INDIANOLA, Miss. -- Silver-haired ladies gather in a storeroom at The Crown on weekdays to chat and play cards, while local businessmen feast on their favorite catfish dishes.
Both groups can remember a time when the antique shop and restaurant in this Mississippi Delta town, where catfish is king, was their little secret.
Outsiders were always welcome, but few came.
Tourists had no reason to travel to the heart of one of the country's poorest regions to eat lunch at a modest light-brown brick building on the banks of Indian Bayou.
If they did make their way to this town of 12,000 it was because it's the birthplace of blues musician B.B. King.
It took an unusual request some 16 years ago to help put the business on the map.
''A catfish farmer was having a wedding for his daughter and he wanted everything catfish, so that presented a real challenge for my mother,'' says Jennifer Schaumburg, the daughter of owners Evelyn and Tony Roughton.
''We came up with some wonderful recipes, and one of them was catfish pate,'' Schaumburg says. ''The catfish farmer loved it. We started taking it to different retail shows and people were loving it and buying it.''
Since the 1986 catfish wedding, The Crown has lost its local attraction status.
''It was a very well-kept secret,'' says Hugh Warren, executive vice president of Indianola-based Catfish Farmers of America and a faithful customer of The Crown for almost 20 years. ''It wasn't intentional. Indianola is just a small town.''
The restaurant that prepares the droopy mouthed, whiskered fish every possible way but the traditional one -- battered in meal and pan fried -- now boasts regional culinary lovers as well as tourists.
Schaumburg, whose parents founded the restaurant, says he's known people to travel from Memphis, Tenn., about 120 miles to the north, and Jackson, 90 miles south, just to eat lunch.
The Crown has also entertained tourists from Japan, Spain, Germany, Thailand, Russia and Belgium.
For blues pilgrims out to sample the rich heritage of the Delta, trying a catfish dish is a must and The Crown couldn't be in a better spot.
Most U.S. catfish are raised in Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana. In this state alone, there are about 111,000 acres of catfish ponds.
Warren, who grew up in the Delta, says the thing that makes the restaurant special is ''there's so much passion and enjoyment in what they're doing.''
''They can't believe how well they're doing,'' he says. ''This is an American success story, and this time it happens to be catfish.''
The Crown has the ambiance of an English tea room with antique tables, chairs and accessories on one side -- where customers dine -- and bookshelves full of collectibles and stuffed animals on the other side.
A round desert table separates the small brightly colored open storeroom where the card games are played.
The restaurant years ago began offering a 70-item catalog for those who can't make the Delta trip.
Henry Gantz, president of The Catfish Institute, a Belzoni-based group that promotes the industry, says that when his organization sponsors tour groups to catfish operations in the area, ''We always make it a point to take them by The Crown.''
The basic recipe for the catfish pate, the dish that helped make restaurant popular, is anything but local.
''My parents lived in England for four years and they learned how to enjoy pate and they went back to research how to do a cold-smoked fish,'' Schaumburg says.
''They flew to England and investigated the different cold smoking procedures and they came up with how to mass produce it,'' she says.
The Crown's pate won the 1990 Best Hors D'oeuvre Award at the International Fancy Food and Confection Show in New York. In 2000, its Catfish Mississippi Mousse won in the Best Seafood, Meat and Pate category at the International Fancy Food and Confection Show.
Schaumburg says the favorite dish among most customers is Catfish Allison.
''The Allison is a must for every single day that we open,'' she says. ''If we take it off the menu, I think we would be in big trouble.
''It's simply a catfish filet that's been poached and a little water, a little white wine and sometimes a little squirt of lemon juice,'' Schaumburg said.
Once poached, the fish is placed into an au gratin dish and a mixture of Allison butter is added. Schaumburg says the butter contains parmesan cheese, butter, mayonnaise, Tabasco, and chopped onions.
''Once you taste it you're going to love it and you're going to want to buy,'' Schaumburg says. ''We had no idea in 1986 where we would be today.''
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