Mammy's Cupboard -- a roadside restaurant giant Aunt Jemima -- has spawned countless debates over its cultural and social merits. But no one argues that she's great at what she was meant to do: getting travelers to pull off the highway.
Mammy was built by Henry Gaude (Go-day) in 1939-40. Henry had a gas station, and wanted a roadhouse that would capitalize on the then-current craze for Gone With the Wind. One tale is that Mammy was designed as a white Southern belle by Annie Davis Bost, the wife of a prominent Natchez architect -- and Mammy's shape does seem more Scarlett O'Hara than Hattie McDaniel. Henry then transformed the big lady to black from white because black was better than white in the road-food visual shorthand of 1940 Natchez, conveying ideas of nurturing and nourishment.
"Here in the South, the mammy was good; she was revered," said Lorna Martin, Mammy's current owner. It's an aspect of Mammy's Cupboard that its later critics may have missed.
As the years passed, Mammy fell from grace. She was nearly bulldozed in 1979 for a widening of Highway 61, but was saved by early roadside preservationists. Old photos of Mammy -- she's always been popular with shutterbugs -- show that around this time her skin began to lighten, gradually, with each subsequent repainting.
She continued to be a roadhouse for po' boys, catfish, and BBQ, but by the early 1990s she was in bad shape. Her gas pumps were gone, her skirt and blouse were peeling, her arms had fallen off.
In 1994 Doris Kemp took over and began Mammy's revival. She introduced a menu of Mammy-cooked home-style meals: no burgers or fried food. The building was repaired and repainted. Doris died in 2004, but Lorna has wisely kept the menu unchanged. Today, Mammy's Cupboard is a foodie destination; online reviewers rave about the blueberry lemonade and meringue pie while barely mentioning that they're eating it under the skirt of a 28-foot-tall black woman.
The decor inside Mammy is Mammy: newspaper clippings, historical photos, artists' renderings. You can buy Mammy postcards, magnets, and t-shirts while surrounded by the clank of silverware in the dining room and the roar of traffic through the creaky screen door. Diners are advised to arrive early; once the popular daily menu items are gone, they're gone. "Everything's made from scratch except the crackers," said Mary, Lorna's mom, who runs the cash register.
Mary gave us a rundown of recent visits from Hollywood celebrities: Hilary Swank ("She was making a movie about a swamp"), Linda Hunt ("She was so nice, and neat as a pin"), and Craig Robinson ("He said he was looking for some good macaroni and cheese"). These sojourns by America's cultural elite -- Mammy is a long way from Hollywood -- show how far Mammy's Cupboard has risen in public esteem, although Lorna said that some diehard visitors are "disappointed that she's not still black."
Modern-day mixed-race mocha Mammy seems to have survived long enough that most people are willing to accept her as something more than a racial stereotype. "She needs to be kept up," said Mary. "She's a historical item."