A Cut (of Beef) Above the Rest: Kathryn’s serves up steakhouse favorites for more than 20 years

Portico Jackson
December 2013

It’s rare that a restaurant stands the test of time for almost a quarter of a century.  Founded in 1989, Kathryn’s Steakhouse has seen generations of hungry metro-area patrons pass through its doors.  Every time they come back, they know they’ll get the same quality food and the same level of service.

Kathryn’s was founded in 1979 under the name Brandi’s Steakhouse.  In 1989, the restaurant moved to its current location and reopened under the name Kathryn’s, after the founder’s daughter. Current owner Kerry Brashear worked under the original owner during the early days of his carrer in the food industry. However, at the young age of 26, Brashear found himself the owner of his own restaurant when he purchased Kathryn’s in 1991.

Brashear attributes several factors to his continued success.  Most importantly, is the food.  Many of the original steakhouse recipes and cooking techniques first developed by longtime chef George Philips back in 1979 are still served today. Phillips passed away in 2000, and the restaurant’s Redfish by George is named in his honor. Kathryn’s is one of the few restaurants in the area to serve prime rib, along with filets, New York strips, and rib eyes.

It was Brashear’s decision to add seafood to the menu.  In addition to redfish, the selection includes shrimp, scallops, halibut, and yellowfin tuna, which won best entrée at Taste of Mississippi in 2012 and 1st place at Blues by Starlight for the last two years. The restaurant’s kitchen was recently remodeled, doubling its size and allowing Brashear to add even more variety to the menu.

Second, Brashear keeps the menu affordable from food to the wine list.  The restaurant has specials every night of the week, including the $15 prime rib entrée on Sunday, which has become a big hit with the after church crowd.

“I want someone to be able to afford to come in, have a good meal, a glass of wine, and have a good time,” Brashear explains. “You get a better value for your money when you eat here.”

Third, the restaurant features live entertainment seven nights a week. Brashear tries to appeal to everyone, so he has featured everything from one-piece solo acts to five-piece bands. He also renovated his bar area to incorporate several flat panel televisions and created a bar and grill menu for patrons who want to grab a bite to eat while watching the game.

Among some of Kathryn’s more popular steakhouse dishes include their green gradoo spinach casserole, Chef Phillips original bleu cheese dressing, broiled tomatoes with cheese, and potatoes au gratin.  As for popular entrees, Brashear says it’s a tie between the filet and the award-winning yellowfin tuna.

Because they have been such a mainstay in the community, Brashear has taken strides to support several local charities.  They frequently participate in events such as Taste of Mississippi, benefiting Stewpot Community Services, and Battle of the Bartenders, which supports The Mississippi Burn Foundation.

“I like to be involved in the community and support charities that keep the money here in our own backyard,” he says.

Over the last two decades, Brashear has watched as his restaurant has grown from steakhouse into the popular bar and grill it has become today. While other eateries come and go, he is confident that Kathryn’s will still be around for the next generation of foodies.

“Our food is better than most, and that is why we have stayed in business for 22 years,” he adds.  “We have something for everybody, whether its steaks, burgers, soup or salad.  People like our staff, so we have a lot of regulars.  We are kind of like the local hangout for this area. Once people come, they are likely to come back because they had a good meal and a good time.”


Pizza Pie: Basil’s 904 Serves up Pizza with Success

Portico October 2013Portico Jackson
October 2013

Jackson native and restaurateur Nathan Glenn pretty much earned his cooking credentials right here in the metro area.  In 1984, when Glenn was nine years old, his father Tim opened Rooster’s Restaurant, which is still home to one of Jackson’s best burgers 29 years later.  Glenn says he has been working in a kitchen ever since.

Fast forward almost three decades and Glenn is now the owner of five restaurants in the Jackson area.  In addition to Rooster’s in Fondren, Congress Street Bar and Grill serves up hamburgers, po boys, and Southern blue plate specials to the lunch crowd in downtown Jackson.  Glenn also opened his popular chain of Italian-inspired restaurants – Basil’s – which has locations in downtown Jackson, Fondren, and Belhaven.

It’s Basil’s Belhaven – now known as Basil’s 904 because of its location at 904 Fortification Street – that has been creating a lot of buzz lately.  After taking back over the restaurant earlier this year, Glenn wanted to revamp the location and make some changes to the menu.  That’s when Glenn’s brother-in-law Matthew Puckett recommended adding homemade pizza to the mix.

Glenn and Puckett go way back.  Long before they became in-laws, Puckett was a baker at Rooster’s for 10 years.  Puckett and his roommate built an outdoor brick oven in the backyard of their Memphis home and frequently enjoyed trying out new pizza recipes.  Turns out, Puckett just so happened to be working on a new recipe for the perfect pizza dough.

