Jun 17, 2015

A soulful side trip to the Old Country Store, Lorman, Miss.

If you’re a food aficionado like me, you’ll go out of your way to try a classic restaurant, diner or roadside stand that has achieved legendary status among those in the know.  In fact, you’re liable to go out of your way to make that destination an important component of any road trip you’ve planned.  Fortunately for me, The April and I think similarly, and I’ve been converting her to a fellow food fanatic.  So it was no surprise to me when she discovered a place I had not even heard about but which was reportedly worthy of a side trip on our way back from New Orleans. 

The place she discovered, based on its longstanding reputation for some of the best fried chicken you’ll ever eat (a reputation which continues to grow on television and the Internet, by the way), is the Old Country Store in Lorman, Miss. 

Enough driving.  Let's eat!
And true to foodie form, we traversed the southern Mississippi countryside to get there in time to fully enjoy not just the fried chicken, but every aspect of the Old Country Store’s highly regarded Southern/soul food buffet.  Yes, stomachs were growling by the time we found Lorman and parked the Cube.      

If the building’s aging exterior and sagging front porch doesn’t convince you this was in fact a true general store dating  back to the 19th Century, the inside of the store will.  As soon as you walk in, you’re greeted with that “old building” smell that reminds you of musty, baked wood.  Everything in the middle of the store has been removed and replaced by seating for diners, but the walls remain lined with antiques, advertisements and other curiosities from a bygone era.  The actual buffet and cash register where you pay is in a room to the back left of the dining area. 

The prices are posted right upon entering, and based on that alone you might expect a larger spread but trust me, it’s worth every penny you’ll pay.  I can only imagine how good the desserts are because we chose not to try them this day to reserve room for extra chicken and sides. 

One obviously doesn’t come here for the salad, but in the interest of building up to the main course, I sampled the offerings anyway.  To me, the big winners here were the cucumber and tomato salad and the green bean salad.  Both had the perfect amount of zing in the marinade and were a cool, refreshing complement to the other side dishes they offered.    

Speaking of those sides, they’re all classic soul food/Southern meat-and-three diner standards.  And each one I tasted was done exceptionally well.  The sweet potatoes will melt in your mouth, and you have to love any place where they’re serving two types of smothered greens for discerning palates.  I’m going to go on record by saying I’ve converted to totally loving turnip greens after eating the ones here.  And if you like your greens spicy, you can try a sprinkle of their homemade vinegar sauce – but it’s definitely not for the uninitiated when it comes to this type of cooking.    

But this is what we came here for … fried chicken (lower left on the buffet station) with skin that is super crispy thin, not heavily battered but seasoned to perfection, and chicken that’s so moist the juice will run down your cheek when you bite in if you’re not careful.  If you see them refilling the chicken on the buffet, hurry up and get some because they only cook so much in each batch, and it goes fast! 

Although the chicken is the star here, the rest of the main courses hold their own quite well.  The April confirmed the catfish was excellent (every Mississippi lunch buffet worth respecting has to have good fried catfish).  I thought the ribs stood out as well … tender and fall-off-the-bone good.  And you need to save room for the baked macaroni and cheese and fried okra.  Both are about as tasty as I’ve had in a long, long time.   

The person responsible for busting so many guts in rural Mississippi is “Mr. D,” Arthur Davis.  He’s often on hand at the Old Country Store running things, although we were not fortunate enough to meet him during our visit.  However, you can read his story on the place mats waiting for you at each table in the dining room.  It’s worth a read, even if you’ve read all the reviews.     

(As a side note, I recently learned Arthur Davis once said, “If the Colonel had my recipe, he’d be a five-star general.”  I concur.  And I have to rank his among the best fried chicken I’ve ever had, but I still have give a nod to Stroud’s in Kansas City as my personal favorite.)   

"Lil' D" entertains the diners.
On the other hand, we were fortunate enough to meet “Lil’ D,” Arthur’s son, who took the mantle of greeting every visitor during our visit.  This also means an occasional serenade to each  lady present (“I Can’t Help Myself” by the Four Tops seems to be his go-to song) and singing about his grandmother’s cornbread recipe.  It’s something that truly completes the Old Country Store experience and helps you appreciate their hospitality even more.     

You’ll find Lorman and the Old Country Store on U.S. Highway 61, the Blues Highway, about a half hour north of Natchez.  The highway is a divided four-lane road through this stretch, so it bypasses everything small and/or unincorporated, so you’ll have to pay attention.  Look for it on the west side of the highway.  The Old Country Store is clearly the largest and most important building left in Lorman, and the numerous parked cars in front of it will likely give it away.  As The April and I discovered, it’s worth seeking out, especially if you love authentic Southern cooking and memorable fried chicken.

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