Meridian Star

May 1, 2013

Candia Love

By Robert St. John
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — The restaurant business is full of characters. Restaurateur’s personality profiles run the gamut— buttoned-down straight-laced business types, off-the- wall bohemians, and everything in between. It’s usually in the “in between” where one finds the best of the lot. Last week I met one of those characters.

    On a remote South Mississippi two-lane road, just north of the Louisiana state line, on the side of U.S. Highway 35, sits one of the great home-cooking venues in this region— the Country 35 Diner.

    I had been hearing about the owner of the Country 35 Diner for a couple of years. People mentioned the diner, and that it offered breakfast and lunch, some mentioned fried rabbit, others mentioned the chicken, yet all of them—to a person— mentioned the owner.

    “You have got to meet Candy Love,” they would say. This past Saturday, I met her, and what followed was one of the more memorable breakfasts I’ve enjoyed this year. The food was good. The setting was unique. The company was exceptional.

    Candia Love (most people mistakenly call her “Candy”), a razor-sharp, spirited, African-American woman, and a native of Clinton, Miss., was a 17-year veteran of the accounting department of a pizza franchise company when she decided she wanted to open a restaurant in Jackson. Before opening she agreed to follow her husband to the tiny South Mississippi hamlet of Foxworth for the summer. That was nine years ago. She’s still there.

    After a few weeks in town, she walked in to a small diner and the owners asked, “Are you that lady from Jackson who’s looking to open a restaurant?”

    “They pretty much just gave me the keys and said, ‘here you go, we want to go to the house,’” Love said. “I’m looking around at these moose heads and turtle heads on the wall and thinking what in the world?”

    Love has an infectious laugh, an innate penchant for storytelling, and the trait that all successful independent restaurateurs possess— the hospitality gene.

    The Country 35 Diner (the name of the business when she purchased it from the previous owners) specializes in catfish, rabbit, and rutabagas. “Rutabagas are the most requested food,” Love said. I cook fried chicken every day. But we only serve rabbit on Saturdays.”

    “I didn’t grow up eating this type food,” Love said. “I was born in Chicago and my mother didn’t cook this. It wasn’t until I grew up and started experimenting that I began to eat it, and loved it. I didn’t even start cooking [any food] until I opened this place.”

    I was there for a late Saturday morning breakfast with my mother and son. But, over biscuits and conversation with the ebullient Love— who had pulled up a chair and joined us— we were still seated at lunchtime. “Lunch here starts at 10a.m.,” Love said. “When I opened, some of the local ladies came in at 11 and said, ‘Well, hun, you ain’t gonna make it unless lunch starts at ten.’ So I opened at ten.”

    “What’s up with your name?” I asked. “Everyone told me it was ‘Candy,’ but it’s actually Candia.”

    “They call me all sorts of things, Candy, Cookie, it doesn’t matter to me as long as they come in.” And come in they do. The previous Saturday there had been a line out the door at lunch— not bad for Foxworth, Miss.

    As the breakfast shift morphed into an early lunch, a piece of fried rabbit and a small bowl of rutabagas appeared at my table, and I pushed the eggs, bacon, and biscuits aside. The rabbit was tender and juicy. “I think it tastes like a cross between turkey and pork,” Love stated. Not a bad assessment.

    It took me 51 years to eat a rutabaga, not because I didn’t want to eat them, but because the opportunity never presented itself. A rutabaga is a cross between a turnip and cabbage, but— to me— tastes like turnip greens.

    One doesn’t have to like rabbit or rutabagas to eat at the Country 35 Diner. There are all of the usual country-cooking suspects. But a visit to the diner without an extended table visit with Love would almost be a wasted trip. “That’s what I do all day long. I sit, and talk, and eat, and laugh,” Love said. “I’ve been huntin’ this gig my whole life.”

     Love’s laugh is one of the world’s greatest laughs. “I think the Lord just handpicks everyone that walks through that door,” she said, giving a quick side nod towards the front door of the diner. “I just think to myself, everyone in the world should know this person or that person, because they are such characters.”

    Actually, everyone should know Candia Love. She’s one of the greatest characters of them all.