Recalls Puckett, “As soon as I saw the deck ovens in the kitchen, I told Nathan, ‘I know what we can do with those.’”

Puckett returned to Jackson and began tweaking his dough recipe for larger scale production.  As soon as the pizzas hit the market, Glenn and Puckett both agree they were an immediate hit.

“We almost weren’t prepared for how quickly they became a success,” says Puckett.  “News got around by word of mouth.  There were a lot of conversations going on about it and the pizzas took off really quickly.”

Adds Glenn, “Adding pizza to the menu really changed the shape of the entire restaurant.”

Glenn and Puckett credit several factors that make their pizzas stand out.  First, the crust is made using Antimo Caputo flour, produced by the Antico Molino Caputo company based in Naples, Italy.  The company sources high quality local ingredients and finely mills its wheat, earning it the reputation of producing some of the world’s highest quality flour.

“Pizza is really all about the crust,” Puckett explains.  “The flour we use creates smoother dough and allows it to become hydrated easier.”

The pizzas are also baked on stones at 600 degrees Fahrenheit.  Baking the pizza at this temperature not only cooks it in a mere six minutes, but it also steams the crust giving it a crunchy texture on the outside, but leaving it soft and chewy on the inside.  Glenn also keeps the pizzas simple, choosing fresh ingredients but not loading up the pizza with too many toppings.  The menu features your standard cheese and pepperoni options.  But there are also some regional favorites like the barbecue chicken pizza made with honey barbecue sauce, caramelized onions, and cilantro.

Finally, each pizza has a distinct oblong shape that is cut in a cross-cut pattern, creating long, thin slices.  Glenn says this ensures that every slice is the same, creating a more consistent bite.

“Pizza really speaks to everyone.  It is affordable and can feed a lot of people,” he adds.  “When we decided to add pizza to the menu, we didn’t just want to create a great pizza.  We wanted a pizza that would knock your socks off.  I think we hit a grand slam.”

Oodles of Noodles: Grant Nooe’s new venture in Fondren brings unique Asian flavors to Jackson

Portico September 2013Portico Jackson
September 2013

If you have explored Jackson’s food scene at all in the last 30 years, no doubt you have heard the name Grant Nooe come up a few times.  The Jackson-native has been the mastermind behind several successful meto-area restaurants.  However, his newest enterprise – the recently opened M!SO in Fondren – may be his most exciting venture yet.

After graduating from Murrah High School, Nooe originally thought he wanted to pursue a career in music.  Ultimately though, he decided food was the path he wanted to take.  Nooe attended culinary school at the former Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago (now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts), eventually going on to work in several restaurants in and around the Windy City.

You can take the boy out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of the boy.  After being away for so long, Jackson began to beckon Nooe home.  He returned in the late 80’s and soon after opened his first restaurant – 400 East Capitol – in downtown Jackson.  He would later open other restaurants in the surrounding areas including Brick Oven Cafe in 1993, Fresh Market Cafe in 2002, PanAsia in 2003, and Grant’s Kitchen in 2010.

When the opportunity arose to move into the former Fatsumo Sushi location on the corner of Duling Avenue and State Street in Fondren, Nooe immediately recognized the potential the space had to offer.  Because of Fondren’s reputation for embracing out-of-the box ideas and creativity, he thought another Asian-inspired restaurant would be well-received.

When asked why he is drawn to Asian cuisine, he says, “The U.S. is such a melting pot, that I think all chefs are influences by all types of different cuisines.  I love Asian flavors and have always enjoyed cooking with them.  Living and working in the area, this is the kind of food I would like to eat and I thought it would be something that Jackson would support.”

Nooe is quick to point out, however, that M!SO is not just another neighborhood sushi bar.

“It is completely different.  Our emphasis is on our noodle bar and fresh ingredients,” he explains.  “We have also completely remodeled the space.  People who visited before we opened are amazed by the change.”

As soon as patrons pass under the brightly colored awnings and through the double glass doors of M!SO, they are greeted by an impressive menu offering a wide variety of unique Asian dishes.  Noodle dishes include favorites such as drunken noodles and Pad Thai.  Better yet, try a big steaming bowl of Pho, a Vietnamese noodle soup made of oxtail broth, vegetables, an spices (and just so you look like you know what you are talking about when you order, it’s actually pronounced Fuh).  M!SO also serves Ramen, but it is nothing like the cheap noodle soup you lived on in college.

“When most people hear the word ‘ramen,’ they automatically think of that dried package of noodles that is full of chemicals and MSG,” Nooe says.  “Our ramen is made with fresh pasta, homemade chicken stock, and fresh vegetables.”

Another fun and unique feature is the restaurant’s wok bar.  Diners can build their own noodle bowl, soup, or stir fry from a selection of vegetables and meat, adding rice or noodles, and topping everything off with a freshly made sauce or one of three homemade broths.

