Wednesday, July 6, 2022

A Restaurant That Can Hold A Town

Enter Merigold’s city limits and start your stopwatch. Tick. Tick. Tick. Drive past the ruins of its downtown.

There’s just buildings. Old, washed up buildings. Buildings whose windows and doors are boarded up with rotten and faded planks of wood, and in some cases hidden from view entirely by thickets of bamboo and shrubbery.

One minute passes, and your tour is done. There used to be several grocery stores. A blacksmith shop. Hardware stores. Gas stations. A railroad. Hundreds of people packing the streets on a Saturday. But like so many Delta towns, mechanized farming hit the town like a tsunami. The people left.

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But don’t be deceived into thinking this is just another forlorn Delta ghost town.

Merigold is still on the map thanks to two restaurants and one world-famous pottery studio: anchors that save this tiny bedroom community seven miles from Cleveland from disappearing.

The Man-Cave

In dead center is Crawdad’s, a man-cave mansion big enough to hold the entire population of Merigold with room to dance. There might even be enough animal heads on the walls for all 400-plus citizens to have one. Whitetails. Moose. Elk. Turkeys. Duck. Gargantuan souvenirs from African safaris such as dik-diks, kudu, bushbucks, a lioness. A stuffed leopard gets its own display window right above the bar.

And that’s just the way owner Andrew Westerfield wants it. Mayor for the past 40 years (“mayor for life,” friends say), Westerfield has lived in Merigold his entire life.

A lawyer, Westerfield never had a clue he’d open a restaurant. “We didn’t even have a menu for a long time,” he said. Just a place for a good ole Delta boy who “really likes crawfish.” And he knew other people did too.

“It started off as a process to get crawfish to have parties with,” Westerfield said with his deep southern drawl. So Crawdad’s opened on February 29, 1984, in a roadside shack with a big crawfish pot and not much else. Originally, the “restaurant” raised its own crawfish on a ten-acre plot. Now it buys from Louisiana, also serving lobster, steaks, fish, shrimp, you name it. The manlier, the better.

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But Crawdad’s does much more than serve good food. It helps hold the remnants of this town together. While he didn’t know that would be the case, Westerfield now knows that’s what it’s become.

Andrew Westerfield’s love for crawfish led to the creation of Crawdad’s.

“That was a big part of what I tried to do. Have somewhere or something to help Merigold,” Westerfield said. “It turned out where it helped a lot of young folks that were able to get jobs. You would have 20 to 25 young kids working that would take on a lot of responsibility. Crawdad’s wouldn’t have made it without them.”

Crawdad’s became a full- time restaurant in 1987. It was one room, 22 feet by 14 feet, all cypress with pine floors. “Every time we had some extra cypress we just added a room. And every time we added a room people would fill it up. So we’d have to keep on adding rooms,” Westerfield said. To the point, he says, that it was too big.

That’s the Delta for you. It’s one big party, a party that if one person knows about it, everyone is invited. “A lot of these places take on the personality of the town,” Westerfield said. That’s just what Crawdad’s has done.

It’s no coincidence that the oldest chartered hunting club in Mississippi, Merigold Hunting Club, played a huge part in the restaurant. Pictures of kids at the club lined the walls. Whitetails from the club were mounted on the wall. Memories filled the entire place.

And then it burned. All of it. Well, except two grills.

“The damn thing. I had paid off the last note on all my building in December of 2001. And on January 2, 2002 the bastard burned,” Westerfield said, the pounding of his fist coinciding with every word pouring from his mouth. “We had a great African collection of animals that got burned up. We had a great whitetail collection that got burned up. Lord have mercy, that was terrible.”

Things like his dad and granddad’s scale that was used as the official weight scale for the county. Things like a 55-inch “huge ass” cape buffalo that hung just far enough off the ground for an athletic 5’8” boy to barely touch with his fingertips.

But you better believe that didn’t stop Westerfield. “Opened it in 139 days from the day it burned to the day it opened up,” he said with a sense of pride.

