In my car, I always keep copies of Road Food by Jane and Michael Stern as well as their book Eat Your Way Across the USA. It makes for interesting casual reading in a pinch and a reference when we are out of territory. For our southern trip, I also brought along Southern Belly by John T. Edge of the University of Mississippi at Oxford and lead of the Southern Foodways Alliance. Ive met him several times when he presented lectures to the Culinary Historians of Chicago. I have seen John also posts from time to time on Chowhounds, I always wonder how many know who he is.
When we were heading south to Hattiesburg, Mother commented we must visit Mendenhall on our return as both the Sterns and John T. have recommended a restaurant there. This of course gave the back seat crowd another opportunity to moan all we think about is food. What they did not appreciate was this rare convergence of these authors recommending the same place. I was quite excited we were in for a real jewel.
On the return trip, we all ate light breakfasts as we recognized we were going to have an early lunch. To wet the backseat crowds appetite further, they were read the complete descriptions from each book of the Mendenhall experience. We all fell in love with a place we never set eyes on. We imagined ourselves hungry travelers who only had a 30-minute stopover from the train bound for New Orleans. We had to hustle fast to complete our meal at the Hotel across from the station. The proprietors at the Mendenhall Hotel took this into consideration by providing a one-price all-you-can-eat meal at a table set with enormous lazy susans, to quote John T: While the bottom tier of the Lazy Susan remained stationary, the buffet spun by on the top tier like a carousel of calories: day-glo candied yams and soft, sweet yellow squash, followed by limp, pork-studded green beans and fat limas, and then in quick succession, crusty white cornbread, a jumble of okra and tomatoes, and everybodys favorite, fried chicken. On a typical day there might be five meats and ten vegetables. If the food doesnt blow you away, the writing certainly does. We understood we were in for destination dining from a very different era than we live in today.
As we approached Mendenhall, we were somewhat surprised to find no advertising, no local commerce hype featuring a very unique business in their community. I reasoned it may be so embedded in the community, nobody realizes the specialness within their boundaries. We drove into the small commercial district and up to the courthouse. Not only did we not find our destination restaurant, we found no other restaurants. Finally, my sister walked into the local bank branch to inquire where the Revolving Tables were located. She returned to the car to comment all we had to do was cross the railroad tracks and it was immediately to the left. Oh, I hate these moments when the answer is so obvious! As we pulled up to the place, we found ourselves the only car and a sign on the door. I thought all this way and they are on vacation! As I approached the door, I could tell it had been there for a while. My heart went thud as I read:
As of 12/31/01 this business
will close. We wish to thank
our many loyal customers
for their years of support
We will miss you.
1915-2001 ---- 86 years
There was a mixture of disappointment, sadness and a tinge of anger this place didnt live on. I peaked through the windows and tried to see through the folds of curtains, it almost appeared someone walked out one day and just left everything as-is. Amazingly, the bank tellers who provided the instructions to locate it failed to mention it was a closed business.
We were still hungry. I inquired with an elderly matron coming out of the hairdressers, of which there were several, where does she go to eat. She recommended several places on the highway, but nothing in town because it didnt exist. We drove out of town and bypassed the recommended places.
This could be a cautionary tale of why I should consult Chowhound first before committing to a wild goose chase in unfamiliar territory. Yes, I have since learned Mendenhall was reported closed on this board.
Yet I think there is a bigger philosophical issue, which probably reverberates in many a chowhound soul: supporting the unique place whose presence can be drowned out by indifference from the general population. Im perhaps being a bit dramatic as restaurant closures are an everyday occurrence. In this case, it could have been the general malaise after 9/11, when restaurant attendance dropped precipitously. Maybe the owners wanted to retire and couldnt find family members willing to take over or interested buyers. Maybe it was a lack of local support, the lifeblood of any restaurant. Who knows.
Still it was a sad occasion for me as well as an object lesson on supporting the little guy for the back seat crowd.
Mendenhall Hotel Revolving Tables
100 Gerald Morgan Memorial Street