However, what Grant hopes will soon become a signature attraction is the “Blow Fish” Bar, named for the unusual lights that adorn the bar made from actual blow fish.  The full-service bar, under the direction of manager John Swanson, will feature tiki drinks made from authentic Polynesian recipes dating back 80-100 years.  For added flavor, the bar will use freshly squeezed juice, house made tonics, and their own five-spice syrup.  Nooe has also acquired a sugar cane extractor so they will be able to press their own sugar cane when it becomes available in the fall.

Explains Nooe, “These drinks are full of nutrients.  They are made from real sugar, not processed, so they are clean and nutritious.”

From his first restaurant in downtown Jackson to embracing the eclectic vibe that surrounds his new eatery, it appears Nooe has come full circle.

“I am really glad to be back in Jackson, specifically Fondren,” he says.  “The Fondren community is really supportive and genuinely wants to see businesses succeed.  This has really grown to become a go-to area that offers a lot of options.  With Swanson running the bar and [kitchen manager] Stephen Jackson running the kitchen, I really have a great team.”

A Restaurant for the People: Madison native Zack Athearn returns home to serve up reinvented Southern cuisine

Portico August 2013Portico Jackson
August 2013

Most Southerners view food and cooking as much more than just a way to provide fuel for the body.  We to link our favorite dishes to emotions, feelings, and even childhood memories.  Zack Athearn, owner and executive chef of City Grille in Madison is no exception.  He has fond memories of working side-by-side in the kitchen with his grandmother, while Athearn’s grandfather taught him the finer points of hunting, fishing, and growing fresh produce.

What Athearn’s grandparents cultivated in him as a young boy sparked an interest that would stay with him as he grew up.  In high school, he recalls “Iron Chef”-style competitions that he and his best friend held in his friend’s kitchen.  By the time he left home to attend Ole Miss, Athearn was an enthusiastic member of the local food scene, always on the lookout for new restaurants and good food.

“At that point, I really considered myself more of a foodie than a chef,” he explains.  “But as I progressed into my sophomore year of college, I began to wonder cooking for a living was something I could actually do.”

Shortly afterwards, Athearn was hired to work in the kitchen of The Veranda in Starkville.  Almost immediately, he began incorporating locally sourced fresh produce and meat into all the dishes.

“Everything grown and purchased locally tastes so different than anything you can buy in a store,” he says.

Athearn also began catering for weddings and rehearsal dinners.  This gave him the opportunity to travel, try new cuisines, learn new techniques, and work with some of the best restaurants in the South such a Muriels in New Orleans.  After eight years in the restaurant business, he began to wonder if he was finally ready to take the plunge into owning his own business.

The deciding factor came in 2009 when Athearn’s grandmother, who played such a significant role in his life and career, was diagnosed with cancer.

“I knew I needed to be close to her and I had to figure out how I was going to get home,” he reveals.  “However, I didn’t want to come home and go to work for someone else. “

He began working on a concept for building a new restaurant from the ground up.  In 2010, Athearn and a business partner opened Georgia Blue in Madison, a casual family-style restaurant that serves up sophisticated American food.

When it came time for Athearn to leave Georgia Blue and open a new restaurant, he knew he wanted to stay close to his roots and open another restaurant in Madison.  He searched for almost a year for the prefect location, finally purchasing an abandoned Blockbuster.

Says Athearn, “There was nothing in that building but carpet and a bathroom.  I had a lot of work to do before we would be ready to open.”

After four months of construction, City Grilled opened its doors in February 2013.  Athearn describes the cuisine as reinvented Southern cuisine with French influence.  He prides himself on keeping everything fresh, from the fish, to the produce, to all the made-from-scratch sauces and salad dressings.  He also makes a point to keep the menu items manageable, changing it frequently according to what is in season.

“I don’t like huge menus because they can be overwhelming.  I believe if you are going to do something, do it well and execute it properly.  You can’t do that with a huge menu.”

One of the best aspects of owning a restaurant is bringing in menu items that diners aren’t likely to see anywhere else.  Like Athearn’s current favorite menu item, the tempura lobster roll.  Lobster claw meat and goat cheese risotto are rolled in a spinach wrap, lightly fried in a crunchy tempura batter, then served sushi-style with sweet corn cream and spicy “dragon sauce.”

“I love and am very passionate about food,” Athearn says.  “However, this restaurant isn’t just for me.  It’s for the people of Madison and the surrounding community.  I like bringing the people what they want to eat.”

Come on In, Stay Awhile: Entertaining Southern-style by chef and cookbook author Regina Charboneau


Portico Jackson
June 2013

Natchez-native Regina Charboneau is a pro at Southern entertaining.  She should be – during any given week, the award-winning chef and author of Regina’s Table at Twin Oaks may play hostess to hundreds of visitors.  Everyone from friends and family, visitors with the Natchez Pilgrimage, cruisers on the American Queen Steamboat, Roman Catholic nuns, and British nobility have been welcomed to Twin Oaks, Charboneau’s Natchez residence.

