Soul food and Delta blues abound at this Mississippi outpost
I am accustomed to delights at Taylor Grocery, the catfish place, but nothing prepared me for the scene one morning a few years ago when, passing by, I noticed a musician performing solo on its weathered front porch while a documentary crew recorded every stroke he made on his guitar.
“What’s going on?” I asked Lynn Hewlett, Taylor Grocery’s affable owner. It was an unusual hour for any stirrings of life in the hamlet.
“Some fellow; says his name is Taj Mahal,” Hewlett said. He grinned.
So I stayed and listened, for free, to the famed blues artist for a half hour and concluded that the cultural center of Mississippi did not lie in Oxford, eight miles away, but in the little village of Taylor. And that Taylor Grocery served as its anchor.
Before the flowering of art galleries and pottery studios, before the founding around the corner of Big Truck Theater (a poor man’s Grand Ole Opry), even before the little town won the Governor’s Excellence in Arts award, Taylor Grocery thrived as a rural outpost of music and fun and good eating.
Every Thursday through Sunday night, carloads of customers flock to the country store turned café to dine on catfish imported from the nearby Delta. Most evenings, the crowd overflows onto the adjacent porch of sculptor Bill Beckwith and spills into a parking lot as dense with humanity as the Ole Miss Grove on game days. People are willing to tailgate and wait, sometimes for an hour or more, to get inside, where orders of hush puppies and catfish—fried or grilled—are dished up on the average of one a minute. In the back of the room, volunteer troubadours and ambitious members of jug bands sing for tips.
A casual ambience prevails. Hewlett remembers, “One night there was a nice group at a front table. Definitely upper-crust.” A local lawyer informed Hewlett that the visitors were, indeed, respectable. They were judges on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on an excursion to nearby Ole Miss. On any given evening the clientele is likely to range from senators to sorority sisters to guys at a raucous bachelor party. Since a Baptist church is around a bend in the road, it’s a brown-bag setting. But spirits are rarely dampened.
On a map of Lafayette County, Taylor Grocery lies on about the same spot as Varner’s store (“where Flem Snopes got his start”) in Faulkner’s sketch of mythical Yoknapatawpha County. The railroad depot where Temple Drake and her drunken date missed the train to a football game in Sanctuary no longer exists, but the neighboring building now serves 1,200 catfish dinners every weekend and has survived for more than a century.
It once housed a dry goods store before it became a repair shop for Model T Fords in the early automotive age. Later, the location morphed into a grocery, with a butcher’s counter, cans on the shelves, and bread racks on the aisle. Hewlett, who grew up a few steps from the store, remembers that bologna sandwiches were sold on the side. Better eating experiences came later.
“Around 1973, a man named Jerry Wilson moved here from Tchula and took over the store about the same time catfish farming started,” Hewlett recalls. “He started cooking fish on weekends.” The place didn’t win its reputation, however, until Hewlett, who specialized in barbecuing whole hogs on a spit, bought the building in 1998 and converted it into a full-time catfish joint.
Hewlett has none of the airs of an entrepreneur. While his wife, Debbie, oversees operations inside, he presides as a provincial maître d’ from the same porch where Taj Mahal played, sipping something stronger than iced tea in the company of friends in work clothes and Caterpillar caps. Yet he is a man of vision.
Hewlett saved the name of the store but threw out most of the vestiges of the grocery, tearing out walls, renovating the kitchen, and making room for enough tables to seat a hundred. He adopted as his motto: “Eat or We Both Starve.” The words adorn an old gasoline pump by the front steps.
When the crowds grew, he added an annex. But most folks prefer the clatter of the old room, where table-hoppers joust for space with busy waitresses.
Visitors are invited to write their names on the walls; it’s one of the rites at Taylor Grocery. Future archaeologists may someday discover layers of signatures at the site, relics of the good life in Taylor, Mississippi, circa twenty-first century.