By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2000 Gourmet Magazine
FOR ALMOST 50 YEARS, the Hopkins boarding house in the North Hill district of Pensacola, Florida, offered the best deal in town. The price for a room was always right—but what made this address so extraordinary was that the rent included meals. Spectacular meals. Platters of fried chicken, hot biscuits, sweet-potato soufflé, and other Dixie specialties fairly flew from hand to hand at the crowded communal tables. Extra helpings were never discouraged; when the serving bowls got low, full ones replaced them. Best of all, boarders weren’t the only ones privy to this amazing bounty. Outside diners with good manners and enough change in their pockets were also welcome at Ma Hopkins’s tables. And they still are.
Mrs. Hopkins died in 1986. But her son, Edward, promised to uphold the sanctity of the culinary rituals that she had instituted in 1949. With the help of a gifted kitchen staff, some of whom have been on duty since the early years, Edward has made sure that the Hopkins House eating experience is as it’s always been. Wednesday is chicken and dumplings, Thursday is roast beef, Saturday is ham. But it’s Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday that are the banner days for many regulars, because that’s when the main course for lunch and dinner is fried chicken. The daily vegetable roster depends on what’s in season, but you can always count on good biscuits and cornbread.
Hopkins House no longer takes in boarders—the last roomer, Mr. Jack Howes, passed on in 1995 after a stay of 37 years. But generations of working men and women from downtown, as well as enlisted sailors and brass from the city’s naval base, long depended on Mrs. Hopkins to feed them—and they are still welcome. These days, they line up waiting for the door to open at 7 A.M., 11 A.M., and 5 P.M. They are joined by people who have traveled from distant regions for the rare opportunity of savoring the extravagant food and high spirits of a Deep South boardinghouse feast.
The mealtime drill at this grand ol’ city mansion is always the same: When you enter the dining area, manager Betty Norris directs you to an open seat at one of several tables. Unless you’re part of the first wave, your dining companions will already be eating. And talking.
For those of us from, shall we say, less sociable areas of the country, the friendliness at these tables can come as a shock. Instantly, you are dining with folks who feel like cousins, aunts, or uncles, chatting about where you’re headed and where you’ve been, and how about more chicken and who took the last corn muffin? The family feel is enhanced by the maternal propriety of the dining areas. The walls are decorated with souvenir plates; white lace curtains hang at the windows; and in the vestibule, where people wait for a seat to open up, signs advise, “NO HATS WORN AT THE TABLE … TANK TOPS, UNDERSHIRTS, AND MUSCLE SHIRTS ARE NOT PERMISSIBLE.”
These were Mrs. Hopkins’s rules, and she was not reluctant to enforce them. “She personified your typical southern grandmother,” recalls Nick Geeker, a circuit court judge who grew up eating here and still lunches at the boarding house three or four times a week. “She was not overbearing, but you didn’t want to get out of line, either. She would set you straight!”
Edward Hopkins agrees. “Mother had her own way of doing things—and her way was the right way, the only way.”
Though the rules about vulgar attire have always prevailed at Mrs. Hopkins’s tables, the nature of a boarding house meal precludes certain other conventional table manners. For one thing, it’s considered rather impolite to bother people to please pass the coleslaw or apple salad when it’s just as easy for you to rise a bit from your chair and nab what you want, even if it means reaching far from where you’re seated. (The strenuous business of reaching and grabbing is drastically reduced if you’re lucky enough to get a place at the round table, with seats for eight and a large lazy Susan in the center.)
People here eat at a furious speed. Even gracious southern ladies in frilly summer dresses immediately dig in, eating at a revved-up clip until they are full. Speed-eating seems to supercharge people’s appetite for conversation. This has resulted in another etiquette surprise: It’s okay to talk with your mouth full.
At breakfast, while regulars are buried in the morning paper, newcomers engage in awestruck odes to the wonderfully fruity tomato gravy that goes so well on grits and omelets, or to the lightest pancakes in all the South. At lunch and dinner, experienced eaters are delighted to explain that the dark orange vegetable with the smoky taste is fresh rutabaga and that the coconut custard attains a magical sophistication when you sprinkle it with drops of lemon juice.
Regulars know that when Nellie Jones fries yellow squash, she transforms it from a fairly bland vegetable into discs radiant with earthy flavor and sheathed in a shatteringly crisp crust. They know that Cora Edwards, a Hopkins veteran of 39 years, is a master chicken fryer. Her technique, she told us, is nothing special. All it depends on is using “the best oil you can buy.”
We also got some kitchen advice from Verdell Ammons, who has been washing dishes (by hand) at Hopkins House for 28 years. “I guess I’ve washed 10 billion,” she grinned, never once stopping her methodical slicing of celery for potato salad. “A dish gets clean by the hotness of your water,” she said. “And I like it scaldin’!”
Standing on the spacious front porch, we chatted with Judge Geeker. He lamented that the places in the South still serving meals the old boardinghouse way have dwindled to a handful. We asked him what, in his opinion, makes the food at this one so outstanding. “I credit Cora, Verdell, Nellie, and the others,” he replied. “Their experience adds up to centuries. You don’t learn to fry chicken the way Cora does it without a lot of patience. Patience, wisdom, and respect for tradition are things that do not get conveyed in a recipe or business plan. They reside in a cook’s hands, in her heart and soul.”
Hopkins House (permanently closed)
900 North Spring Street