One sunny, but unseasonably cool afternoon in late March, a bus full of approximately thirty river boat cruisers pulls up to the curb in front of Twin Oaks.  Charboneau is dressed casually in an oversized shirt, black leggings, flats, and her signature cat-eye glasses.  As cruisers begin to disembark and make their way up the front walk, she throws open the huge wooden front door to Twin Oaks, steps out onto the front porch, and greets everyone with a warm, “Hello!  Please come inside.”

The first guests step over the threshold into the front hall and a woman wearing a wide-brimmed sun hat is the first to exclaim, “Wow!”  Soon, the room is buzzing with awe and amazement as everyone takes in the grand staircase leading up to the second floor, the ornate antique furniture, and large paintings on the wall.  Everyone is instructed to make themselves comfortable in two adjoining rooms to the left of the main hallway.

In today’s world of celebrity chefs, cut-throat reality cooking shows, and cable networks devoted entirely to food, one might assume that that Charboneau, after having lived all over the world, overseen two very successful business ventures, and mixed company with some of the biggest names on the planet, would be difficult to relate to.  But to be a fly on the wall during one of her riverboat demonstrations or as she gives guided tours of her home during the Natchez pilgrimage, it becomes very apparent that Charboneau hasn’t lost sight of what Southern hospitality has always meant.

She begins by laying down the ground rules to her guests.  “The first rule of thumb in my house,” she says, “is that there are no rules.  Sit on the furniture, open closet doors, go wherever you like.  Nothing is off limits.”

She then goes into the history of Twin Oaks, built in 1832 by Pierce Connelly, an Episcopal priest, and his wife Cornelia.  Pierce and Cornelia would later convert to Catholicism, Pierce going on to become an ordained Catholic priest in Rome while Cornelia would later establish her own order of Roman Catholic nuns.  To this day, Charboneau will occasionally receive a knock at the door from nuns of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus looking to catch a glimpse of the former home of their founder.

But what all these travelers, some from as far away as California, New Mexico, and Wisconsin, really came to hear about is Charboneau herself – the culinary director for the American Queen Steamboat Company and whose cookbook they just purchased in the boat’s gift shop.  A seventh-generation Southerner, Charboneau credits her mother for her ability to throw a good party.  However, she admits that while her mother was the entertainer, her father was the cook.  It was her father that would influence her career path later in life.  Charboneau attended several universities throughout the South, before traveling to the bush of Alaska with a group of friends.  While there, she landed her first culinary job, working as a cook at a construction camp.

Not surprisingly, Charboneau’s mother was less than thrilled by the news that her daughter had taken a job thousands of miles away in a remote area only accessible by aircraft or snowmobile.   “This was the late 1970’s,” explained Charboneau.  “I called my mother from a pay phone with my exciting news, and since there were no cell phones and no internet, there was nothing she could do at that point to talk me out of it.”

Despite her mother’s misgivings, Charboneau’s life would likely have taken a completely different direction had she not taken that job.  While in Alaska, she met her husband Doug and also saved enough money to put herself through Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France, one of the first accredited professional cooking schools in France to offer instruction in both French and English. Afterwards, she returned to Alaska and accepted the position of executive chef at the Tower Club in Anchorage.

In 1985, she opened her first restaurant, Regina’s at the Regis, located in the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco’s SOMA district.  It was during this time that the SOMA district was undergoing an artistic and cultural boom and Regina’s at the Regis was situated right in the middle of the theater district.  It soon became known for its opening night parties and theater goers could expect to rub elbows with celebrities such as Shirley Maclain, Danny Glover, Patti LaBelle, and Lily Tomlin.

In 1995, Charboneau drew inspiration from her Southern roots when she opened Biscuits and Blues, a restaurant that serves award-winning Southern cuisine while showcasing nightly acts by popular blues artists.   It was awarded a WC Handy award in 1999 as the “Best Blues Club in America. “

Despite the success of two restaurants, the Mighty Mississippi still ran through Charboneau’s veins and Natchez was never far from her mind.  She is often quoted as saying, “I spent my first 23 years trying to get away from Natchez and spent the next 23 trying to get home again.”

In 2000, she did just that.  Charboneau and her husband purchased Twin Oaks and began raising their two sons, Jean-Luc and Martin, according to the deep seated traditions and simple lifestyle that Southerners are so famous for.  In addition to running a six-bedroom guest house on the property, she oversees menu and recipe development for the American Queen Steamboat Company.  Frequently, she opens her home up to riverboat cruisers, allowing them a glimpse into Southern life and a taste of the cuisine.

