SUNFLOWER FARM, LOUISE, MS— Mark Twain once said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer he spent in San Francisco. I have spent a few frigid summer nights in the City by the Bay and it is certainly cold. I have walked head first against the winter wind on Michigan Avenue as the bitter air blew off of the lake in Chicago. That’s a biting cold. I have also wintered in the Swiss, French, and Italian Alps and they can be crazy cold.
Though I don’t know if anything is as cold as a Mississippi Delta duck hunt if your feet are wet.
I sit in my brother’s farmhouse, fresh off of an early morning hunt looking back over the previous two weeks as this year comes to a close. The smell of Allan Benton’s bacon fills the room. Breakfast will help to warm my body, but a recent memory is serving to warm my soul.
I am a restaurateur and chef, but I am also an author and a travel writer. It’s the job as a travel writer and cookbook author that is fueling my recall this morning. Sometimes that job can be magical.
Two weeks ago I was with my co-collaborator and best friend, Wyatt Waters, on a film shoot as part of our next book project. We were in Sandy Hook, Mississippi at the Country Diner on U.S. 35 just north of the Louisiana state line. He was painting an interior still life as I was working with the diner’s owner, Candia Love, in the kitchen. She and I were cooking rabbit with gravy and onions and trying to stay out of the way of her kitchen staff who were busy getting ready for the lunch rush.
Once we finished filming the cooking segment, I grabbed a seat at an out-of-the-way table in the dining room and waited for Waters to finish his painting. That’s when I witnessed the magic. Candia Love was in her element as she worked the floor with the hospitality and ease of a Manhattan maitre d.
Love is the embodiment of the American dream. The divorced, African American single mom spent her early career in an executive accounting position until her husband moved the family to Sandy Hook a community just south of Foxworth, Miss. and immediately west of Columbia, Miss. After her husband left she bought an old thrift shop/flea market, converted it into a restaurant, and began feeding the community while putting her kids through college.
Some people get into the restaurant business and learn that the industry is much tougher than they imagined and bail as quickly as they entered. Others take to it immediately, like they were born for it. File Candia Love under the latter.
Racial tensions are wound tight these days. People are rioting in Missouri, they are marching in Brooklyn, and protests are popping up in the other boroughs of New York and in California. If you gain nothing else from this column, know this: There is more racial harmony in Sandy Hook, Mississippi than anywhere in the country and it’s all due to one amazingly energetic and sincere lady, Candia Love.
The community comes together around this woman. She knows everyone. They love her and she loves them— red, yellow, black, white, it doesn’t matter. From my table I watch her greet every customer by name. There are handshakes and introductions for new customers, hugs for others, and big bear hugs for the regulars. She asks about their family and they ask about hers. The diner, which employs an equal mix of black, white, and Hispanic, is a simple building that 99 out of 100 people would drive past without a second thought on their way to a fast food joint up the road in Columbia. That would be their loss.
Soul food and country cooking are the same thing in Sandy Hook. Candia Love serves breakfast in the morning, a buffet lunch in the afternoon, and smiles and hugs all day long. She has the work ethic of a Greek immigrant and an infectious laugh that you want to record and use as the morning alarm on your cell phone.
I am not big on buffets, but the one at the Country Diner is an exception. The lima beans with okra and sausage will certainly make the recipe list in new cookbook. The rabbit with gravy and onions is a keeper, too. The Shoepeg corn, chicken and grits, and rutabagas, are some of the best I have eaten. However, a visit with Candia Love is worth the drive to the Country Diner.
Here in the Delta, breakfast is over. There were no ducks killed this morning, but I almost ate my weight in bacon and biscuits. I’m sitting here reflecting with warm feet and full belly, but a warmer heart for knowing Candia Love and the joy she brings to those in her life and her community. This world needs more Candia Loves.
1 cup Andouille sausage, small dice
1 cup Smoked sausage, small dice
1 cup Onion, diced
1 /2 cup Celery, diced
1 /2 cup Bell pepper, diced
1 Tbl Garlic, minced
1 tsp. Salt
1 /2 tsp Pepper
1 tsp Creole Seasoning
1 /2 cup Rice
1 1 /2 cups Chicken broth, hot
1 Tbl Hot Sauce
1 recipe Black-eyed peas, cooked
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Place a medium sized saucepot on a low-medium heat. Place the diced meats in the pot and cook for six to seven minutes, stirring often to prevent sticking. Add vegetables and garlic and continue to cook 10 minutes. Add in seasonings and rice and cook long enough to allow the rice to get hot. Add the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Lower heat and cover the saucepot. Cook 15 minutes (there should still be some broth in the pot). Add the peas and hot sauce to the rice mixture. Mix well and pour into a two-quart baking dish. Cover with foil and place in oven for 30-45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 30-45 minutes. Remove and serve.
Yield: 8-10 servings