Mama Nikki was hollering from somewhere back in the kitchen, her kitchen, at Pimlico Race Course. "I don't have a lot of food out yet!" she barked, less as an apology than an explanation.
The smell of fried goodness said otherwise. So did the row of metal pans glistening with golden-brown salmon cakes, fried chicken, liver and onions, collards and corn.
Her name is Goldie Morris, but for decades she's been known around Pimlico simply as Mama Nikki. Since 1969, she's been whipping up filling meals for trainers, track employees, media types and jockeys. (OK, not so much for the jockeys. Usually, they buy just a slice of cinnamon toast or half a bagel.)
At 74, Mama Nikki remains very much in charge of the little cafeteria in the green building between the horse barns and the track. Her kitchen once ran year-round. Now it fires up only for Preakness, and for those few days, she cooks as if she's trying to squeeze in a year's worth of griddling.
"Granny gets down in the kitchen," explained her 26-year-old granddaughter, Teonna Lynch, who staffs the cash register. "You might hear her cuss you out, but she still loves you. It's just a stressful situation."
Glancing out at the cafeteria, Mama Nikki spotted two familiar faces: mutuel clerks from Texas who fly to Baltimore every May to handle bets at the Preakness.
"Hey, sweetheart!" Mama Nikki shouted to one. "Good seeing you."
"Good seeing you."
"All right, baby," she replied, smiling. "Thank you."
A minute later, she went out to give big hugs to the pair, Rosalynn Fruge and Paulette Brown. Fruge met Mama Nikki five years ago when she tried to order breakfast, only to be told breakfast was definitely over and that she'd better settle on a lunch choice.
"She told me what I was going to have," Fruge recalled with a laugh. "I've been in love with her ever since."
Mama Nikki not only gives customers the mother-knows-best treatment; she has made the kitchen operation a family enterprise during Preakness.
Her 46-year-old daughter, April Branch - Lynch's mother - takes time off from her financial coordinator job to help. Her 50-year-old son, James Pinder, an upholsterer, runs food trays out from the kitchen. And there is Lynch, a soldier due to return to Iraq in August.
Rounding out the cast of kin is Shirley Gee, 73. Though she isn't actually related, they call her Aunt Shirley. She ladles generous portions of food into Styrofoam containers for a line of customers that on Preakness Day reliably stretches out the door.
Mama Nikki (Nikki was a childhood nickname) took a brief break from her cooking this week to grant an interview, not bothering to remove the clear plastic hair guard that covered her curls.
Where does she find all the energy?
"I smoke my little cigarettes and drink my cocktails twice a week," she replied, adding that she is growing tired of the grind.
By midafternoon Saturday, her family will make sure she is relaxing in front of the cafeteria televisions for the big race. She plans to be festively dressed in her prized black-and-yellow "cat in the hat" hat. (She keeps it locked in a safe lest anyone try to pinch it.)
"Honey," she said, "I'll probably have my cocktail." Early Times bourbon is her drink of choice.
Two years ago, she says, she won $9,000 betting on the Kentucky Derby, which led to a question: Who do you like in the Preakness?
No tips were forthcoming, at least for the moment. She's been too busy in the kitchen to do research.
"I don't even know nothin' about no horses. The filly - I don't know about her, neither. I don't know yet. I haven't seen the whosie-whatsie. I'll look at that this evening."
Friday morning the focus was still on food, and her clientele seemed plenty satisfied with the offerings.
Louis "Scottie" Scott, an 88-year-old retired trainer, eyed the racing form after finishing his egg sandwich. He sat on a cushioned metal chair at one of the faux-wooden tables adorned with a silk black-eyed Susan in a vase.
Scott's review: "Gives you plenty to eat and cooks it good."
Kenny Ransburg, a 60-year-old farrier who's known Mama Nikki for decades, ordered a platter of fish, greens and beans. He did not get a chance to visit with her because of the chaos in the kitchen.
"I try to agitate her," he said. "She takes it well. I tell her, 'Let me have some of that greasy old fried chicken.' She laughs. If I didn't really like it, I wouldn't buy it."