Charboneau gives her riverboat guests a moment to explore her house and the grounds.  Mixed in among the beautiful antiques are glimpses into her life.  The hallway leading to the kitchen is covered in framed crayon sketches of various celebrities once used for opening night parties at Regina’s at the Regis.  Down the hall, novels line the bookshelves and cover the top of the baby grand piano in the library.  Tucked among the books are photos such as a black and white of Charboneau and actor Danny Glover and little trinkets like a set of Japanese maneki-neko figurines.  Outside in the garden, the snow white blossoms of the dogwoods are in full bloom and delicate paper lanterns strung from tree branches blow in the breeze.

Charboneau knows she wouldn’t be a very good hostess if she let her guests leave hungry.  In the adjoining formal dining room, she’s brought out the white tablecloths and glass serving platters full of treats are spread from one end to the other.  An impressive decanter filled with clementine-infused vodka waits to be mixed with cranberry juice.  There are delicate sandwiches topped with basil mayonnaise, tomato slices, and bacon; mini butter biscuits stuffed with turkey and cranberry chutney; and an absolutely sinful blackberry crème brulee trifle.  A punch bowl of refreshing almond iced tea is situated between two friendly pineapples, the symbol of Southern hospitality.

The two-hour excursion has gone by in a flash, and before long the tour bus once again pulls up to the front curb.  Guests scurry to make sure Charboneau signs their cookbooks.  Several hug her neck as if they have always been dear friends.  As the bus pulls away to take them back to their cabins aboard the American Queen, Charboneau stands on the front porch and waves goodbye until the bus is out of sight.  Another successful party has come to an end.

You don’t have to be a professional chef to throw a memorable party.  In fact, Charboneau says by keeping a few rules of thumb in mind, throwing a party that everyone will remember but still allow you to keep your sanity it easier than you think.

Regina Charboneau’s Tips for Southern Entertaining:

  1. Don’t try to be a martyr.  It is not necessary to make everything you serve from scratch.  Your party should not only be enjoyable to your guests, but you as well.
  2. Plan your menu around items that can be made ahead of time and frozen.  Regina’s famous butter biscuits can be frozen just before baking.  Remove them from the freezer a few hours before the party to thaw, then bake as normal.
  3. Pick a time during the year that works for your house.  Do you have a green thumb and love to garden?  Throw a dinner party during the spring when your flowers are in bloom.  Does your house look particularly lovely during the holidays?  Host a Christmas party.
  4. Use fun condiments to enhance a meal.  It’s okay to use store bought or something you already have on hand in your pantry.  Set it out in an attractive dish and no one will question whether it’s homemade or not.
  5. Set up stations where guests can serve themselves.  Charboneau frequently sets up empty drinking glasses beforehand.  A few minutes before guests arrive, she sets out a bucket of ice cubes so guests can grab their drinks and go.

Tikkun olam: Transform the World – Institute of Southern Jewish Life

Portico Jackson Magazine March 2013Portico Jackson Magazine
March 2013

Turn on any country radio station and you’ll likely hear at least a dozen songs describing what it means to be Southern. Family, food, friends, and love of country always seem to be a common thread. And frequently God is included right at the top of that list. But as you begin to peel back the layers of what it means to be Southern, you may discover something surprising – a Jewish community that, while small, has played an active role in the towns they live in, built businesses from the ground up, and worked tirelessly to preserve their heritage for future generations.

Jews have had a presence in Mississippi since the mid-1800’s. Because European laws once prohibited Jews from owning property, many Jewish immigrants that settled in America arrived with no agricultural experience. Therefore, they drew on their knowledge of business to support themselves and their families. Many began as traveling salesmen, often buying goods from wholesalers in Memphis or New Orleans and traveling from small town to small town to sell their wares. Once they saved enough money, frequently, they would buy a storefront in one of the very same small towns they traveled through.

While Jewish communities have existed in Mississippi for over 150 years, they statistically only make up about 1% percent of the population. Early on, this made adhering to some Jewish traditions difficult. Kosher food was impossible to come by and many had no choice but to work on Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath. A lot of small towns did not have their own synagogue, so many families traveled sometimes hundreds of miles in one day in order to attend services.

Winona-native Macy Hart grew up at the height of the Civil Rights movement. While pockets of anti-Semitism were being reported across the state, Hart recalls an idyllic childhood growing up in small-town Mississippi during the 1950’s and 60’s. His parents were prominent community members as owners of the largest department store in Winona. He admits that he and his three siblings were the only Jewish children in their school. Because there was no local synagogue, Hart’s parents would load the family in the car every Sunday morning for the 160-mile round trip to the nearest synagogue in Cleveland, MS.

