- The Washington Times - Friday, June 4, 2004

JACKSON, Miss. — The tiny one-room shack made of weathered gray boards looks as if a giant hand scooped it off a shady Mississippi riverbank, then plunked it among the glass and granite towers of downtown Jackson.

Country Boy’s Produce has commanded a corner a short stroll from the state Capitol for the past six years. The porch glitters with jars full of pigs’ feet and pickled eggs. Two men set aside their briefcases and iPods to examine pig lips floating like pink lily pads in a giant pickling jug. Others pause for the sacks of sweet plums, apples and berries. A blue kettle boils peanuts in the corner.

A horde of buff young office workers who swear they do 10 hours of cardio workouts and weight lifting weekly head inside for a Deep South version of fast food.

Monday through Saturday, customers of every age and race stream into the little shack Bob Steen built with his brother. The room is so small, customers wait in line to peer at the buffet of sausage, biscuits with strawberry or fig jam, jambalaya, chopped steak, fried chicken, pork chops, gravy, rolls, corn bread, fried okra, and black-eyed peas.

Mr. Steen also offers fresh fruit smoothies — but his are topped with whipped cream. “That makes it a Southern smoothie,” he says.

Attorney Steve Burns is a regular customer who insists the menu is Atkins-friendly — if he eats the mashed potatoes just three times weekly.

“If I’m going to spend the evening buried in paper, I need something more homey than a packaged salad with crackers to keep from going insane,” Mr. Burns says.

He works off any Country Boy’s binges with a Lean Cuisine lunch and an evening on the treadmill every Friday.

That attitude is what labor psychologist Domenico Fiorellino calls “Friday yogurt syndrome.” Mr. Fiorellino studied the lunch habits of urban professionals in Southern Italy and the Southern United States and found striking similarities.

Southern professionals who spent the most time trapped in offices preferred comfort-food lunches from mom-and-pop restaurants over salad bars and fast-food chains. The white-collar workers said the rustic food provided a sensory escape.

Many of these yuppies, however, have a yogurt or fruit on Friday, Mr. Fiorellino found, for fear of looking pudgy in their swimsuits and shorts on the weekend.

Though Country Boy’s is unusual in its setting and stand-up-and-order style, office workers — as in most Southern cities — can find more than one source for flour-coated fried delights.

Not far away is the timeless Elite Restaurant, famous for mouthwatering rolls that resemble plate-bound clouds. Nearby, the aroma of catfish pulls hungry politicos and lawyers into the Mayflower Cafe.

However, those restaurants also offer broiled scallops and enchiladas. At Country Boy’s, there is room — literally — for only one cuisine.

Mr. Steen never planned to be a curbside chef. The Mississippi native owned a restaurant in Panama City, Fla., while he worked at the Better Business Bureau.

“I served Cajun food right on the beach. I sold frozen daiquiris and beer in gallon milk jugs,” Mr. Steen says.

When his father developed cancer 11 years ago, Mr. Steen returned to Mississippi to care for him. A vendor was selling fruit and vegetables from a cart where Country Boy’s stands. Mr. Steen thought he had a surefire hit, selling juicy produce downtown without grocery stores for competition. He bought the man’s cart.

Then he panicked.

“People were buying an apple or a handful of cherries like it was a fruit snack bar; that wasn’t enough for me to survive financially,” Mr. Steen says.

After six years of struggling, Mr. Steen decided quick comfort-food meals might reel in crowds. He pitched his idea to real estate developer Leland Speed, who has since become executive director of the Mississippi Development Authority.

Mr. Steen convinced Mr. Speed that the Country Boy’s shack would be a tourist magnet. Mr. Speed, in turn, convinced the Jackson Redevelopment Authority, which owned the corner.

“The Redevelopment Authority said Mr. Steen could build whatever he liked on that corner as long as it was attractive,” says Steve Martin of the agency.

In exchange for creating an attraction tourists love, Mr. Steen uses the lot rent-free.

Nicholas Dickerson, a guitarist in town with the touring company of the musical “Cats,” says, “We heard about this place at the 930 Blues Club when we were looking for real Southern cooking.

“When you’re on the road, a place like this is much more cool than room service,” Mr. Dickerson says as he pays for his jambalaya plate and bag of strawberries.

Just then, Mr. Dickerson’s cellular phone rings. It’s a musician buddy craving the monster spicy pickles Country Boy’s sells.

Country Boy’s isn’t Mr. Steen’s only enterprise. “I invented an apple-sundae machine that carves an apple into a flower,” he says as he fans his fingers out like petals. “It drops a scoop of chocolate caramel ice cream into the center. When I demonstrate it at fairs, you should see the people crowd around.”• • •

Country Boy’s, at the corner of Lamar and Capitol streets, is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 3:30 p.m. on Saturday. Complete lunch plates cost $5; phone 601/594-1243.

Elite Restaurant, 141 E. Capitol St., is open from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Saturday. Dinner entrees cost $6 to $16; 601/352-5606.

Mayflower Cafe, 123 W. Capitol St., serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Dinner entrees cost $11 to $20; 601/355-4122.

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