Last December, Carl Blackledge opened a small seafood restaurant called Catfish One on University Avenue in Oxford. His menu consisted mainly of fried catfish, fried shrimp and fried oysters, with all the fixings.
Business was good and customers were happy. But his friend, Laurie Stirratt, thought he needed to expand his offerings a little, and she offered to make some of her native New Orleans specialties like gumbo, jambalaya and red beans and rice.
“I just always felt there was a niche in Oxford for that type of food done right,” said Stirratt, 42. “It did really well, but while I was into making it a bigger thing, he was thinking he wanted to get out of the restaurant business. He decided to close Catfish One, let me take over and make it my own place.”
And so in March 2010, Tallulah’s Kitchen was born.
Trial and error
Stirratt is no stranger to the food business. As a bass player and singer in the country band Blue Mountain, she often took odd jobs in restaurants to help pay the bills.
“Sometimes with a music career, as with any artistic work, you also have to support yourself another way. The only thing I’ve ever done is music and food,” Stirratt said.
She named the restaurant after her 3 1/2-year-old niece, Tallulah, the daughter of her twin brother, John, who plays bass in the alternative rock band Wilco.
“I was living in Chicago in the same house with John and his wife, Crissy, when Tallulah was born and I helped take care of her the first year and a half of her life,” said Stirratt. “We have a special relationship.”
Stirratt has lived in Oxford on and off since 1988. John went to school at Ole Miss, and at one time, they had a band together. In 2003, they produced an album together, called, simply, “Laurie and John.” Stirratt still tours with her band when they have a new album to promote.
“I love having this restaurant, but it’s been an eye-opener,” she said. “Being a musician is a hard way to make a living, but owning a restaurant is even harder.”
Stirratt saw brisk sales after she opened Tallulah’s Kitchen in the spring, but when summer hit and many of the students went home, she knew she had to do something to draw customers. So she introduced what she calls her “recession special” – a meat, two vegetables and bread for $5. In August, when students returned to town, she raised the price to $6.
“I’m not a chef. I’m a cook,” she said. “I make simple things.”
On any given day, the special might be fried chicken, chicken spaghetti, pulled pork, chicken fried steak or meatloaf served with vegetables such as mashed potatoes, green beans, purple-hull peas, creamed corn, turnip greens, butterbeans or fried okra.
“My mom was a great cook, and I use a lot of her recipes,” she said. “It’s really trial and error. My stepmother is a really good cook, too. What I do here is mostly trial and error.”
But what Stirratt prides herself on most is her Cajun cuisine: gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, etouffee, which she can prepare in bulk for customers who want to grab something to take home for dinner, parties, tailgating or family reunions.
“The hardest thing was trying to figure out how to make these recipes in bulk and still have them taste good,” she said. “It took me a little bit of time to get those recipes just right. Everything we make is from scratch. We’re not just opening cans and dumping them in the warmer.”
Ups and down of location
On an average day, Stirratt figures she’ll serve about 200 customers in her restaurant, which seats six at stools at the outside counter and another 20 at five tables on the porch.
“I really like this location, but it has its problems,” she said. “People don’t want to drive here from the Square – they think it’s a trek – but it’s actually just 1.2 miles from town. On the upside, there’s plenty of parking. You don’t have to ride around like you do on the Square.”
Stirratt is happy with the menu she has in place now, which features not only fried catfish and shrimp with all the fixings, as well as her Cajun-inspired cuisine and blue-plate specials, but also pulled pork, burgers, sandwiches and salads.
“I think I’ll stick with this menu for a while,” she said. “The only thing I wish we had back are the oysters, but we had to stop serving those after the oil spill in the Gulf.”
- What: Tallulah’s Kitchen
- Where: 2028 University Ave., Oxford, across from Kroger
- When: Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.
- Menu: Fried catfish and shrimp, gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya,
sandwiches, barbecue, burgers, blue-plate specials
- Info: (662) 234-6210. 1
Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal