My Amazing Adventure in Natchez: A Northerner’s Introduction to Southern Hospitality
On tour in the Deep South, checking out Jewish historical sites, synagogues, museums, civil rights history, and even some plantation mansions, with my Rabbi and 23 members of my temple, we stopped overnight in Natchez, Mississippi. We stayed at the Eola Hotel, a historic old place that advertises its “exuberant” décor. Antiques from the Victorian period plus a grand hall by an eclectic collection of museum quality antiques, original oil paintings, statuaries, and fountains.
That’s me on the throne in the raised lobby (there’s also a low level lobby as well).
As is my wont, while this tour was tremendously interesting, educational, historical, and pleasing, I do like to get off by myself and check out what’s not on the agenda. So after I checked into the Eola and made tentative dinner plans with some friends, I went out to explore where we might have our meal. Two blocks up and down Main Street, there were numerous restaurants and cafes, and Breaud's Seafood & Steak looked promising. I read the menu on the window, they had food I could eat, the smells were great, and prices were reasonable. While I was reading the menu, a waitress came outside and invited me in – I said I was going back to my hotel and would be there later in the evening with some friends for dinner.
On the way back to the hotel, I peeked into the Jack + Stella Boutique, a charming children’s clothing store. I shopped a little, but the prices were out of my pocketbook range. Then, as store was about to close, I asked the three women who were chatting just in front of the counter if there was a grocery store nearby that I could walk to so I could pick up some of the food I needed that I knew I probably couldn’t get in a restaurant (fat-free yogurt and fresh fruit) or where I was staying. “No,” they said, “no grocery store nearby to walk to, maybe a couple of miles but it’s too far to walk.” “But no worries,” one woman, a vivacious attractive woman a little younger than I that I took to be the owner, “I’m just on my way to the grocery store myself to pick up a few things, and I’d be glad to take you there.” “Oh no,” I protested, “then you’d have to drive me back to the hotel. Or is there a taxi I could take?” “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m not letting you take a taxi. My car is around the corner. I’ll take you there and back. No trouble.” I let myself be persuaded, I really did need the food and there were no other open stores in sight, nor really, any traffic at all. A taxi would be a little much to expect in this small city at this time of the day. “I’m Brenda,” the woman said. “I’ll be back in a minute.” And she was.
Brenda said she wanted to stop at the deli and we drove there chatting pleasantly about my tour and my plans for the evening. The deli was like nothing I’d ever seen in the north, really just a few shelves full of delicacies and a prepared food counter and a glass doored refrigerator. They didn’t have any apples, but there was a pint of freshly picked local strawberries – “We just got them from Pascagoula this morning.” I’d not a notion where Pascagoula was, but they were lovely strawberries that I couldn’t pass up (even at $5 a pint and they turned out to be sweet and juicy and just the right amount of firmness – kinda sexy). I asked if they had any fat-free yogurt at the counter where Brenda was buying some good looking freshly prepared dinners, but no, no yogurt at all. “Oh, that’s all right,” Brenda said. “I’ll take you to the Daisy Street Grocery, it’s on my way home.”
Then I felt really overwhelmed by her generosity and tried to say, no, never mind, I’ll just go back to the hotel, but Brenda was already on her way, parking out front and telling me exactly where I could find the yogurt in the story, “go straight back and turn to the left.” She was waiting for me in the parking lot as I paid for my food. “I’ll just take you on a little tour of Natchez on our way back to the hotel.” As we were driving, she told me she had a book signing coming up and that she had just stopped in the store to drop off some copies of her new book and wasn’t the owner at all.She had written her first children’s book, which was to be the first in a series of stories about her dog Winston and his adventures in Natchez. “That’d be perfect for my grandson. Where could I get one?” I asked. “At any gift shop in Natchez. But they’re all closed now. Mmmm, I have some at home. I’ll drop by there and you can get one.” Protesting all the way, we drove to her home, a beautiful mansion – she stopped here and there to wave to people, to just talk a little, and to introduce me to them. She also introduced me to her neighbors on each side of her home, keeping up a running commentary about each of them, where they’d come from, where they’d been, this one took the photographs of the dogs for her book, that one had a glorious garden. Her husband was home, not feeling well, her house was a mess (not true), her son was out, she’d hated dogs until she found Winston, whom she loved…and on and on, giving me a history of her town.
Her home turned out to be on the Natchez Pilgrimage, the Rip Rap House, which reflects the Greek revival style while later additions give the house its Italianate character. We walked up the broad front steps but not before another neighbor dropped by, and we stood on the porch while Brenda introduced me to this neighbor and they conducted whatever business they had. By this time, I was totally overwhelmed, and getting quite anxious as I knew my dinner companions were probably waiting for me, and even though I had my cell phone with me, I’m such a tech dummy I didn’t think to call them to tell them I’d be late. Her house was filled with antiques – beautiful and tasteful (not at all the “exuberant” kind that the Eola Hotel had), and again, I was overwhelmed, this time by the stunning home of a complete stranger who’d done more for me than I’d ever expected. I’d no idea in the world that kind of hospitality existed. And while I’d been a tiny bit suspicious to begin with, thinking this was a little bit much generosity to sell a children’s book, seeing the home with the exquisite antiques led me to understand, this was a true example of southern hospitality.
She called her dog in, so it could autograph my book with his paw dipped on an inkpad, and signed it to Bubie Dolly and Django. (http://www.amazon.com/Little-Winston-His-Adventures-Natchez) But not until then was she ready to drive me back to my hotel. She asked who my guide had been for the mansion tour. I retained the guide’s name (quite a feat for my leaky memory), Mary. “Oh Mary So-and-So, she’s a wonderful hostess.” And on the way, we just happened across Mary and her husband on their way out to dinner, so we just had to stop and talk a few minutes with them and see if she remembered me from earlier in the day. She had (or she said she did)! I guess the whole episode took about an hour and a half – and I had just wanted a 15 minute walk to clear my head and find a restaurant and a grocery store.
When I got back to the hotel, my dinner companions were awaiting me – I had after all scouted out the restaurants for them, and we surprised the waitress at the Breaud by actually coming back. The waiter was adorable, the food was good, the prices were right, and later that evening, I had my Pascagoula strawberries and fat-free yogurt.
An amazing adventure. An experience first hand of southern hospitality. A gift for my grandson Django. And a great story to relate on the long bus ride the next day. What could be better?