Even though Mississippi Jews assimilated to their new culture, they also recognized a need to maintain their heritage by teaching younger generations about their religion and its practices. However, because the population was so spread out, finding other Jewish children to form relationships with was a challenge. Several state and regional “social networks” developed, and during his youth Hart was an active member of organization such as National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) and the Southern Federation of Temple Youth (SOFTY), which would come to encompass Memphis, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

In 1970, congregations in these states came together to establish a camp in Utica, Mississippi, which was centrally located between the two largest cities in the camp’s footprint – Memphis and New Orleans. The Henry S. Jacobs Camp, named in honor of an early camp advocate, set out to not only teach Jewish values to young Jewish children, but instill a pride in their heritage. Still in operation today, the camp has also sought to provide Jewish role models and create opportunities for social contact with other Jewish kids, something that many Jewish children from small towns have never experienced.

In 1970, Hart had just graduated from the University of Texas. America was in the middle several major social changes stemming from Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, and the June 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The climate of change and opportunity inspired a desire in Hart to spend the next two years giving back to the Jewish organizations that had done so much to shape his future. One of Hart’s mentors suggested that he go to work at the newly opened camp in Utica. He arrived planning to stay only two years, was named camp director in his second year at the age of 23, and would remain there for the next 30 years.

Along the way, Hart began observing some of the national issues taking place within Jewish communities. For instance, there is as a growing number of congregations, not just in the South, but nationwide, operating without a full time rabbi. In 2000, Hart stepped down as camp director to found the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL), named after two prominent Southern Jewish businessmen and philanthropists. An expansion of the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience founded in 1986, Hart hoped to be able to provide smaller congregations with the components and support they were missing.

Today, the Institute encompasses six departments – History, Cultural Programs, The Museum of Southern Jewish Experience, Community Engagement, Rabbinic Services, and Education. Together, these departments serve 13 states – Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Northern Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas.

History and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Jewish communities in the South were much larger. People naturally gravitated to where the jobs were and small towns that saw a surge in population during the heyday of cotton production would later see their economies change after The Great Depression and WWII. The same is true among many Jewish communities in the rural South. Younger members have moved to more urban areas, leaving behind congregations that dwindle as members pass away.

Despite their small size, these congregations still have deep historical roots within their communities. In many cases, they serve as the only link to a long Jewish lineage for many families. The ISJL History Department and the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, directed by Stewart Rockoff, Ph.D, work to preserve this legacy through actively collecting and compiling information about Southern Jewish communities and sharing them with both Jewish and Christian audiences. Its programs include an Oral History Project, which currently boasts over 700 firsthand accounts of life as a Jew living in the Deep South. It also helps to preserve synagogues and cemeteries that face an uncertain future once their congregation ceases to exist.

Probably one of the most impactful projects to date is the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities. This online repository provides state-by-state history about the Jewish presence in each community. Currently, 10 of the 13 states served by the ISJL have been documented, with work actively underway to bring the remaining two states online.

The Museum also hosts several traveling exhibits nationally as well as the Traveling Truck exhibit geared towards school-aged children in Mississippi. The Traveling Trunk is a handson educational opportunity designed to teach both Christian and Jewish children about Jewish religion and culture. The trunk contains artifacts, photographs, maps and lessons focusing on Jewish immigration from Europe to the South and how these immigrants left a lasting influence on their communities.

Cultural Programs

The cultural programming department partners with artists, singers, performers, authors, and musicians nationwide to bring Jewish arts and entertainment to communities all over the Deep South. Their projects include Jewish Cinema South – which showcases Israeli and Jewishthemed cinema, the Southern States Jewish Literary Series, and the Southern States Music Series.

Rabbinic Services

If you were to look at a map of all the Jewish congregations spread out across the Southeast, you may be surprised to find quite a few. The majority of these congregations a very small, numbering only a handful of members, and many cannot afford to employ a full-time rabbi to lead services. In Mississippi, only two out of the fifteen congregations have a full-time rabbi. In the 13-state footprint that the Institute serves, the number is less than half.

The mission of ISJL Rabbinic Department, headed by Rabbi Marshal Klaven, is to travel to these under-served congregations. The rabbinic department coordinates these visits through their “Rabbis on the Road” program, which works in conjunction with other rabbis all across the country to lead services, give sermons, teach, and officiate at important events. In 2012, the rabbinic department made 90 visits in 50 communities spanning from Texas, to Virginia, to the Florida panhandle. Through these efforts, it is estimated that they served over 4,000 Jews.


In the Christian church, children are bought up being taught the same Biblical stories and lessons. According to Hart, this is not necessarily the case among Jewish congregations.

“The Jewish community does not have a secular approach to education. Every single congregation in the United States has to come up with their own Sunday cchool lessons. There is no similarity between one congregation to the next,” he explains. “We wanted to change that, therefore we created a secular-world approach to Jewish education called ‘A Common Body of Jewish Knowledge.’”

The program provides age-appropriate curriculum for each child based on grade level. It covers topics such as Jewish community, culture and symbols; God; Hebrew and prayer; Israel; history, holidays; life events; Mitzvot and values, and Tanach (Torah, Prophets, and Writings).