New animals hang from the walls, many volunteered by wives who wanted nothing to do with them. Some duplicates of pictures from the old restaurant, but mostly new ones. A new scale placed in the exact same position as the old one. A kitchen bigger than most Delta restaurants.

But everything else is pretty much the same. The layout is the same. The same size, same height. Just made of white pine from North Carolina now.

Same boilers, too. In fact, the same employee has been boiling crawfish at Crawdad’s for the past 24 years. He has cooked “more crawfish than anybody in the Delta without any doubt, and probably more than anybody in the state of Mississippi,” Westerfield says with a prideful grin.

Oh yeah. One more difference — a powerful sprinkler system. Westerfield asked the installer if it would put out a fire. The response: “Sir, you got enough water in here that you better get the small children off the floor.”

The McCartys

A few paces down the road sits a “simple, but elegant” restaurant, a 180-degree turn in the other direction from the testosterone-heavy atmosphere at Crawdad’s. The Gallery was started by world- renowned potter Lee McCarty, who opened his McCarty’s Pottery studio in August of 1954.

McCarty and his wife Pup, who died in 2009, took an old mule barn and converted it into the studio and pottery outlet. They insulated the old barn with cardboard, sweated in summer and froze in winter. In 1960, he won a national award at the Delgado Museum in New Orleans for his stoneware and began winning other honors around the country, drawing widespread media attention for the pottery he and Pup fashioned from clay that William Faulkner gave them from a ravine on his property in Oxford.

Soon, people were showing up from other countries and every Delta garden club seemed to know just how to find McCarty’s place, hidden behind dense thickets of bamboo and a cypress fence right behind what would eventually become Crawdad’s. As at Crawdad’s, there were no signs. That was part of the mystique.

Once you get past the flower garden in the courtyard and the antiques and sculpture inside the cypress plank walls, the food at The Gallery is served on dishes that come from McCarty’s pottery studio. Sticking to a theme of simple elegance, this restaurant offers only two entrees — a traditional cold plate of homemade chicken salad with “Merigold tomatoes, a tomato casserole of sorts,” and a hot plate that rotates between shrimp or chicken crepes or a meatloaf with black-eyed peas and homegrown collard greens, all served with corn muffins. And then there are the two desserts — chocolate and caramel cobblers, both served with ice cream that’s all you can eat for kids.

Stephen Smith, 47, godson of the McCartys, moved back to Merigold to run the business side of the studio and restaurant in 1998, seven years after the restaurant’s founding. His brother Jamie now spins the same wheel Lee and Pup spun for so many years. Both have proven Thomas Wolfe wrong. “You really can go home again,” said Smith, whose squinting eyes can barely be seen through his small, oval-shaped glasses when he smiles.

Smith said McCarty started the restaurant because there was “not much in the way of a nice restaurant for ladies in the area.” Also, McCarty’s father was a restaurateur, so he took it on as a hobby.

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Although the restaurant is small, only able to hold about 50, it serves its purpose in this town that is “actually doing well, and gratefully so,” offering a nice place for bridal showers, luncheons, and brunch.

But it all started with Lee and Pup McCarty. “The saving grace really has been Uncle Lee and Aunt Pup,” Smith said. The studio brought people from all over the world to this small Delta town.

“Lee and Pup had a vision, and being able to pull it off in Merigold? Absolutely fantastic,” Westerfield said.

The McCartys were always dedicated to “living life on their own terms.” Every January, they took the month off. Every day after lunch, Lee still takes a nap. The place has never advertised. “As Lee and Pup said, ‘If you’re good enough, they’ll come’,” Westerfield said.

Crawdad’s, the Gallery and McCarty’s are shining stories of local ingenuity that have helped keep this town alive. And as the 90-year-old McCarty, who has literally seen the town “disappear” before his own eyes, puts it, “I wouldn’t change anything.”

–Story from Delta Magazine.

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