Some call it love. Some call it magic. Some call it mac and cheese.
Grab a plate from Lincoln’s newest food trailer, Mary Ellen’s Food for the Soul, and you may find yourself comforted, satisfied, and maybe even a little bit loved.
That’s because food out of this trailer — ribs, turkey wings, collard greens, beans — comes from family recipes passed along from one generation to the next.
Open only on Fridays and Saturdays, the food trailer is a passion project of Lasunya Phillips, 44, and her husband, Charles, 46, who both work full-time jobs the rest of the week.
Following a trial run on Juneteenth, their red food trailer quietly opened for the first home Husker game of the season on Sept. 2, in front of the Grand Manse on the corner of Ninth and P streets.
"I'm not exactly doing it to become rich,” Charles said. “We've had so many conversations with so many people about not only food, but family and love, and places (food) brings you back to. That's more why I want to do it than selling somebody some food.”
Charles started cooking at a young age, making dinner for his two younger siblings when his parents were busy.
The Phillipses have spent years cooking for holidays — Fourth of July, Thanksgiving — and parties for family and friends. Their home-cooked meals were a hit with friends, who often would supply the ingredients if the Phillipses supplied the labor.
Approach their trailer — now located by 29th Street and Cornhusker Highway between House of Muffler and Window World — and the first thing you see is “Let us fix you a plate” posted by the front order window, along with a photo of Charles’ mother, Mary Ellen, who died in 2013.
“In both our families growing up, we'd always say, ‘Come on in, let us fix you a plate,’” Lasunya said. “It's one of those sayings. We've got food here, we're going to share it. It's part of feeding family and friends — nobody goes hungry.”
A plate, or meal deal, is one meat, two sides and cornbread for $12 or two meats, two sides and cornbread for $15. There were Game Day Packs this fall for $25 and $35.
Their food could be categorized as a Southern twist on barbecue, said Lasunya, who grew up in Arkansas but has lived in Lincoln for over two decades. "We've tried ribs all over, and kinda came out with our own style."
Meats include ribs, pulled pork, chicken, turkey legs and turkey wings. Sides include homemade mac and cheese, baked beans, collard greens and potato salad.
Like a lot of food Mary Ellen made in her life, the menu is simple, but tasty. Hearty, but not too rich.
Instead of processed, bright orange powder to suffice for cheese sauce, there’s a blend of three cheeses over shell pasta with a light seasoning. Instead of soggy green beans from a can, there’s collard greens simmered to perfection, with smoked pork bits mixed in for finger-licking flavor. Instead of standard, canned baked beans, there’s a punchy, bold BBQ flavor mixed with ground beef — highly addicting.
The photo of Mary Ellen’s face exudes plenty of character. Charles describes his mother as tough, but sweet and selfless. And straightforward with both her anger and her maternal affection.
“She was always straight, even if it was uncomfortable,” Charles recalled. “Everybody loved her.”
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The couple have a lot of good memories of Mary Ellen. Holidays and family parties. The time she made the best egg sandwiches of their life. The time she spontaneously made her own tartar sauce to go with fish. Simple, but whole.
“I didn't even know you could make tartar sauce,” Lasunya said. “That's kind of what she did. You got pickles, you got mayonnaise, you can make it.”
Charles nodded in agreement. "There were so many of those moments ... you just feel the love.”
Mary Ellen lives on through the food they cook, Lasunya said.
"I also love the people walking by saying her name," Charles said.
Other family members influence their food trailer menu. Lasunya learned how to make peach cobbler from her aunt, which they sell for $3 a slice. Charles’ grandma taught him to make roasted turkey wings, served hot, moist and steaming.
Mary Ellen’s Food for the Soul doesn’t hide the natural flavor of its core ingredients. Sugar doesn’t overpower the flavors of peaches and buttery crust in the cobbler. Smoke doesn’t overpower the pulled pork and its lightly peppered seasoning.
“What is food for the soul? It's comfort food. Food that made us happy,” says Lasunya.
Take a bite into their warm peach cobbler, and you can feel it.
“That feeling ... I call it ‘the stare,’” said Charles. "Good food, there's nothing like it, it's just a feeling."
Although the food is served fast to the customer from trays of prepared sides and meats, the food itself is cooked slowly.
Ribs are smoked for five hours, then cooked for up to another four hours. Brisket and pulled pork are smoked for 12 hours.
Sometimes they run out of food by Saturday, sometimes they have leftovers. Charles says there’s pros and cons to serving slow food.
“I can only have so much. It's not like a burger where you can just throw it on and it's done in three to four minutes," he said.
Their kids are grown and off with their own lives, so Charles and Lasunya depend on each other to operate the food trailer. Lasunya describes their husband-wife dynamic as “kind of a yin and yang.”
The first time they made turkey wings to serve, a few weeks into the Husker season, they ended up not serving them when Lasunya tried Charles' batch and said the flavor wasn’t exactly right.
"She knows how stuff should taste, I know how stuff should taste. She bounces stuff of me, I bounce stuff off her, and it's just a beautiful thing. I can't imagine anybody better to work with," Charles said.
Looking forward, the Phillipses plan to keep their trailer as it is — small, which Charles says he likes because it helps keep the quality of their food. They’ve got ideas for menu changes and specials, but nothing official yet.
"What's exciting to me is we haven't even scratched the surface,” Charles said.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7391 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @susanmini.