The curriculum also provides teacher support through an annual education conference and site visits to the congregation three times a year by education fellows who provide teacher workshops, community programs, or lead services.

Community Engagement

There is a Hebrew saying, “Tikkun olam,” which translates to “repair the world.” It describes what many Jewish people believe is man’s responsibility – no matter their religious affiliation – to transform the world into a better place.

The ISJL is doing their part to make the Jackson-metro area a better place by piloting programs in literacy and leadership in addition to peer mediation and conflict resolution. Eventually, the Institute plans to roll these programs out to other communities.

“A lot of the emphasis of our work is to celebrate everyone’s differences. I’m comfortable in my beliefs just as people of other religions are comfortable in their beliefs,” says Hart. “We should be able to live in the same world without telling each other we’re wrong. We ought to be able to respect the differences and be able to work together.

He adds, “The myth that there aren’t a lot of Jews in the South is a myth. Numbers-wise, no there are not a lot of Jews in the South. But their impact on their communities is far greater.”

The City with Vision: The Jackson Chamber of Commerce Plans for the Future

Portico Jackson Magazine
Annual Jackson Now issue
July 2012

The city of Jackson not only has soul, it has loyalty, community, and determination.  Over the last few years, while other major metropolitan areas have been struggling to overcome hard times, Jackson has been working to improve its economy and quality of life.  Strategically situated at the crossroad of Interstates 55 & 20 and a stopping point between Chicago and New Orleans and Dallas and Atlanta, the city of Jackson is a prime location for starting a new business.  The staff of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce is working to keep it that way.

The Jackson Chamber of Commerce was launched in 2006 under the umbrella of the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership.  While the Partnership oversees economic development for seven counties that make up the Jackson Metropolitan area, the Chamber was organized to ensure that the city has the support it needs.  With its sole focus being the city of Jackson, the organization’s mission is to encourage diversity and cultivate a thriving and favorable climate for businesses and communities.

“The focus of the Jackson Chamber of Commerce is strictly on Jackson,” said Cynthia Buchanan, Executive Vice President of Jackson Chamber of Commerce.  “Our board members are individuals that live and work in Jackson and have a strong passion for the city.”

The organization has many exciting projects in the works.  Recently, it teamed up with Market Street Services, Inc., an Atlanta-based national provider of community, workforce, and economic development consulting services, to develop Vision 2022.  Through interviews and focus groups, Market Street conducted an extensive assessment of the economic status of the city of Jackson, evaluating both the strengths and weaknesses of the area.  The group released their findings in Fall 2011.  The Jackson Chamber is now working in conjunction with the Greater Jackson Chamber Partnership to decide how best to implement these changes and promote the city as a great place to live and work and attract new businesses and development.

One of the projects already underway is the construction of the Museum to Market multipurpose biking and walking trail.  The project is being funded by a $1.1 million grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation in addition to support from The Jackson Bike Advocates, Bike Walk Mississippi, and the Greater Jackson Partnership.  Expected to break ground in 2013, the trail will begin at the Mississippi Farmer’s Market pavilion on High Street in downtown Jackson and follow the abandoned Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad line through the Belhaven community to the Agricultural, Children’s, Nature Science, and Sports museums on Lakeland Drive.  Once complete, it will be the only multipurpose trail in Jackson.  Plans are also in the works to eventually connect the trail to other trails in Ridgeland and Flowood.

“We are finding that people who are searching for a place to live and raise a family are looking for public amenities such as this,” explains Buchanan.  “The Museum to Market trail will not only encourage healthy living and promote a better quality of life for our residents, but it will also attract new residents and more tourists.”

The chamber also works to give back to the community.  Every two years, the organization hosts “Authenticity,” a fundraiser where the proceeds are donated to Jackson first responder groups.  In the last four years, the event has helped raise money for improvements to the Jackson Police Academy and purchase new furniture for the Jackson Fire Department.  Through the Adopt-a-School program, Chamber members serve as both sponsors and mentors for students and teachers at Lee Elementary School.  The organization provides volunteers for school functions such as science fairs and field days, monthly speakers and breakfast for teachers, and volunteers for the school’s Read Across America program.

“We feel by becoming actively involved with our schools, we are producing better students and eventually better citizens,” Buchanan adds.

Eighties Nightmare to Kitchen Fabulous

Portico Jackson Magazine
April 2012

It has been said that the kitchen is the heart of the home.  For Andy and Anna Howell, they had what they felt like was a great house in a great neighborhood.  Their Madison home is located in a friendly subdivision with a spacious backyard for the couple’s son and dog.  However, despite these great features, the couple felt like the “heart” of their home needed something more.

