The Cottage Tea Room in Aberdeen, Miss., is more than just a café. With a welcoming front porch and walls lined with relics, the house-turned-restaurant has become a meeting place and part of the fabric of the community itself.
Sara Gardner and Susan Langford, a mother-daughter duo, are the owners, operators, and most importantly, cooks. They begin serving customers each day at 11 a.m., but their days start before 7 a.m.
Gardner, a retired nurse, recalls the day she first thought of putting a restaurant in the craftsman-style home. A caterer had been using the home for storage, and when the business closed, they had a sale there. Gardner, who had a catering side business with Langford, went to the sale with a friend.
“My dietician friend went with me, and I was asking her what I should buy. She said, ‘What you should really do is buy this house,’” Gardner said.
“We bought the house, and didn’t buy a thing at the sale,” added Langford.
They opened the Cottage Tea Room on March 15, 1999, with a one-page menu that they put together the night before. That menu has now grown to over 40 items, including best sellers like chicken salad, quiche, and turnip green soup. Langford said what really brings people in the door, though, is the daily special. The daily special, although different each day, is a staple in itself, and the customers don’t take kindly to changes.
“Some days, if the weather is bad, or we haven’t had much time to prepare, we will not have a special and will just let people order from the menu,” Langford said. “People act like we have ruined their entire day.”
A customer-favorite special is chicken and wild rice. They also offer different vegetables to accompany the entrées, and every one has their favorite.
“We made butterbeans today, and it threw everyone for a loop,” Gardner said, with a laugh.
As far as desserts, they decide on a whim what they will make and serve that day, except for Wednesdays, which are reserved as bread pudding days.
“We had to give it its own day, because people were always calling wanting to know when we’d be serving bread pudding,” Langford said.
Don’t ask for the recipe, though. Gardner said even if they gave out their secrets, it wouldn’t be the same at home. She never strictly follows the instructions. Most of their ideas come from church cookbooks, school cookbooks, magazines, and even Pinterest.
Gardner remembers watching her great aunt, who lived with her family, make bread pudding. It was her time spent in the kitchen with her that first inspired her love for cooking.
“She loved children and loved to be around the young people. And she loved to cook. She would be in the kitchen with me, and when I laid a dirty dish down, she washed it up for me, so that’s probably why I like to cook,” Gardner teased.
With only four employees, they serve the lunch crowd Monday through Friday and still make time to deliver to bereaved families and homebound patrons, cater, and sell specialty items like cakes and cupcakes. Langford and Gardner even have their own line of pre-packaged mixes called “In the Box,” that make baking sweet favorites as easy as adding butter or water. These small tastes of Aberdeen can be found in gift shops and emporiums all over the state.
For Cottage Tea Room regulars, the environment is half of the experience. A full guestbook sits on a table by the door, evidence of all those who have experienced Langford and Gardner’s true Southern hospitality first-hand. Customers sit at tables, just a few feet away from other diners, mirroring the intimacy of their quaint hometown. The dishes are mismatched and unique. Most of them were purchased at tag sales, although it isn’t uncommon for people in the community to drop off unwanted dish sets on the front porch. Artifacts, both familiar and unfamiliar to me, hang from the walls and sit perched on tables.
“We are refined hoarders,” Langford said.
One piece in particular caught my eye, which looked like a metal silhouette of a hand attached to a rod. Gardner explained the device was used to dry women’s gloves after they had been washed. The entire restaurant is a nod to a bygone era when women met in gloves and hats to sip tea and talk about the day’s events, possibly even in that very house.
For Langford and Gardner, that image doesn’t seem so far-fetched. They entertain women’s church groups and Red Hat Society chapters often. During the annual pilgrimage, they will even host a proper tea, with matching china.
Little is known of the home’s history; although, there is rumor that the craftsman is a Sear’s home. It is located in what is known today as “Old Aberdeen.” The home was built in 1930 for G. O. and Etta Mae Parker. Gardner’s maiden name is Parker, which makes her feel connected in some small way to the original owners.
Langford and Gardner, however, are quickly forging their own history at the Cottage Tea Room. Visitors drive in from surrounding counties to see what the fuss is about. They have even fed celebrities like Delta Burke, Lucie Romano, Doris Roberts, and Morgan Freeman.
“We are very proud,” Gardner said.
Certainly, Aberdeen is proud, too.
Photos by Lauren Wood // Story by Carmen Cristo