Nearly two months ago, Jim returned from an errand with the news that Alfred and Melissa Ellis were planning to reopen the Mustard Seed Country Store and Cafe. Slowing for the turn onto Sanders Ridge Road, Jim noted vehicles in the parking lot and a welter of tools, paint buckets and step ladders visible beyond the open doors. Closed for two years, the building was now under-going a through scrubbing, fresh interior paint, attractive landscaping.
A bench on the porch is an attractive place for a traveler to rest with a mug of coffee or a cold soft drink.
An assortment of tables and booths furnish an eating area conducive to friendly chat.
The menu board suggests plenty of options for breakfast, lunch or a quick snack.
Jim places his breakfast order on opening day.
Coolers and shelves are newly stocked with pantry staples.
Local scrimshaw artist, Jay Rose, has aranged a display of his work.
Handmade items for sale are the work of Kentucky crafters.
During the few minutes wait for your food to be prepared, you may discover the perfect gift for a friend--or you may decide to treat yourself to something special.
The Mustard Seed was a frequent destination several years ago when we were busy with the lengthy progress of converting our Amish-built house to modern standards. Jim labored to install wiring and plumbing while I painted, substituting warm color for endless walls of shiny blue. At some point in our work day, grubby and tired, one of us would suggest lunch at the Mustard Seed. The store/cafe a few minutes away from the mess of work, provided an interval of neighborhood camaraderie served up with our sandwiches and drinks.
In sharing our pleasure at the recent reopening of the store, Jim and I recalled the country stores of our respective rural childhoods.
In my rural Vermont hometown it wasn't possible during the 1950's to buy a cup of coffee, let alone a sandwich or a slice of pie. Men like my Dad, heading out for a day's work, funneled the last of the breakfast coffee into a quart thermos, pushed in the cork and screwed on the handled drinking cup. With luck, the cork stayed in place, the glass liner didn't break and the coffee was still hot hours later.
Although not equipped to serve lunch or a hot drink, the little village stores of the era could provide most of the items necessary for daily living.
Smith's IGA was located at the west end of the village main street, conveniently next door to the First National Bank. The front door opened onto an expanse of dark well-oiled flooring, uneven and scuffed with wear. To the left stood a wooden stand divided into bins for potatoes, cabbages and onions. It wasn't an expansive produce display.
Four aisles of shelving were stocked with canned fruit, canned vegetables, several varieties of Campbell's soup, Franco-American spaghetti [a nearly tasteless wodge of pasta in an orange-red sauce, much beloved by my Dad] Van Camps' Pork and Beans. There were tins of tuna, salmon, corned beef, 'deviled ham' and Spam to keep on hand for hearty lunchbox sandwiches to sustain the working man; jars of peanut butter, jelly and marshmallow fluff were the delight of school children.
The selection in any category wasn't large enough to create a dilemma of choice. Baking supplies were basic: flour, sugar, cocoa, a few familiar spices in sturdy tins. Packaged snacks were limited to Fig Newtons, Oreos, Cracker Jacks, candy bars. Glass bottles of soda pop could be fished from the watery depths of a 'cooler'--Coca Cola, Nehi Orange, Grape.
The grocery aisles converged at the back of the store near the meat counter with a 'meat-cutter' in attendance. The display case held pork chops, bulk and link sausage, hamburger, rolls of bologna. Steak was a luxury that few could afford. The Sunday pot roast would be cut to order while one waited.
Most families made the run once or twice per month to the bigger town nearly 20 miles away where a Grand Union and an A & P offered the novelty of greater choice. Grocery shopping finished, there was the treat of an ice cream cone or a milk shake from the soda fountain that occupied one wall of the drug store located around the street corner.
The limited selection at our small country store may not have been exciting, but the most urgent daily needs of a rural farming community were supplied. The dry goods section of the store stocked nails, nuts and bolts, ax handles, stove pipe, the bits and pieces needed for emergency repairs in house or barn.
