Like Willie Nelson sings, “On the road again,” and this time we wound our way through Brownsville, down Highway 70 to Mason in the corner of Tipton County. I’m here to tell you that this little sleepy haven of a few more than 1,600 people is a culinary destination.
For over ninety years, beginning when the highway through this small town led to Memphis, Bozo’s BBQ has been a landmark for some of the best pit cooking this side of the pearly gates. If that wasn’t enough, just ramble on down the highway a few hundred feet and there sits the original home of Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, which has attracted foodies from around the globe.
Bozo’s Hot Pit Bar-B-Q was first opened in 1923 by Thomas Jefferson “Bozo” Williams. Bozo’s serves barbecue plates and sandwiches, ribs, catfish and double-decker bacon cheeseburgers. Also, Ms. Perry, the “Pie Lady,” has been making homemade pies for Bozo’s for eons.
Inside Bozo’s you can grab a table amid the wood paneled walls and red gingham cafe curtains and be prepared to rub elbows with the locals, tourists and perhaps a celebrity who couldn’t resist the intoxicating aroma. Oh yes, Elvis, Johnny Cash, the movie crew of the award-winning “Walk the Line” – who filmed scenes from the movie at the cafe – have all sat at these same tables.
Locals line up at the counter to pick up to-go orders and there is even one customer who flies in on his helicopter from Nashville when he has a craving for BBQ. Their signature BBQ sauce is for sale and has been shipped around the world.
You can also order fruit plates, homemade chicken salad, fried shrimp, and rest assured – everything is mouthwatering, Oh, and if you normally skip dessert, you might want to make an exception at Bozo’s. The lemon meringue pie is famous, as is the cherry, apple or pecan, along with old-fashioned cakes that are moist and just like you might remember your mama making (strawberry or chocolate are favorites).
Besides the taste and smell of smoldering hickory, there is a certain ambiance that sprinkles a magic on every plate. Something about sitting in those wooden chairs at the easy-wipe tabletops and the hum of the air-conditioning unit just makes everything better. It’s what “Southern Living” magazine and a number of other publications have written about time and again.
Or you can zip on down the road to a little building that “Saveur” and “GQ” magazines proclaimed was among the top-ten places in the world when it comes to fried chicken. Sure enough, you smell that heavenly scent the minute you set foot inside Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken. You just can’t keep good fried chicken a secret, especially in the South.
When I was there, a table full of fraternity brothers from Ole Miss were holding court in the corner. Someone had just come in to pick up an order of 200 pieces of chicken for a party in Memphis, and the lady taking my order slipped and told me that Elvis’s wife had been in the day before. Tina Turner, Gentleman’s Quarterly, little rascals and royalty alike – they’ve all stood in line at Gus’s.
When I asked the cook how much chicken he had fried that day, he smiled really big and said, “Oh, goodness, I don’t know, but it’s somewhere between a whole heck of a lot and not nearly enough.”
The ladies were busy taking orders and cutting the homemade sweet potato, chess and old-fashioned coconut pies into wedges. there was a big pot of baked beans simmering on the stove.
There were shelves of white bread that they serve with the orders and everyone was busy cooking, ringing up credit cards on an iPad, sacking up chicken, wiping tables, laughing with customers – even first timers, and frying tubs of chicken that had been marinating in some top secret spiced slurry.
The beans and coleslaw are served with every meal. Gus and Gertrude perfected these recipes, allowing their slight sweetness to offset the spiciness of the fried chicken. And, before you ask – no – you cannot have the recipe. As Gus once quipped, “This is a dead man’s recipe [and] I ain’t telling.”
This second culinary epicenter in Mason cam about when Napoleon “Na” Vanderbilt created something amazing – fired chicken that could unite a community. In an era of divisive attitudes locals found that they could all – black and white – agree on how much they loved Na’s fried chicken.
Na and his wife, Miss Maggie, began selling their to-die-for chicken sandwiched between two slices of white bread, out of the back door of a local tavern. As demand grew, they were encouraged to open a restaurant.
When the Vanderbilts couldn’t afford their dream, generous patrons offered to supply them with the needed building materials. Na, a skilled carpenter, built the restaurant on a piece of land he and Miss Maggie owned on Highway 70. Maggie’s Short Orders opened its doors in 1973. The building still stands today and still serves Na and Maggie’s amazing fried chicken.
Na’s only sun, Vernon “Gus” Bonner, inherited the priceless recipe and the restaurant. In 1984, Gus and his wife, Gertrude, reopened under the name, “Gus’s World Famous Hot and Spicy Fried Chicken.”
So the next time you have a few hours to hit the backroads, find your way to Mason – but you might just have to wait in line for some of the best food in the country at Gus’s and Bozo’s.
Fried Chicken Recipe
Soaked in buttermilk, dipped in a wet batter, shook in a bag of seasoned flour, and fried in a black iron skillet – reminds me of Gus’s Fried Chicken. Of course, that recipe is a family-guarded secret, but this just might be the first cousin.
- 1 (3-1/2lb.) chicken, rinsed, cut into pieces
- 1 quart buttermilk
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2tsp paprika
- 1 tsp onion powder
- 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
- 1/4 tsp. ground cumin
- 1/4 tsp ground oregano
- 1 tsp. cayenne pepper
- 1/8 tsp. baking powder
- Salt to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- Peanut oil for frying
Trim the excess fat and skin from chicken pieces (but don’t remove all the skin). Put chicken pieces in a large zip-lock bag or in a non-reactive pan. Pour buttermilk over chicken and toss to make sure each piece as well coated.
Cover if in a pan; if in bag, zip-lock and place bag of chicken in pan or large bowl and refrigerated at least 4 hours or overnight. Combine flour, paprika, onion powder, garlic, cumin, oregano, baking powder, cayenne, salt and pepper in a large plastic bag.
Drop chicken pieces into the bag, one at a time, and shake until well coated with flour mixture.
Pour 1 inch of oil in a large deep cast iron skillet. Heat oil over medium-high until it’s hot but not smoking.
Add chicken, largest pieces first, skin side down. Work in batches if your skillet is small. educe heat to medium, and cook, turning once, until chicken is golden brown and crispy, 12-15 minutes per side. Drain chicken on paper towels. The chicken is done when it floats to the top. Drain and season to taste with salt and pepper.
[Libby Murphy, The Jackson Sun, Jackson, Tenn., June 26, 2016]