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Mardi Gras for Your Mouth

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Lagniappe--A Creole Cajun Joynt

1525 W. 79th

773-994-6375

Mary Madison is stingy with her cooking secrets. How does she make cake in a jar? "It's a canning process. Let's just leave it at that," she says. What does she put in her hot, sweet greens? "A lot of love, a lot of care." What about the cakelike corn bread? "It's nothing more than flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar, a little salt, and some eggs and milk. That's the recipe," she says. "So now the cat's out the bag."

In most other respects, though, Madison, who owns the Cajun and creole restaurant Lagniappe, seems generous to a fault. Several years ago a homeless man asked her for food while she was dining with friends in the Loop. That led to "this vision to have a buffet under Wacker Drive" to feed the homeless. Madison, a Beverly native, was working as a chemist for the Sherwin-Williams paint company at the time. She started cooking food she'd take downtown and serve to the homeless every other weekend. Her efforts became Be a Blessing Homeless Ministry, affiliated with Saint James African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Madison is a member.

Eventually Madison decided to leave her job to start a catering business. Her plan was to pursue her interest in the Cajun and creole cuisine she'd grown up with (her family comes from Louisiana) and to provide a permanent kitchen for the ministry's food preparation. But zoning requirements forced her to offer carryout in addition to catering. "I was thinking, 'We'll sell a couple of dinners across the counter,'" Madison says.

In September 2004 Lagniappe opened in Auburn-Gresham, a location Madison finds hard to explain. "God told me to go to this place on 79th Street, and I could not understand it," she says. "I would not have personally chosen that spot myself. It was a step of blind faith." Shortly afterward the restaurant was discovered by regulars on the Chicago culinary site LTHForum.com and began being talked up online. Slow but steady word of mouth led more and more diners to Madison's door; she estimates that at least half of her customers come from outside the neighborhood. Lagniappe now offers seating for about 20, and Madison is contemplating the creation of a separate catering division. She's making plans for a booth at this summer's Taste of Chicago, and in the next few months hopes to obtain her liquor license and offer outdoor seating and free WiFi. "My prayerful projected date is June 1," she says.

Lagniappe's menu is for the most part Cajun and creole. Entrees include chicken or shrimp creole, an etouffee of the day, jambalaya, and on Fridays shrimp, oyster, or catfish po'boys. (Vegetarian options are available on request.) Red beans and rice are available with or without a hunk of andouille sausage, brought up from Louisiana; side dishes range from dirty rice--made in what Madison calls the authentic way, with chicken spleen--to "candy sweets," candied sweet potatoes. Madison offers a few more generally southern dishes as well--fried green tomatoes, chicken wings and waffles, shrimp and grits, pulled pork sandwiches, and deep-fried turkey. Banana pudding is her most popular dessert, but there's also sweet potato pie, bread pudding, peach cobbler, and the mysterious cake in a jar. At a party hosted by the restaurant on Fat Tuesday, February 28 (part of the proceeds will go to victims of Hurricane Katrina), Madison will offer King Cake, a traditional Mardi Gras bread with green, purple, and yellow icing and baked with a baby Jesus figurine inside.

The only major snags Lagniappe has faced so far stemmed from factors outside Madison's control--the street construction that made parking nearby all but impossible for much of last year and her mother's illness and death last summer, when Madison was often forced to be out of town. During this time complaints about Lagniappe surfaced on LTHForum, but these were quelled once Madison returned, resumed her place in the kitchen, and posted a polite explanation of her absence on the site. Service at Lagniappe takes a while--expect to wait at least 20 minutes whether you're dining in or taking out--but it's courteous; the staff sirs and ma'ams everyone.

Madison still seems a bit surprised to be running a restaurant. "I can't help but see God in all of this," she says. "That something I took for granted as a hobby would have blossomed into something like this. . . . It hasn't been easy, but he has been faithful." She maintains the attitude that led her to begin feeding Wacker Drive's homeless five years ago: "'Well, Lord, if you mean for me to do it, you'll make a way.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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