By Robin Chotzinoff
Photography by Marc Brown
About the worst thing Bobbie Nelson would say about another cook—and she’s not one to fling insults—is “sometimes she’d get in a hurry.” Still, after nearly 40 years of cooking for herself and her brother Willie during a seemingly endless concert tour, she understands the kitchen time crunch. “We travel hard—almost all the time. And we don’t eat what the rest of the band eats,” she says.
“We do Farm Aid and everyone knows we’re into homegrown, organic when we can. Sometimes people bring us homegrown tomatoes and peaches. Other times, we survive on potatoes and eggs.”
It’s the life she loves, and maybe that’s why she looks decades younger than her 79 years. But today, in her son Freddy Fletcher’s Austin kitchen, with a steady parade of friends and neighbors dropping by, is for cooking low and slow. “You might just say that the longer you cook it, the better it’s gonna be,” she says.
Freddy’s a cook, too, and his commercial-quality kitchen reflects it. Even so, Bobbie brought her own favorite tools from home: a small white plastic scoop from an ice machine at Caesars Palace, plastic gloves to keep things sanitary and a seasoned cast-iron skillet “no more than a hundred years old.” She keeps the recipe for biscuits, gravy and sausage in her head.
“It’s the food Willie and I grew up on. It’ll probably kill you,” she says with a laugh. “But it’s something you can cook without a lot of money. We didn’t have much growing up, and our survival was from the garden—stringing beans, storing potatoes and onions, canning everything we had.”
While talking, Bobbie tends the sausage patties, making tiny corrections with her spatula. A drool-inducing smell permeates the kitchen and is probably tantalizing dogs in the street. By now, the table is crowded because, the way Bobbie sees it, there’s more to cooking than a meal.
“It’s communion,” she says. “You get to have a conversation with the people you’re cooking for.”
She slides a pan of biscuits into the oven and lifts the sausages out of the grease, reserving a few tablespoons for a roux that will become the base of milk gravy—three tasks seemingly done at the same time. But when Bobbie’s daughter-in-law Lisa offers a kitchen timer, she politely declines. “I make it all come out together,” she says. “I hope.”
You don’t learn how to do this overnight. Bobbie had many teachers, beginning with her grandmother, Mama Nelson, who cooked on coal-oil and kerosene-fueled stoves. “They weren’t all that safe,” Bobbie recalls. “Even when she got a gas stove, I was terrified it would blow up. And when I first started making biscuits, we had a German police dog and I don’t even think he’d eat ’em.”
“They weighed about five pounds each,” Freddy reminds her. “The kids played baseball with those biscuits,” she says.
“I think we did,” Freddy agrees.
The biscuits now emerging from the oven are a big improvement—crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside—weighing no more than a Ping-Pong ball. Serving herself last, Bobbie watches as each diner splits a biscuit, puts a sausage patty on top and douses the whole thing with gravy. The flavor is both complex and comforting. There’s nothing comparable at, say, a Waffle House, no matter how hungry a touring musician might be, which is why Bobbie and Willie gave up road food a long time ago. If you want the real thing, you have to be willing to wait.
“It’s Willie’s favorite breakfast,” she says. “I put in a lot of black pepper and Willie—believe it or not—he’s gonna put on more. Have some more gravy,” she suggests. “Get every last drop.”