OF THE FOUR RESTAURANTS discussed in this book, two are still in operation: Mammy’s Cupboard and Sambo’s. The former, as shown in Figures 4 and 5, is a restaurant building in Natchez, Mississippi, is an enormous Black woman into whose skirts patrons enter in order to have a meal. She is a larger-than-life roadside version of the genuine, old-fashioned southern mammy that the Coon Chicken Inn personified to those Seattle journalists. Like other images of Black women, she remains timeless and constant in a plain dress and head wrap.”
A Mississippi journalist imagined (and dispelled the notion) that “with her bosomy figure . . . the building looks as though she might have been imagined by a dirty-minded white ‘massa.’” Whether the building realized the racial-sexual fantasies of the restaurant owner, we will never know, but it is clear that the idea of a buxom Black mammy is long lived in the American imaginary. Central to her longevity is the wish for White Americans to live in a world where Black folks, content to remain in faithful service, have long since shrugged off any anger about past (and present) injustices in which Whites are complicit. The architecture of Mammy’s Cupboard took Aunt Jemima’s “Slave in a Box” to the next level, enabling White patrons to consume Mammy’s labor so completely that she does not merely prepare the food with her bare hands, her whole body is tasked with it. She is not only in the business of frying chicken, she is the business.
Launched in 1940, the restaurant was created by Henry Gaude. Some popular discourse locates the genesis of Mammy’s Cupboard in Gaude’s seeking to capitalize on the craze for Gone with the Wind. In this telling, the building was initially designed as a White Southern belle, and only later was transformed into a Black woman because “black was better than white in the road-food visual shorthand of 1940 Natchez, conveying ideas of nurturing and nourishment.” But this differs from other accounts, including journalistic reports based on interviews with those closest to the restaurant’s operation. There, the focus on making a Black mammy is explicit and linked to the legacy of slavery. In any case, the Southern belle explanation ignores the context in which Black women are asked to nurture those who subordinate them, and accepts uncritically why a Black woman would be visual shorthand for food preparation. R.T. Davis, the businessman behind the Aunt Jemima brand, anticipated that a Black woman would be useful as the public face of his new pancake mix; here again with Mammy’s Cupboard, a Black woman is used to stand in for prepared foods. Many Southern restaurants went to great lengths to portray an atmosphere redolent of Black servitude as a way to convey authenticity.
The more frequently recounted history is that Gaude and his wife meant for the restaurant to serve as a welcome station for visitors to the Natchez pilgrimages. These seasonal events provide public tours of privately-owned antebellum homes. In other words, homes that trace their grandeur to the wealth of the slave trade. Gaude’s wife, a hostess for the pilgrimages, thought a restaurant and gas station shaped like a Black woman would be in keeping with event, and would therefore attract attention and business. Because the Natchez pilgrimages celebrated antebellum architecture, culture, and history, this roadside Mammy was an explicit tribute to the institution of slavery. David Sullivan, the country’s leading expert on the Black Consumer Market, produced his pioneering market research too late to inform the Gaudes. In 1943, he wrote an essay directing corporations to avoid depicting “colored women as buxom, broad-faced, grinning Mammies and Aunt Jemimas.”
As late as 1980, local media were sympathetic to this the idea of Mammy as cultural icon of Southern hospitality: “After tours of the antebellum homes where ladies and gentlemen once sipped mint julep and dined on barbecue, there’s one more site here keenly reminiscent of the Old South. A traveler hasn’t fully experienced Mississippi unless he has been by Mammy’s Cupboard. . . . Like the stereotyped mammies of pre-Civil War days, she nurses chil-uns now aged into good ol’ boys and gals. They gather in her skirts every day for their fried chicken, homemade French fries and the happy hour.” This reporter could not have made a more pointed statement of the symbolic value of a Black mammy for White nurturance and sustenance.
At that time, Mammy’s was owned by Edwin A. and Mildred Vedrenne. Edwin, Gaude’s nephew, purchased the restaurant with his wife Mildred after it had closed in 1943, remaining shuttered during World War II due to gas rationing. The Vedrennes operated the restaurant for nearly forty years, seeing it through at least one major challenge to its existence, when it was threatened by highway expansion in 1980. The Vedrennes sold restaurant souvenirs that allowed patrons to take mementos of slavery nostalgia into their homes. Reported the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, “Made from Mrs. Buttersworth bottles, ‘Mammy’ lamps and dolls with baskets of cotton atop their heads are sold to people from as far away as Switzerland, England, and Canada.” The accompanying photo is captioned, “SOUVENIRS—Mrs. Butterworth syrup bottles have been painted and baskets of cotton attached to their heads to be sold to customers.” Mrs. Butterworth, already brown, has been recolored black, and as noted, has been adorned with material evidence of her enslaved labor. The dolls bring into jarring relief the extent to which the restaurant business sought to purposefully represent its business as the subjugation of Black bodies.
