COLUMBIA — Inside her prep room last week at the Mississippi Fish Shack in downtown Columbia, Kim Perry reached for a fading, 30-year-old metal pot on a shelf.
She was ready to fill the pot with okra, corn, tomatoes, bacon and other ingredients for another batch of Southern Medley, a vegetable dish popular in Indiana.
“I love this,” said Perry, the restaurant’s owner. “I really love it. I have to love it to be here as long as I (am) every day.”
Food was at the heart of Perry’s family when she was growing up in Terre Haute, Ind.
Now food is her livelihood.
She closed the restaurant's Boonville location last year and opened the current one at the corner of Tenth Street and Broadway this summer.
Every day since, she's been sharing recipes from her grandmother and great aunt on a menu that offers fried catfish, chicken, shrimp, frog legs, oysters, sweet potatoes, greens, corn fritters, pickled beets and more.
In the two months since the restaurant opened, she said, business has “taken off,” and many customers have told her how much they enjoy their meals.
But Perry, 48, didn’t always focus on food. For four years, she worked as a chemical safety engineer for General Motors in Jackson, Miss., and spent another seven years as head of a consulting company working with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Only after her son Alan was diagnosed with cancer did she realize what she’d put on the back burner.
“I said, ‘Hey, enough traveling,’" she explained. “I need to get back to family, how I was.”
She began to pray for direction. One morning in November 2005, Perry and her husband were walking the rolling hills of Boonville when she got a flash of insight.
“What about fish?"
"What?" her husband said.
"We could mimic Eddie’s & Ruby’s,” she said, referring to Eddie’s & Ruby’s Snack Bar, where she ate catfish two or three times a week during the eight years she spent in Mississippi.
She loved that food. Besides, cooking had always unified her family when she was growing up.
“Food is love,” she said.
It seemed to be the perfect idea. A month later, while driving through downtown Boonville, she noticed a small A-frame building for lease. She rented it and installed a tiny kitchen and 16 seats inside.
For advice, Perry called Eddie’s & Ruby’s to find out where the restaurant ordered its catfish. She followed their suggestion and began importing farm-raised catfish from Itta Bena, Miss.
She named the restaurant after the source of the fish and the style of the building: Mississippi Fish Shack.
The fried catfish she sold were crispy, peppery and light brown on the outside; flaky, mild and white inside — and not too oily. It was a hit.
Gradually she added other dishes, many from recipes she’d learned to make at her grandmother’s house.
“They lined up outside at that place,” she said. “We did a heck of a load of carry-out.”
Eventually, she moved to a bigger building in Boonville, one with a 256-person capacity. Business had been going well when Perry's mother, Barbara Ford, became ill.
Since Perry was the restaurant mastermind, she had to close it before taking care of her mother, traveling between Missouri and Indiana for a month. In November, when her mother was in better shape, Perry came back to start anew.
After customers repeatedly encouraged her to move her restaurant to Columbia, Perry decided to see what was available. She looked at a number of locations, but only one “felt right,” she said. It was the spot vacated by Village Wine & Cheese in the spring.
On May 1, she began moving her equipment to the new Mississippi Fish Shack. It opened for business on July 30, with enough floorspace for 140 in the bar and at tables arranged in two long, adjacent rooms.
She decorated the restaurant with a set of beloved items — her grandmother’s butter churns, oil lamp and refrigerator; the dolls her mother made out of ceramics and Joy dish bottles; wooden coat hangers her son built in a wood shop; and a tiny photo in a flower-shaped picture frame of two of her grandchildren.
Hanging on one wall near the front of the restaurant is a large framed portrait of her father, James Ford.
The menu is bigger than ever, and her fan base is growing. One fan even became an employee.
A few weeks after the restaurant opened, Gredia Bell stopped in with her pastor’s wife. She ordered catfish filets, hush puppies, slaw, fries and a Sprite.
Bell thought the food was great; it reminded her of the down-South cooking she remembered while living in Sikeston.
As soon as Bell learned the place was hiring, she applied for work as a hostess. Perry gave her the job.
John Glenn is another fan. He took his daughter, Suzanne, to the restaurant for her birthday last week after she requested that they go for the occasion — she and her boyfriend had loved the food each of the four times they'd gone.
Glenn, who has lived in Columbia since 1971, declared the frog legs "delicious."
"In Columbia," he said, "nobody knows how to fry fish and related things like they do here."
Then there's Eliot Battle. On most days, sometimes twice in one day, Battle goes to the Mississippi Fish Shack to order the fried shrimp, the fried chicken, the frog legs or vegetables.
He ate frog legs for lunch once last week. He said he just can’t get enough of the stuff.
“It’s the kind of food I grew up with,” said Battle, originally from Mobile, Ala., as he was awaiting a dish of peach cobbler. “It reminds me of home.”
Irene Haskins called it "the most cosmopolitan place in the city."
"You see everybody here, from the trash collector to the mayor," she said .