: Ray Charles, Sam Cook, Black R&B, White R&B, jazz, country.
What do you eat on a normal day?
GH: I don't have normal days, but if I did, I'd have an omelet with some fruit for breakfast. At lunchtime, probably a nice salad, and for dinner, I eat mostly chicken and vegetables. My husband is largely a meat eater. He might get up in the morning and grab a couple cookies and go out the door. He starts his day with one cup of coffee. He'll eat his chicken, and he's got a sweet tooth so he loves the waffles and syrup. Last night he ate a little peanut butter and crackers and went to bed.
What is something you'd never eat?
GH: I would have said oysters, but I had Oysters Rockefeller and that wasn't bad. I had escargot, and said, 'Okay, that's okay.' I'd never eat that stuff daddy used to eat — calf brains scrambled with eggs. I don't even know if people still eat it. Daddy ate everything from the snout to the tail.
SH: I don't like duck, or most vegetables.
Where do you go out to eat?
Applebee's, or every now and then we'll go to Sonic for a cheeseburger. We'll go on a cheap date to Steak 'N Shake. We take it back to the 1950s and 60s, when you had those things to go to.
What would your last meal be?
GH: Just give me some good macaroni and cheese and some turnip greens.
SH: If my mama is cooking, my last meal would be candied yams, collard greens, ham, cornbread, spaghetti and meatballs. I could go on and on when it comes to my mom's cooking.
What are your guilty food pleasures?
SH: If we want it, we eat it. We don't feel guilty about it. We may say, 'We shouldn't be eating this at 10 p.m. at night,' but we do it anyway.
If you could be anything, what would your dream job be?
SH: We are on the verge of making ends meet in our old age. If the Lord blessed me to be successful, I'd like to do something for underprivileged people. Some people just need a hand. I'd like to do something for the community and get people off the streets — basketball, WiFi — get them interested in something other than standing on the streets.
GH: After 40 years in social work, I guess I am just tired. You go for the money.
What is a little known fact about each of you?
SH: I quit smoking in September after smoking for 50 years.
GH: I am twice a cancer survivor. Twenty years ago I had cervical cancer, and a year ago, kidney cancer. I am blessed with not having to have chemo or radiation. With surgery I was able to fight it. It was all about attitude, remaining calm, digging into my faith level, and letting God and the surgeons take over.
Muddea's Famous Chicken and Waffles
2805 Clarksville Pike, Nashville
(at the MetroCenter Boulevard split)