Built in the 1980’s, the Howell’s describe their home’s living space as “dated, small, dark, and totally isolated.”  The layout was awkward, they had a dining area they seldom utilized, and storage and workspace was minimal.

“The kitchen just did not work well at all,” Anna recalled. “The appliances all opened on top of each other – the dishwasher door opened right in front of my sink!  I would also have to include the burgundy countertops and pink and burgundy floral wallpaper to the list of items I did not like about the house.”

The Howell’s seriously considered packing up and moving out of their beloved neighborhood into a larger home, but before putting their house on the market they decided to look into remodeling.  Previously, the Howell’s worked with Celia Barrett Designs to renovate their master bedroom.  Once again, they called on Barrett to help with the redesign of their kitchen and the surrounding living space.

“Starting with a design concept helps me stay focused as I travel through the planning, design, and decoration of a space,” Barrett said.  “My concept for the Howell’s home was as you walk from living room to dining room you are transported into a welcoming, open home with comfort and character.  I wanted to be able to have an abundance of light, use the space to its maximum capacity, and turn it into a room they never wanted to leave.”

Barrett presented the family with a plan that not only provided more functionality, but added more square footage to the existing home.  By knocking out the adjoining wall between the kitchen and the dining room, the newly designed area added an open family room with a fireplace, cathedral ceilings, and full-height windows to let in more light.  A peninsula island in the kitchen looked out over the family room and provided much needed storage and counter space.

The renovation not only enlarged the original kitchen, but also extended the bathroom and added a walk-in closet to the master bedroom in addition to a laundry room off the kitchen.  Neutral color scheme, granite countertops, and custom-stained wood cabinets add a casual and comfortable element to the space.  New wood flooring replaced the carpet in the dining and great room, while large travertine tiles were laid in the kitchen.  Extra touches such as a pot-filler over the gas range, side bar sink, stone and cracked tile backsplash and unique hand-painted tiles around the fireplace were added surprises that the family loved.

Barrett also knew of Anna’s fondness for family heirlooms and antiques, so she incorporated several of Anna’s pieces plus a few finds of her own to make the space truly feel like home.  The entire design was rounded out with a full-length deck across the back of the house and a screened in porch, giving the family the perfect place to relax on a warm evening.

“With busy work and school schedules, family time is so limited these days,” said Anna of her new living space.  “Celia really delivered when we told her we wanted and open living area.  She gave us our ‘wall of windows,’ which really brings the outside in.  I now have a front row seat to so many beautiful sunsets.”

From Hobby to Household Name: Gail Pittman

Portico Magazine
February 2011

If you ask Gail Pittman what the hardest job in the world is, she will reply, “Being a school teacher.” The artist and business entrepreneur worked as a school teacher for five years with the Jackson Public School System before embarking on a career move that would launch her successful line of home décor. She began at her kitchen table, inspired by a colorful bowl she found in a gift shop.

“At first, I really didn’t like ceramics,” Pittman recalls. “However, I later realized that I really enjoyed painting. So one day I sat at my kitchen table, used a Rubbermaid spice rack as my wheel, and taught myself how to make a bowl. It became my creative outlet. ”

Pittman’s goal was to create pieces that were not only decorative, but also functional. Eventually her pottery caught the eye of friends and family and she began getting requests for orders. When she landed a booth at the Canton Flea Market, Pittman thought, “I have arrived! This is it!” Shortly after, her friend Carol Puckett Daily, founder of The Everyday Gourmet, approached her about selling pieces in her retail store. Pittman soon became a house hold name and her wares are now sold nationwide.

After thirty years in the business, rumors began to circulate late last year that Pittman was retiring. “I knew I wasn’t retiring,” she says, “but there was so much in the works and so many facets that needed to come together before I could reveal what was going on.” Pittman was interested in exploring new techniques, but needed to make some major changes to the logistics side of her business. She closed down her Ridgeland plant and joined into a licensing agreement with Sidco Worldwide in Nashville. The company has production facilities both nationally and abroad and is now responsible for manufacturing and distribution. This frees Pittman up for what she really loves – designing.

“I particularly enjoy this arrangement one, because the owner of Sidco – Tom Kelly – is formerly from Greenville and he shares my belief that our mission should not only be to design products of exceptional quality for the home that inspire hospitality, love, and the creative spirit, but also to make a positive influence on all the lives we touch,” Pittman says.

In May, Pittman opened the Gail Pittman Design Store in Old Towne Center in Ridgeland. The full service retail store features a bridal registry, corporate gifts and showroom that offers not only several new designs but updated versions of some of her best loved patterns and new pieces never before offered.

“This new direction is very exciting,” she says. “I have the opportunity to move into so many different directions and I am having a great time with it. And I love spending time in the store with my customers.” As she reflects back on where the last thirty years have led, she adds, “Everything that happens in life prepares you for what you are supposed do.”

Gail Pittman Official Store