Thirty years ago the most commonly found sort of restaurant here in Northeastern Mississippi was the catfish and steak house. A half-dozen in every county, all pretty much identical right down to the menu: burgers and fried shrimp for the kids, four or five steak choices, a pitiful salad bar, and the real reason everyone was there, catfish ‘ whole or fillet, deep fried. The quality of the steaks could vary wildly, but the restaurant lived or died by its fish and its hushpuppies.

In these simpler years before fast food and pizza chains got the foothold they now enjoy, when the matriarch of the family couldn’t stand to look one more blackeyed pea or pan of cornbread in the face without thoughts of killing her husband, everybody loaded up and headed for their favorite fish house. The County Barn, The Friendship House, Lackey’s, The Country Squire ‘ these stood in for local pubs, which didn’t and still don’t exist here. It was at Lackey’s in 1969 that I got my start on the path of gluttony or gourmandism, depending on your viewpoint: I ate seven whole catfish (and french fries, hushpuppies and cole slaw) while owner Iladean Lackey and my alarmed/amused parents watched. I was five years old.

The fish houses are still there, I’m happy to report, but something else is starting to dot the local landscape: the Chinese buffet. From about 1978, when the House of Kong first opened in Tupelo, we foothill folk have been crazy about our Americanized Chinese food. In the experimental early years, oddities like Seafood Birds Nest were available, but the menus have settled into easy predictability ‘ General Tso’s Chicken, Beef with Broccoli, Hot and Sour Soup that’s not as hot as you used to be able to get it ‘ served buffet style on line after line of steam tables, along with pizza, french fries and macaroni and cheese for the oldtimers who don’t go for that furrin stuff.

The fact that Amory, Mississippi, a town of 6500 mostly-conservative souls, can support two Chinese buffets marks a real sea-change in the region’s eating habits. The extent of it hit home two nights ago when my mother, almighty sick of peas and cornbread, called up and said, “We’re going to Hunan, want to meet us there?”