In 1982, Mildred offered to sell the establishment to a regular customer, Judy Reeder. Mammy’s was still a tourist draw in Natchez and was on the National Register of Historic Places. Reeder was interested in the purchase as much for its business potential as for her emotional connection to the restaurant. She quipped, “I called it Black Mammy’s as a child . . . I’ve always been fond of this place . . . Tourists still come in here who have been several times. They say they just had to stop by and see Aunt Jemima” (emphasis mine). As with the conflation of coon and Mammy, this slippage between Mammy’s Cupboard and Aunt Jemima as brands reveals the underlying messaging of interchangeable Black servitude. And Reeder’s adding “Black” to the name as a child makes clear the deeply embedded racial meaning of mammy. Mammy-as-building wielded significant power in solidifying racial understandings. With Mammy as part of the physical landscape, the built environment is a racial project, teaching residents (particularly children) what Blackness means. Reeder bought the restaurant and was mentored by Mildred Vedrenne in running the business until Vedrenne died a few months later. Reeder cited their relationship as motivation to “keep many of the traditions of Mammy’s Cupboard, right down to the glass case with shelves of dolls dressed in the Southern tradition.” The Southern tradition for Reeder and her customers meant to make Black womanhood synonymous with slavery.
Historic preservationists have seen Mammy’s Cupboard as an exemplar of a noteworthy but soon to be extinct vernacular architecture. Keith Sculle, who coauthored Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age, was in 1988 the coordinator of educational programs for the Illinois Historic Preservation Society. Asked to comment for a newspaper article that described Mammy’s Cupboard as “a multi-storied brick-and-stucco replica of a black kitchen slave,” Sculle argued that people often looked down on or disregarded such buildings because of their local character and lack of distinctive architectural heritage. In his words, Mammy was “the kind of thing that captures everyone’s attention even though the locals oftentimes look down their noses at it . . . Why save these? They’re just eyesores . . . let’s bulldoze ’em down and put up a shopping center.” Sculle’s reasoning elides key reasons why locals may have had negative feelings about Mammy’s, none of which had anything to do with snobbery. While Mammy could be described as an eyesore, she is more offensive to hearts and minds. Some locals are Black, and do not wish to see replicas of “kitchen slaves” as roadside restaurant façades. We may look to Nicholas Powers’s description of his reaction to Kara Walker’s A Subtlety for the feelings that a giant Mammy may evoke. Walker’s sculpture, a 2014 public art installation of a forty-foot Black female sphinx made out of sugar in the soon-to-be-demolished Domino Sugar factory in Brooklyn, New York, elicited the following from Powers: “Of course we both marveled at the immensity of the Mammy sphinx. Just the sheer size of it pushed us back on our heels. The physical weight of all that sugar, a symbol of the pain and profit wrung from our ancestors, our black bodies, fell on us hard.” So too would Mammy’s Cupboard’s fall hard on passersby. The physical scale of the edifice, the representation of enslavement and the pain of Black women, and the use of racial caricature for capitalist gain would weigh heavily on Black minds.
In the 1990s, Doris Kemp purchased the restaurant, which was falling into disrepair. She “introduced a menu of Mammy-cooked home-style meals: no burgers or fried food.” In Kemp’s view, the restaurant was popular because patrons associated it with their childhoods, though this would only apply to White childhoods. Kemp discounted the idea that Mammy was racially divisive as a marketing tool: “She suffered a bit during the 1960s, with civil rights unrest, but most people don’t think of her as racial.” What Kemp means is “racist”—“racial” is a linguistic palliative used to take the sting out of the violence inherent in the word “racism.” Kemp is not suggesting that Mammy has no race; that privilege of racelessness has only ever been accorded to people classified as White, a universal standard for humanity. Race is very much fundamental to who Mammy is, whether as a thirty-foot-tall building or in the everyday stereotypes that are so “common sense” that they cease to be perceived.
Kemp came to the restaurant after having bought a retirement home (a former plantation called Kingston Place) in Natchez with her husband and after having lived in Louisiana and thereafter, Warri, Nigeria. According to the journalist reporting on Kemp’s story, her life in Africa played a role in preparing her for the restaurant endeavor. It is unclear whether the reporter was referring to Kemp regularly hosting dinners for dozens of people in Nigeria or whether Kemp’s residency in West Africa was ideal for owning a restaurant in which the enslavement of Africans was a central motif. But the restaurant changed hands yet again, and as of 2014, it was owned by Lorna Martin. She, too, was an apologist for the representation of the Black mammy, calling it a revered figure, one that continued to motivate customers to buy paraphernalia. Moreover, “some diehard visitors are ‘disappointed that she’s not still black.’” The image of a mammy with a resolutely Black face was deeply ingrained in the American social fabric. In Gone with the Wind, the character Mammy is “shining black, pure African, devoted to her last drop of blood to the O’Haras.” Musical recordings such as the advertisement for a new fox trot tune (Figure 6) also made specific reference to the severity of blackness in Mammy’s skin tone.
