Brenda Williams cooks week-day lunches of fried chicken, butter beans, and yams inside a trailer home, parked in a dirt and gravel lot at the back of a ragtag industrial park south of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. She calls the restaurant Home Style. It is just that.
I stoop through the side door into what was once the living room. The wall paneling is dark walnut. The ceiling is foam-tiled. The lighting is fluorescent. Instead of a coffee table, strewn with magazines and stacked with photographs, the focal point is a steam table, stocked with vegetables. Where a family may have once lounged on a sofa and a couple of recliners, a six-burner stove hunkers. In the rear bedroom, big enough for a bassinet and not much more, regulars wedge into two tables, framed by a needlepoint that reads Nothin’ Eats Like Country Cookin’.
A tall woman with a long face and a big grin, Williams began cooking Sunday night dinners in 2005, feeding her husband’s battalion at nearby Camp Shelby for ten bucks a head. Five days a week she now works solo behind a high-top counter in this makeshift kitchen, navigating the sloping floor and cracked tiles with balletic grace. A pivot to the right brings her to the register, where a clutch of female customers, wearing floral print housedresses and pink hair curlers, has gathered to gossip. Two stutter steps to the rear, and she’s at the stove, pulling pork chops from the fryer for a flirty crew of male construction workers, covered in drywall dust, begging for extra gravy on their rice.
I stand in the corner, stare at the chalkboard menu, and try to puzzle through why I’m in Williams’s thrall before I even taste her food. I’ve eaten in my share of house restaurants. In the 1980s, I was a regular at Annie Keith’s in midtown Atlanta, where the owner skillet-fried chicken, and lunch customers returned their plates to the kitchen after service. After I moved to Mississippi in the 1990s, a friend treated me to lunch in a Jackson bungalow, where a woman named Ruth, whose last name I understood to be Landman, draped skillets of cornbread in tea towels and stowed them in the oven, awaiting her next guest.
I now recognize that I crossed those thresholds in search of home as well as home cooking. That’s what lures me to the Home Style trailer today. To bask in the hospitality of a woman who calls every other customer Sweetheart. To eavesdrop on conversations that begin with a replay of a recent marital spat and end with advice on how to cut up a frying hen. To revel in the working-class roots of our rapidly gentrifying cuisine.
When the food arrives in a foam clamshell, it’s everything I hoped for: Fried chicken flecked with thyme and lashed with salt. Butter beans floating in a garlicky potlikker. Syrup-lacquered yams that glow as if backlit. If this is the style of cooking you enjoy in your home, count yourself lucky. If it’s not, get yourself to Hattiesburg, where rumors now swirl that Williams may haul her business downtown. When she leaves behind that well-loved trailer for a clean-scrubbed storefront with a blinking marquee, the cooking at Home Style won’t change one bit. And neither will the cook with the ballerina’s sashay and the big grin.