CINCINNATI -- The first and only time I tried to interview Maynie Tucker, who died Tuesday at age 97, it didn't go well.
It was 2013, and I'd flown to Cincinnati from New York to do a feature story on Tucker's restaurant for Saveur magazine. I'd grown up in Cincinnati and had begged my editor to let me write about the place that served some of the best diner food I'd ever tasted to the most diverse clientele in the city.
It wasn't the first or last time a national publication gave this unassuming Vine Street diner some love. Gourmet raved about its huevos rancheros in the early aughts, and Bon Appetit critic Andrew Knowlton wrote that the $2 burger at Tucker's was one of the best things he ate in 2014.
My story was going to be about the diner's resilience. It was going to be a celebration of how after Maynie and her late husband, Escom Garth (E.G.) Tucker, opened the first Tucker's location on 13th Street in 1946, it had weathered Over-the-Rhine's tumultuous transitions, from an Appalachian and African-American working-class neighborhood, to a desolate and forgotten one, to its current state as a trendy culinary destination.
Unfortunately, over the course of several visits to Tucker's that week, Maynie simply refused to talk to me.
"But, Mama (almost everyone called her Mama), that man from that magazine in New York is doing a story on us," a waitress pleaded with her. To which Maynie replied: "I don't care where he's from, I've got work to do!"
Mama always had work to do. There was no down time for her. There was no day of rest. Even in her early nineties, long after she had stopped cooking and handed the flat-top duties over to her son Joe Tucker and his wife, Carla, she kept at it: peeling potatoes at a table at the back of the dining room; keeping her eye on a pot in the kitchen; cleaning up an overlooked mess on the counter.
As the sign behind the register at Tucker's still reads: "If we ain't working hard, go tell Mama."
Mama, it seems, was never one for self promotion. She didn't care about shining the spotlight on herself. Look around the restaurant and you won't see many framed versions of the dozens of articles written about Tucker's over the years -- the kinds of profiles and appreciations that many chefs and restaurateurs spend their entire careers dreaming about.
"She didn't care about that stuff," Joe Tucker told me Wednesday. "She mostly cared about taking care of other people -- of making sure they were happy."
At Thanksgiving, Maynie and E.G. Tucker, who died in 2003, gave out free turkeys to those who couldn't afford them. They hosted fundraisers to a cover an uninsured customer's surgery or a retired waiter's funeral costs. They let people keep what were basically lifelong tabs, knowing full well they would never be settled.
Joe Tucker said Maynie's benevolence had a lot to do with where she came from.
"She grew up poor," he said. "She knew what it was like."
She also knew that pulling yourself up from the bootstraps wasn't always the answer: that sometimes, you need help.
'She could hardly crack an egg'
Maynie and E.G. Tucker arrived in Cincinnati in the early 1940s from Somerset, Kentucky, part of the great Appalachian migration that saw thousands of individuals from Kentucky and Tennessee head to cities like Cincinnati, Dayton, Ohio, and beyond looking for factory work after a family farm was land grabbed or a local coal mine was shuttered.
Back then, Over-the-Rhine had plenty of job opportunities. It was a working-class neighborhood, with factories churning out everything from soap to potato chips. E.G. Tucker found work in one of those factories, while Maynie landed a job at the Baldwin Piano Factory on Gilbert Avenue, where she later helped manufacture airplanes, Rosie the Riveter style, during World War II.
After the couple opened the 13th Street location in '46, they served both factory workers and neighborhood families around the clock. The dishes were hearty fare -- chicken and dumplings, chopped steak in tomato gravy -- made with the best ingredients they could afford. At first, cooking didn't come easy to Maynie, Joe Tucker told me.
"She could hardly crack an egg when she moved here," he said.
Growing up as one of 10 children, Maynie was known as a tomboy who spent more time chopping wood and picking tobacco than cooking supper.
"She let her sisters do that," Joe said, adding that, unlike E.G., Maynie also knew how to run a business. "She definitely wore the pants in the family."
Knowing prices had to stay low for their clientele, she would send E.G. to the back lots of Findlay Market at sundown to buy their produce at end-of-day discounts, then toward the Ohio River, where he visited the slaughterhouses, which sold scraps for nearly nothing.
Love, kindness is her legacy
Along with taking care of the community, Maynie also took care of her own. After the restaurant was up and running, she covered tuition for two of her brothers at the University of Cincinnati. (Both of them ended up spending decades teaching in Cincinnati high schools.)
Still, her most enduring legacy might be the love and kindness she showed her customers, especially those who needed that love and kindness the most.
"My parents used to bring me here when I was a kid," David McDonald, a customer who grew up in Over-the-Rhine during its darkest days, told me when I was working on the Saveur article. "Just to show me that someone still cared about us."
Sometimes I wish more people knew these things about Maynie, that her name would be spoken in the same breath as other female entrepreneurs who took care of and advocated for their communities, such as New Orleans' Leah Chase or New York's Sylvia Woods. I wish there were murals painted of her on Cincinnati buildings. I wish she had her own Wikipedia page.
Would Maynie want that kind of attention? Probably not. She was happy just going about her business, peeling her potatoes or slicing her mushrooms, saying a hello or two to the customers who cautiously approached her, making sure not to stick around too long, lest she get distracted from the task at hand.
Looking back on the Saveur article I wrote, I think her life's philosophy can be summed up in a little song she sang to me after I interviewed her. (Yes, I did finally interview her.) It's one she told me she loved when she was younger.
"'Oh, I don't know where you came from, 'cause I don't know where you been. But it really doesn't matter, grab a chair and fill your platter -- and dig, dig, dig right in."
No matter where you came from, no matter if you were black or white, a Muslim or a monk, Maynie Tucker was there for you. She was Cincinnati's Mama -- the one who took care of you, the one who fed you, the one who accepted you for who you were.
And now, after 97 years, it is time for Mama to let you go your own way, to say a last goodbye, to hope you've learned what she's taught you -- and to finally sit down and rest.
Tucker's family plans to hold a visitation for her from 10 a.m. to noon Monday, March 26, at Spring Grove Funeral Homes. Anyone wishing to pay their respects can do so at that time.