Part 2 of 2 – Final Installment
The porch at the Taylor Grocery was packed with people now, but unlike other waiting scenes where people quietly chat or stare at their smart phones, everyone was socializing and having fun. Every few minutes the young hostess would step out and shout the name of the next party on the list. If she didn’t get a response, she would skip down to the gift shop and look inside. She was busting it to keep the flow of patrons moving along. Finally our name was called and we were seated at a table close to the musician. Yes, there was a solo guitarist playing to the crowd. The guitarist was a peer and played some of my favorite songs. It was so pleasant. We were close enough to watch the picking yet the music was not so thunderous that we couldn’t manage an easy conversation.
Our waitress was working hard to keep up with the constant flow of customers, but she was extremely pleasant and seemed genuinely glad to welcome us as first time patrons. As we perused the menu we noted that it was rather concise; there were other choices besides catfish but not many. The owners obviously understood what it took to get a lot of food out of a small kitchen – the simple menu was proof positive of that. And the food was delicious. Perfectly fried or grilled catfish, good portions and yummy southern sides – okra, hush puppies, fries. They also had a very popular appetizer that neither Mr. Sensei or I had ever seen before – cubed cheddar cheese and sausage on a plate with mustard. We saw this same dish in other establishments in the Mississippi delta. If anyone knows the origin of this please clue me in.
It was hard not to linger in the restaurant, even though we knew a crowd of other hungry people was waiting for our table. The waitress was so happy we were enjoying ourselves. There were all kinds of people coming and going. Young marrieds, couples with infants, and large family groups with a hosting patriarch. And constantly people greeting friends at other tables. Did I mention they had great homemade desserts? Including a take on Mississippi Mud Pie?
Finally we cleared our check and tipped the guitarist. But we were way too full and happy to hop back into the car. It was dusk and the light was fading. We walked down a street, a country lane really, and watched the setting sun shoot colors into huge fluffy clouds. As night fell, we walked by large rural yards with tall grass full up with fireflies lighting themselves up as if someone was cuing them. Never have I seen so many fireflies in one place. The lawns reminded me of those special ones at Christmas, you know where the families go crazy with Christmas lights galore. As we walked back to our car, I suddenly felt compelled to go back into the restaurant and talk to the hostess about the business. Now that the crowd had subsided some she looked like she might be able to spare a few minutes chatting.
Quote for Today:
Eat or We Both Starve.
~ Taylor Grocery Motto
Turns out our hard working hostess is actually the heir apparent to the family business. Although there has been a business at this location for over 120 years, it has changed hands several times. Sarah-Margaret Hewlett’s parents purchased the Grocery about 12 years ago and have been running it every since. Tonight, with school out of session the folks had left Sarah-Margaret in charge of the place. And it was in very good hands. Sarah-Margaret was happy to talk with us about her restaurant. When I asked if she planned to stay in the business, she said there was nowhere else she would rather be. Even though she had just completed a course of study in criminology at Ole Miss and had her degree, she didn’t believe she would ever use it. Her love of the business was palpable.
We asked her what she thought made it so successful, fully expecting her to say the great value (we had paid around $32 for our appetizer, two entrees and dessert) and great food. But Sarah-Margaret’s immediate response was ‘the atmosphere’. And I realized right then that this feeling Mr. Sensei and I had during the evening, of being happy to be in a particular place, was universally bringing all the other patrons together. And here was Sarah-Margaret, who loved the place with great pride, who saw community as the most important service her family business was providing. Not just nourishment of the body, but also of the soul.
This building of community has been touted as the critical factor in creating a well used website, the virtual uniting of likeminded people to the same place. Well this is not a new concept, as was evident in Taylor, MS this particular night. Sarah-Margaret went on to tell us more factual information, about serving over 500 meals on a game day in the fall. Or pointing out the large family toward the back of the dining room who come almost every Sunday, and call if they are not going to make it. Just to let the owners know everything is OK. Just like you would with family. In a tiny place like Taylor that is so dependent on the University for its commerce, it’s amazing that you could draw enough local customers during the summer “off season”. Probably these locals wait all year for school to let out so they can reclaim their rightful place in the center of their community. And it’s worth waiting for, in all senses of the word.
For Mr. Sensei and me, this evening would remain a highlight of our Southern Crescent tour, one that we continue to share when we talk about our trip. For a brief moment we were part of the community, one of the family. And should we ever find ourselves back that way, we would want to go back and pick up right where we left off, just like the place was an old, dear friend.