SOMEWHERE IN STONE COUNTY, MISS.
Carmen Kelley is moving like an amped-up bolt of lightning, jumping between tables at her Lake Toc-O-Leen Catfish Restaurant off Mississippi Highway 26. She is a wisp, in black pants and white blouse, with a mile-high 1950s-style French twist adoring her head like a crown. She is non-stop, running from kitchen to the next table welcoming old friends and new customers. A guy, who answers to the moniker “Slim”, and is as out of place in that Hattiesburg-bought suit as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, orders up a mess of catfish – but Kelley tries to push the gumbo. Slim sticks with the catfish and avers he’s gonna try the gumbo real soon. One of Kelley’s waitresses passes by with an armful of dishes and offers, “You oughta try the gumbo, none better.”
Two couples at a nearby table are launching into a couple of monstrous seafood platters, all the while gossiping about this third cousin’s boy who just got sent to Parchman and a secretary over in Wiggins who got real close with her boss and now has taken a long vacation. The sound track for this conversation sounds like lyrics from a Merle Haggard country heartbreaker CD.
A couple of out-of-towners ask about the name: “Toc-O-Leen” and Kelley tells them straight out, “A lot of people think it’s an old Indian term. Really, it’s joining together some family names – people who first founded this place. The lake we sit on is called Toc-O-Leen and this restaurant took that name also. But it had nothin’ to do with Indians.”
Kelley rushes over to the door to welcome an elderly couple from McComb who are on their way to visit a daughter in Mobile, Ala. Somebody told somebody who told the couple about Kelley’s place and they built it into their itinerary. That’s how most folks find their way to this backwoods diner that Kelley has owned for the past two years.
“Actually, my husband Jack and I have been eating here for about the past eight years,” Kelley says. “Jack is winding down his plumbing business in the New Orleans area. He’s working Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and drives up to our ‘little 200 acres.’”
Kelley talks about the place in modest terms, but in truth it’s “Jack and Carmen’s haven” where roam chickens, geese, peacocks, turkeys, ducks, cows, horses, cats and dogs … “And don’t forget my pigeons,” Kelley says. “I raise pigeons.”
It is nirvana in the pines for the Kelleys. A place the two of them have worked toward since Jack got his plumbing business off the ground and drove cabs all over New Orleans part-time to make ends meet, while wife Carmen made the rounds of restaurants throughout Orleans and Jefferson parishes.
“Right after I graduated from East Jeff [East Jefferson High School], I started waitressing,” Kelley says. “There’s not a restaurant in New Orleans closed or still open, that I probably didn’t work at one time or other: Nancy’s and Tucker’s steakhouses on Jefferson Highway, the Candlelight Inn on Airline. I worked the Meal-a-Minit on also on Airline – I made a mean banana split. One time, the waiters and kitchen staff at a restaurant in the French Quarter went on strike and they asked me to wait tables down there. I stayed two nights. That was strike bustin’ and I didn’t want to do that. I have no idea where they got the kitchen staff from, because the regulars in the kitchen were on strike also. It was a real mess. I didn’t want any part of that.”
Kelley also climbed the ladder at the International Restaurant at Moisant Airport in New Orleans, going from hostess to head waitress to wine steward.
“It was a big career jump,” she says. “I went from 50 cents an hour to a whopping 75 cents an hours,” she says. “Yeah, so many restaurants in New Orleans and Jefferson, it’s hard to remember them all. I never had any ambition to own my own place. That was the farthest thing from my mind.”
A chance conversation with a friend of Jack’s led to man-made Lake Toc-O-Leen – a pristine pine forest oasis surrounded by cabins and one lone catfish restaurant.
Jack and Carmen Kelley bought a handful of acres and began building their zoo over the sprawling, gently sloping hills and forests. Naturally, they began eating at the restaurant and, in time, an offer was made by the owner, and accepted by Carmen Kelley.
“That was my biggest career jump,” she says. “I was going to retire down on the farm, but after not too long, I was about go crazy. I had been active all my life and just sitting around was not for me. There wasn’t a facet of the restaurant business I didn’t know, so I just had to figure the good Lord put me in this place for a reason.”
Restaurant owner, Carmen Kelley goes on about the history of the wooden building on the banks of the lake and how it has been “rebuilt 11 times since it was first opened.”
“It started out with one room,” she says. “That one over there. Then we added a screened-in porch. And a ‘step down porch’ and an ‘upstairs.’”
Kelley disappears into the kitchen and returns, with a handful of bread, to the main dining room overlooking the lake. She stops at the table of a family of four and hands the bread to a girl with Down Syndrome. “Here honey,” Kelley says. “This is for feeding the ducks out on the lake when you’ve finished your supper.” The little girl’s face lights up like a neon sign as she claps her hands and explodes in laughter.
“You know it’s gonna rain,” says Albert Riemer, a diner who says he and his wife are from “half way ‘tween Wiggins ‘n Lumberton.” “I seen it on just a while ago on the TV at the Wal-Mart over in Wiggins.”
“Well, rain means one thing,” Carmen Kelley says in response. “Gumbo! How ‘bout a nice bowl of it?”
Albert Reimer waves his hand. Like Slim, he’s sticking with the catfish.
“I got a great New Orleans dish that’s just comin’ outta th’ kitchen,” Kelley says. “I call it ‘Carmen’s Catfish Delight’ – Catfish topped with a crawfish sauce. They won’t be able to turn this one down.”