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A TASTE OF AMERICA: MAMA LO’S IS CITADEL OF DOWN-HOME GRUB

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Lorene (Mama Lo) Alexander goes to the market each morning to find her vegetables. Back in her cafe, she sets the collards boiling, the squash steaming, the corn frying and the eggplant baking; then she sits down to write a few copies of the day's menu. They are inscribed with a ballpoint pen on a piece of blue-lined notebook paper; and they will be passed around the dining room until closing hour, by which time they will be limp and wrinkled, smudged, stained and torn. The exhausted menus get thrown away; the next morning, new ones will be written.

Mama Lo has been running her restaurant this way for 20 years, during which time she has become a folk hero among students at the nearby University of Florida, officers of the Gainesville police force, and a few canny travelers who have marked this place on their maps as a citadel of down-home cooking in north Florida.It's as unpretentious an eatery as you will find anywhere. The building is a whitewashed bunker with a small neon sign above the door that says "Mama Lo's." Inside, there are two wood-paneled rooms - one with a pool table, a jukebox and an arcade game; the other with a scattering of tables. You cannot spend more than $5 for a meal.

What you get for your money in this plebeian setting is a royal feast. For a main course, choose from among fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken and yellow rice, smoked sausage and syrup-sweet yams, stuffed pork chops, stuffed bell peppers, chitlins, meat loaf or fried fish. The vegetable list is approximately 18 items long. There are mustard or collard greens sopped in high-seasoned pot-likker; there is okra-tomato-corn succotash; there are potatoes and rice of all kinds; there are lima beans and buttered carrots; and of course, with every meal, there is cornbread. For dessert, Mama Lo makes pound cake, coconut cake and peach shortcake.

Although we do love her pork chops, our favorite thing to eat at Mama Lo's is an all-vegetable dinner. Each veggie comes in its own little dish; with that cornbread on the side, it can be an exhilarating meatless meal. The most spectacular of the vegetables are the casseroles. There is one made of broccoli, the recipe for which magically transforms the dour stalks of green into profound comfort food by combining them with a luxurious melange of eggs, cheese, sugar and cushiony white bread.

Then, too, there is Mama Lo's eggplant - another kitchen miracle that turns the common Southern side dish into a taste sensation. With nothing but a slab of cornbread on the side, this easy-to-make Southern specialty can be a memorable home-cooked dinner.

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Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, MO 64141.

(C) 1989 Universal Press Syndicate

Eggplant Casserole

2 medium eggplants, 12 to 14 ounces each

4 slices bacon

2 tablespoons butter

3/4 cup chopped onion

2/3 cup seasoned bread crumbs

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley

Salt to taste

1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake eggplants 45 minutes, until they can be pierced easily with a fork. (Leave oven on.) Peel and cut into 1-inch cubes.

Fry bacon in large skillet or saucepan. Remove bacon and drain on paper towels. Remove all but 2 tablespoons of bacon fat from skillet. Add butter. Saute onion in bacon fat and butter. When onion is limp but not yet brown, stir in 1/3 cup bread crumbs. Remove skillet from heat. Stir in chunks of eggplant, black pepper and parsley. Crumble bacon and add it to mixture. Finally, add salt to taste. (You may not need any if bacon is salty.)

Butter a 2-quart casserole or 9-by-9-inch baking dish. Spoon eggplant mixture into casserole. Top with a mixture of remaining bread crumbs and grated cheese. Bake uncovered 20 to 25 minutes until light brown on top.

Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish.