In Search of Mother Rue

Errol Laborde

This being the month of Mother’s Day, I was wondering about the word “mother” as used in popular culture.

Of all the uses, the restaurant by that name may be the most popular. Mother’s on Poydras Street has been serving up poor boys and local comfort food since 1936. On the West Bank, Momma Mosca made the oyster dishes at Mosca’s Restaurant. There is even a bona fide contemporary saint who walked our streets: Mother Kathleen Drexel, who founded Xavier University, was canonized in 2000.

Most baffling of the word’s local uses is the term “Mother Rue.” Once used colloquially as an exclamation to suggest surprise or outrage, (Mother Rue!) there have been Carnival marching groups with versions of that name, including the current Mama Roux that parades with Krewe Du Vieux. Two variations of that name have evolved; “Rue” as in the name of a family, or “Roux” as in the seasoning base that you start off with when making gumbos. It wouldn’t take much for the ear to transport one from the other, and in fact, when it comes to Cajun/Creole cooking, roux is the mother of all ingredients. Of course, let it be acknowledged that anyone whose actual last name is Rue was given birth by a “mother Rue.”

How the term became so popular in New Orleans is subject to anthropological debate. George Gurtner, who writes the “Cast of Characters” column for this magazine says the term traces back to a former third baseman for the old minor league New Orleans Pelicans named Mel Rue. According to Gurtner, there was a fat lady who sat in the stands who used to deride Rue. Every time he performed below her expectations she would yell, “you Mother, Rue!” The term became legendary and spread around town. Just as people of another decade were exclaiming, “Where’s the beef!” New Orleanians were yelling, “Mother Rue!”

Gurtner’s story likely has some truth, but there may have been an earlier influence. There is an ancient herb named “rue.” Technically known as ruta graveolens, it was used in many ways including, by early Christians, for sprinkling holy water from its branches. Spiritually it was associated with grief, especially for mothers, and in that sense was referred to as “mother rue.” In New Orleans, with its mixture of Catholic and Voodoo cultures, “mother rue” would have easily been part of the early language.
From there the term morphed to a baseball yell, a local exclamation, a name for Carnival organizations and, along the way, it shifted in spelling to be equated with food. There were also two songs; “Mother Roux” a bouncy piano number by the late Paul Gayten and “Mama Roux” by Dr. John.

Through all of life’s changes the lady Rue lives on. This month, let’s lift a Bloody Mary to her. At the very least she’s the mother of many legends.

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