A glass fronted case held bottles of cough syrup, aspirin, Band Aids, iodine, Vicks Vapo-Rub.
If a farm wife needed a new 'house dress' there were a few to consider, though most women made their own or sent off an order to 'Monkey Ward.' The farmer could rummage around the stock of tall black rubber boots and likely find a pair in his size.
The dry goods counter offered a utilitarian selection of socks and underwear. Nothing in the store was exotic, special or distinctive.
When all necessary items had been collected, one trundled the grocery cart to a plain wooden counter near the front door where Mrs. Smith rang up the total on a heavy hand-operated cash register. It was known that she extended credit to those families who were unable to pay on the spot, quietly entering the 'tab' in a small receipt book, discreetly handing over a carbon copy of the charges as she bagged boxes of cereal, a tin of coffee, cans of tomato soup.
Most families paid up when the 'milk check' made its bi-monthly appearance in their mailbox, or when a culled cow was sent to auction, but there were inevitably those short-term residents of the town who moved on, the store bill owing.
Although larger towns offered the choice of a few modest restaurants or diners, eating establishments were few and located far apart in rural areas. By the early 1960's ice cream stands had appeared [open Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend] and a few entrepreneurs were sufficiently encouraged by a brisk summer trade to build on a tiny cafe, open year round to offer hotdogs, hamburgers and French fries.
Hand painted signs announced 'Home Cooking' at the small cafes that sprang up along well traveled routes. Formica-topped tables were flanked by benches or chairs cushioned in bright orange vinyl. If the establishment was really uptown there might be a jukebox, a few shelves of inexpensive trinkets and souvenirs for sale.
Like the best of its 20th century forerunners the Mustard Seed Store and Cafe offers the convenience of a small country store and eating place. It is a personal family establishment, not part of an anonymous chain.
The coolers and shelves provide those items we are prone to 'run out of' [milk, eggs, toilet paper] as well as the resources for preparing a decent meal on short notice.
The gifts and crafts attractively displayed for sale are made by Kentucky artisans, many of them local. Best of all, to our minds, The Mustard Seed is a neighborhood gathering place.
This morning, in my own kitchen, I sat in Grampa Mac's rocking chair, a mug of creamy coffee beside me, a purring cat on my lap. I surveyed the counters and cooktop which I had wiped down late on Sunday evening after a session of canning tomatoes. I was loathe to pull out skillets and dishes, unmotivated to cook and clear up.
"This would be a good morning for breakfast at the Mustard Seed, " I ventured. Jim, intent on craigslist, didn't reply. Ten minutes later he strode to the kitchen sink, rinsed his coffee mug. I continued to rock peacefully, stroking my cat.
"Let's go to breakfast at the Mustard Seed," announced Jim.
The double doors stood wide to the gloomy morning. Smells of cooking drifted into the parking lot. We smiled at a couple just exiting--folks we had met there a week before.
Our neighbor was finishing breakfast, others we recognized were seated at a corner table. People dashed in through the rain, jostling to fill styrofoam cups with 'coffee to go.' A man we'd not met before brought his plate of eggs and gravy, settled at the end of our table. After inquiring where we lived, he began to share stories of his own days growing up on Spruce Pine Creek. Others joined in--tales of grandparents, of family farms, of weather, crops, years of hard work.
Most of us who can spare the hour for a leisurely breakfast are retired or self-employed, having flexible schedules. We have time to talk of where our travels have taken us, to compare the places we have lived and worked and raised families.
We learn that some of our neighbors were 'born and raised right here.' Others went away, sometimes for decades, but have returned to the place that nurtured them, the place were they trace their generations.
Then there are those like us who made the choice to move in retirement to Kentucky and discovered a welcoming community tucked among the ridges and 'hollers' of this rural county.
We will continue to enjoy the option of 'going out for breakfast' just around the corner, or to stop in for a cold drink or the occasional lunch break.
It is good to once again have a country store in the neighborhood.