Vicksburg’s Old Southern Tea Room opened in 1941 under the leadership of Mary McKay. It eventually became one of the best restaurants in the South, lauded by the Saturday Evening Post and featured in the 1955 edition of Duncan Hines’s Adventures in Good Eating.
The restaurant began as a civic project, brainstormed at a meeting by the Vicksburg Ladies Spring Pilgrimage Committee. The group was determined to make the city a premier destination for the many visitors who flocked to the South every year to tour antebellum homes. Yet they worried that Vicksburg lacked quality eateries like those found in Natchez and New Orleans and resolved to sponsor a seasonal restaurant to cater to tourists during pilgrimage.
They turned to McKay, whom the Vicksburg Post described as “a strong-willed and feisty blue-blood, a waspish little lady who grew up in the decaying splendor of Millbrook [Plantation] in east Mississippi.” Her grandfather had built the plantation before the Civil War, operated steamboats on the Chickasawhay River, and signed a treaty with the Choctaw on behalf of Andrew Jackson. The family fortune declined after the war years, but McKay—now the wife of a Vicksburg attorney and the mother of two grown children—remained a prominent socialite and community volunteer who heralded her ties to the Old South.
The city pooled resources to launch the restaurant. An old drugstore on Monroe Avenue was offered rent-free. The women of the pilgrimage committee donated pots, plates, and even a dilapidated old stove. McKay hired Elvira Coleman, who had for many years cooked at Millbrook Plantation, to prepare the food.
The project was to last no longer than six weeks, but the restaurant was so popular with tourists and locals that McKay decided to continue it after pilgrimage ended. When the ladies of the community took back their cookware, McKay got more. She borrowed money to purchase an old stove and negotiated an affordable rent. “Aunt” Elvira continued to work in the kitchen with others she mentored, creating the southern dishes that her diners relished: stuffed ham, fried chicken, catfish, corn pudding, and filled cakes, among others.
The Old Southern Tea Room, first by law and later by custom, was a whites-only dining establishment. McKay managed the kitchen and dining room with a staff of six African American women: two prepared food, two cooked, and two waited tables, with staff members switching duties each day. Except for McKay, each employee wore a calico dress, a white apron, and a bandana on her head. Especially during the civil rights era, many members of the black community criticized the mammy costume, but according to former employee Herdcine Williams, for some of the women, the steady income and good tips outweighed some of the humiliation of the costume.
With six different women contributing their skills in the kitchen, the restaurant offered a variety of daily specials. Many diners lunched there multiple times per week. In the years that Warren County was a dry community, the tea room also featured a hideaway in the back where mint juleps were served. In time, the restaurant earned a national reputation. Duncan Hines included it in his 1955 edition of Good Eating: when asked what he would like to do first after returning from Europe, he offered, “I would like to be at The Old South Tea Room, in Vicksburg, Mississippi; enjoying the Stuffed Garden Egg-plant and Corn Pudding.” The quip proudly appeared on the back cover of the restaurant’s cookbook, along with compliments from representatives of Life magazine, the Chicago Sunday Tribune, and the Minneapolis Star.
Mary McKay managed the restaurant on her own for many years. Though she could not even boil water, she possessed a fiery temper and demanded high quality from the kitchen. The popularity of the restaurant was testament to its success. In 1951, at age sixty-four, she sold one-third of the restaurant to Warren Asher. He bought her out nine years later with an agreement that reserved McKay’s right to consult in the kitchen and obligated Asher to serve her three meals a day for the rest of her life. He arranged for her meals even after she moved to a nursing home and fed her until her death in 1974.
In 1960 McKay published the Old Southern Tea Room Cookbook, a paperback collection of recipes featuring a photograph of a young woman in an antebellum ball gown on the front cover. The book opens with “Recipe for Nationally Famous Restaurant,” penned by Vicksburg native Charlotte Khan, which offers an embellished tale of the tea room’s history. Inside, recipes for Aunt Elvira’s little hot biscuits (including lard), Aunt Fanny’s spoon bread, Delta luncheon rice casserole, old southern “cawn puddin,” and the Old Southern Tea Room’s famous mint juleps are decorated with pen-and-ink drawings, including images of slaves working in fields and kitchens.
The restaurant subsequently changed ownership and location several times before the final owners declared bankruptcy and closed the tea room’s doors forever.
- Gordon Cotton, Vicksburg Post (15 April 2007)
- Charles Faulk, Vicksburg Post (15 March 1987)
- Mary McKay, Old Southern Tea Room Cookbook: A Collection of Favorite Old Recipes (1960)