By Robert St. John
The Meridian Star
This is going to be a hard one. Sometimes I sit at my computer before the sun rises on Monday morning and the words flow freely and easily for this 750-word column. As a matter of fact, most mornings I am eager to put down on paper a topic I’ve been thinking about all week. Today is not one of those days.
A few days ago I learned that a great friend, mentor, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, a caring, giving member of the community, one of the hardest working and dedicated women I have ever known, and the queen of South Mississippi barbeque, Leatha Jackson, passed away.
Today there is a huge void in the culinary world and an era has ended.
Leatha Jackson was born in Meadville, Miss. She got her start cooking chicken pies in her aunt’s kitchen when she was just a teenager. She moved to Foxworth, Miss. (just west of Columbia) in 1955, and after 20 years of working for “other people” in various restaurants and cafes, she decided to open her own restaurant. “I did it on faith,” she told me in a 1993 interview.
The first two years she worked out of the kitchen in her home. Then, in 1976, she moved to the original Leatha’s building in Foxworth. “It was slow at first,” Leatha said. “Some days we’d only take in ten dollars. I made quilts to keep the money coming in.” Eventually the business took off and customers began pouring in. Today people travel from all over the country to eat at Leatha’s.
Mississippi might have a couple of chefs who are more “known” across the nation. But there is no way this state has a chef, cook, or culinary personality who was more loved and admired than Leatha Jackson.
There are countless times I have been in Chicago, California, or New York and someone has mentioned that they ate at Leatha’s BBQ Inn in Hattiesburg. It is always my staple go-to restaurant for out-of-town guests. If someone wants to know what South Mississippi tastes like, they need to eat at Leatha’s.
While thinking about writing this column I did a spotlight search on my computer for the word “Leatha’s” Hundreds of hits and links showed up. Most were emails others had written after reading one of my columns about Leatha’s. They told of experiences shared and memories made while visiting the restaurant.
All of the emails were positive except one. There, tucked away in all of the “what a classy lady,” “best bbq I have ever tasted,” emails were two letters calling me out because the reader thought Leatha’s par-boiled their ribs. For the 935th time, Leatha’s never par-boils their ribs. They are that tender because they cook them low and slow over a wood-fired pit without using propane or any other artificial fuel. It’s not easy to create fall-off-of-the-bone-tender ribs using a real fire bbq pit, but they do it, and it is delicious.
In addition to a Herculean work ethic, Leatha Jackson always helped those in need. A friend who frequently called on Leatha’s business once told me, “She takes care of her family and she feeds the community.” The “community” that she was referring to was not the community of paying customers, but neighbors who were down on their luck and in need of food and a helping hand. Leatha was always there to help.
“You’ve got to love people,” Leatha once told me, when we were talking about the restaurant business. And that is true, but if you’re going to thrive in this business for over 40 years, you’ve got to have a great product, too.
Once when I was sitting with her in the dining room waiting for a carryout order, I asked, “What advice to you have for anyone getting in the restaurant business?”
“Love your neighbor as yourself and trust God,” great advice from an amazing woman, and one who practiced what she preached. Well done, thy good and faithful servant.
So a new era will begin. The legacy that Leatha Jackson left behind is well established, and her children and grandchildren— who have been running the restaurant for the past several years— will continue to carry on the tradition that Leatha Jackson established. One thing is for certain, the barbeque up in heaven just got a lot better.