Buttermilk fried chicken with the crispiest skin possible. Melt-in-your-mouth collard greens slow-cooked in ham hock juices. Fresh gravy from drippings bright with pepper. Everything is made from scratch and cooked to order, so it comes out tasting like the best dishes at a family cookout. Big Mama’s Kitchen soul food truck serves up three generations of Jones family recipes in the 1606 East food truck park, a labor of love that transforms humble ingredients into feasts for the community.
Soul food means family to food truck owners, operators, and life partners Timisha “Big Mama” Jones and Otis Campbell. They come from large extended families with lots of mouths to feed, where everyone was always cooking with love by necessity. The term soul food refers to seasoning and slow-cooking techniques passed down through communities that didn’t always have prime cuts of meat and had to stretch a few vegetables around a big table. “Soul food is when you don’t have much but you can make a meal that’s delicious,” says Campbell.
Jones adds: “Because you put your soul into it.”
Through the food truck, Jones and Campbell anchor themselves deeper into the city and neighborhood they’ve called home for long, doing what they do best: creating and sharing food they’ve made with devotion and intention.
Jones and Campbell are respectively third- and second-generation Austinites. They’ve known each other since they were toddlers wading barefoot in Boggy Creek, but didn’t start dating until five years ago. Campbell was born on East 10th Street and Jones grew up in northeast Austin near 290. Jones still lives in the area; she bought a house with a wood-fired barbecue pit and keeps two horses.
Food is in Jones’s and Campbell’s blood. Their families are close; her uncle used to date his aunt, and their mothers went to bingo together weekly before they both died a few years ago. Both of their mothers were cooks — his in restaurants and hers in care facilities — and their fathers worked in trucking, so it seems fitting the couple got together and opened a food truck. Jones’s sister also found success after opening her own food truck, named Mama’s Soul Food, in northeast Austin seven years ago.
What makes soul food delicious is time and care, and, contrary to popular belief, not excessive amounts of fat (although a little helps). Corporate chains like Popeyes and KFC have linked the perception of Southern-style dishes with fast food, salt, and grease for flavor when true soul food comes from varied regional culinary techniques.
“A lot of people are in too big of a rush. You take your time with soul food in the planning,” says Leland, Campbell’s cousin who helps out at the truck occasionally. “Nowadays, people got cholesterol, but if the seasoning is right, you only need to use a teaspoon of lard, or just a tiny bit of sugar to boost flavor.”
A similar approach is also integral to barbecue, where patience, skills, and smoke weave meat and fat into a tapestry of tastes and textures. It makes sense that Jones comes from a long line of female pitmasters. She learned how to barbecue from her mother, and her sister, cousins, and great-aunt are all adept with wood and charcoal. “Most of them were raised up in the country so they had to cook,” she says. “Barbecue is a challenge because you got to tolerate the smoke. People don’t know, but the bigger the pit, the less work.”
Jones’s barbecued chicken is tender and moist, and the sausage carries smoky notes of sage and paprika. While the couple doesn’t typically offer barbecue at the truck, they do cater it occasionally upon request.
Jones has food prep down to a science, thanks to a decade of professional cooking experience. On a typical workday, she wakes up at 9:30 a.m., feeds her horses, and puts the collard greens on the home stove first for two hours. Then, Jones and Campbell make the mac and cheese (15 minutes), mashed potatoes (10 minutes), and head out to the truck (already cleaned the night before) to make sure their mise en place is impeccable, turn the propane on, and open the windows. They open around noon usually if there are customers around, and everything fried or grilled is made as they go, like the freshly fried buttermilk chicken that takes 14 minutes to batter and cook.
The truck has been open since the summer of 2021, and business is slow right now because not a lot of people know about Big Mama’s — the couple is quite laissez-faire about self-promotion — so they only open Wednesday to Saturday, but hope for more customers so they can stay open longer. They close at midnight, wipe the truck down, take inventory, and drop leftovers off at the Springdale Park Neighbors homeless shelter.
Taking care of those in need is another tradition that runs in the family: Like Jones’s mother, both Jones and Campbell spent years working at mental health care facilities before deciding to stop to open Big Mama’s. Jones also cooked for and assisted patients after procedures, and after years of working with mentally ill patients, Jones and Campbell decided to host them in their home through a state-sponsored facility program to give them 24/7 care.
During the Super Bowl this past February, they put on an event at 1606 East, setting up a large projector screen and some chairs so homeless people of the civic association Springdale Park Neighbors could watch and enjoy as much barbecue as they wanted. The family came to help set up, serve food, and hand out plates, while Jones seared, smoked, and braised sausages, chickens, and ribs on the barbecue pit that her uncle towed in for the occasion.
Even after all these years, cooking is still a party. Jones and Campbell often make margaritas for themselves while they prep, and their menu reflects whatever their friends and family are in the mood for that day. Sometimes the chicken wings are glazed with peach Crown Royal whiskey- or Hennessy cognac-infused sauces. “We cook for the occasion,” says Campbell.
The East Austin neighborhood has changed dramatically; there used to be a paint shop where the food truck court is now, where Campbell had his car painted 14 years ago. Jones and Campbell embrace the changing location, and they extend their Southern hospitality to the new waves of Bay Area transplants and rent-hiking developers that populate the area.
“I like being around different kinds of people,” says Jones.
“Change is good. That’s just the way of things,” says Campbell.
Perhaps the one thing that has remained constant throughout Austin’s transformation is the generous spirit of those who have been here for a while, which has been passed down through generations like the techniques of soul food. “The generation before us was different,” says Campbell. “Our generation is different now. The one coming out, it’s gonna be different. As the world evolves, we embrace it.”