Whereas the face of Mammy’s Cupboard became progressively lighter over the years, changing with each subsequent repainting (and reportedly starting after the near-miss with the highway), the current restaurant owners made a decision to portray on the website the Black Mammy that patrons longed for. She is dark-skinned, with white hair, and holding out a tray. Strangely, the restaurant’s website credits Kemp with opening the business in 1994, rather than simply taking over ownership of an establishment that had been doing business for nearly fifty years. Perhaps this is a way to distance the restaurant from a sordid Jim Crow history. Today, Martin and her daughter Tori Johnson are the current owners. The restaurant’s website proclaims,
WELCOME TO MAMMY’S CUPBOARD! Mammy’s Cupboard was built in 1940 and continues to stand as a much loved landmark on Hwy 61, South of Natchez, Mississippi. She is visited annually by local patrons as well as visitors from all over the world. Our home cooked food, desserts, and our specialty “Blueberry Lemonade,” are enjoyed by many. Our motto is “Tourists treated same as home folk” and we strive to deliver down home service.
As noted above, the website images made no compunction about presenting Mammy as dark-skinned, perhaps catering to a smaller network of current customers, fans, and others who are sympathetic to an explicitly dark mammy. However, in more public settings—for example, on the consumer review website Yelp, the restaurant employs a more subdued image. There, the profile photo shows the more recent incarnation of Mammy, where her skin is light and she could be perceived as White.
Yelp reviewers were decidedly for or against, with few neutral views. Those against made frequent mention of racist iconography. Most of the positive reviews expressed sentiments about the “old-fashioned” atmosphere, and about enjoying the nods to an earlier era in American history and dining culture. This was an era in which the country’s racial order was systematically writ into public spaces, and reviewers enjoyed looking back to that time via the depictions of Black servitude as “memorabilia” and cultural artifact. For example, “L.E.E.” from Leicester, North Carolina found the establishment cute, “with bits of memorabilia on the walls,” and recommended Mammy’s Cupboard “to anyone looking for some good old fashioned food.” Marie Y. from Dime Box, Texas, supported her written review with photos of Mammy, one of which was captioned, “Beautiful Mammy on this beautiful day!” Cathy C. from Wapakoneta, Ohio, noted, “What a throw back to the 60’s. Remember these unique type of places when I was a kid.” Both Kimberly L. from Webster, and Allan R., from Newport Beach, California, made reference to the restaurant’s “kitsch.” Allan stated, “If you are a lover of the kitschy roadside Americana (and I am) that is all too fast dying out, Mammy’s Cupboard is a must visit. If nothing else, I always try to support these types of places, as once they are gone they seldom return.” Roy M. of Pasadena, California, contended that “Eating here is like stepping back in time, to another era. How often do you have the opportunity to eat in the skirt of a 28-foot-high statue of Mammy?! Don’t get me started.” Others were more hesitantly pleased, unsure whether it was appropriate to appreciate the restaurant’s themes but enjoying it nonetheless: David R from Winnetka, Illinois, said, “Came to see the unusual building (shaped like a “Mammy,” not sure if that’s even ok . . .), but loved the food!” Newspaper critics felt similarly: “We felt a little odd eating in a restaurant so insensitively shaped, but several people in Natchez had recommended Mammy’s.”
Only one Yelp reviewer took exception at the restaurant’s theme and imagery. Kim B., from Ypsilanti, Michigan, wrote in disgust, “I cannot believe a restaurant like this exist in 2017! You people are ignorant, racist bigots! Customers and owners. Then you have the nerve to have a gift shop filled with more racist relics! Unbelievable! You should be shut down ASAP!” Reviews available on Google were much more critical. Said Taneshia Powell-O’Neal, “Is no one alarmed by the fact that this restaurant is in the shape of a black mammy and they sell black mammy magnets in the gift shop? Do you know what a mammy is?” Quetzalcoatl wrote, “This is the most racist putrid restaurant I’ve ever seen. A mammy was a slave who was forced to breastfeed white children at the expense of her own children.” Sierra Smith commented, “Racist, why would you build a restaurant basically making fun of black people. Go Away.” Finally, Kirby McKay stated, “This is one of the most racist things I’ve seen. An old African slave as the building and also selling slave mammy dolls.” Perhaps these reviewers failed to appreciate the reverence that White diners held for Mammy. It’s something “that its later critics may have missed.”