st. john

Over the past 30 years our company has been busy. We’ve opened fine dining restaurants, New Orleans-themed restaurants, an Italian restaurant, a live-music club, a daiquiri bar, a 20,000-square foot country and western nightclub, a burger joint, a couple of neighborhood bars, four steakhouses, a catfish house, an officer’s club on a national guard base, a couple of neighborhood beer and whiskey bars, a cocktail bar, and— most recently— a breakfast/meat-and-three café.

Our company has covered most of the bases of the restaurant trade for over three decades. Some are still open, some have been re-opened, some are long gone and will never be heard from again. Though, at one time or another, each of those concepts held a special place in my heart (those that remain open still do) as they were born from nothing but an idea and a collection of sketches and numbers on bar napkins and scratch paper.

There are a few areas of the foodservice industry we have yet to try. There are also a few concepts in development that I can’t reveal at this time, but we are very excited about what’s coming up in our future.

Until a few weeks ago, we had never operated a donut shop.

Our team opened a small-batch donut shop next door to our community cafe. It’s been a blast. We had the concept in development for several years. The recipe-testing process for new concepts is typically a workmanlike — sometimes boring — methodical process in which we start with conceived recipes, and through a trial-and-error process, hammer out workable recipes that can be reproduced in a commercial kitchen and eventually have the flavor profile of what we want the finished product to taste like at the table.

There was nothing workmanlike or boring about donut testing. It was a blast, and one of the more creative projects I have worked on, ever. Donut conceptualizing is fun. Donut testing is fun. Everything about donuts is fun. My friend, business partner, and co-collaborator, Wyatt Waters says, “Donuts are the most fun food,” and he’s right.

There were a lot of decisions to be made during the developmental phase— what type of flour, which yeast, shape, size, weight, all of those things factor in. We went with a mix of potato flour and pastry flour with potato yeast. We cut them into three-inch squares because the fill a box better, they’re unique looking, and the customer gets more for his or her money.

Once those decisions were made, the fun began. We were limited by space— as we are truly a small-batch donut shop. We make all of the donuts by hand every morning and cook them in small batches throughout the morning.

We weren’t, however, limited by our imagination. Not at all. We made glazes and icings out of watermelon, blueberries, key-limes, and caramel. We started topping donuts with breakfast cereals, candy bars, cookies, and all manner of oddities. Again, it was a blast.

One day, after one of those creative, all-out, donut-topping work sessions— fueled with sugar but ready to take a break— we sat around a table and talked about our favorite pastries, desserts, and sweets. When it was my turn, I told the test-crew about my lifelong across-the-street neighbor, Mary Virginia McKenzie, and her orange sweet rolls.

For as long as this 56-year old can remember, Mary Virginia McKenzie has been making homemade orange sweet rolls. Her husband, Jimmy, and my father were best friends. They purchased starter homes across the street from each other. When the time came to build houses across town, my father and Jimmy bought lots— and constructed homes— across the street from each other. I spent my childhood across the street from wonderful people, one of whom made amazing, homemade orange sweet rolls every week.

I have spent over a half of a century eating those orange sweet rolls. Every Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Fourth of July, birthday, graduation, sporting victory, sporting loss, good report card, special achievement, and just for no reason other than Mary Virginia McKenzie loves baking and passing out her awesome sweet rolls. My family, and dozens and dozens of other families around town have been lucky enough to have been gifted Mary Virginia’s orange sweet rolls over the years.

I look back on my childhood with such fond memories. I was blessed for many reasons. If I were to make a list of my top 25 blessings, those sweet rolls would be on the list. They were that important to me, and they were/are that good.

So after bragging to my donut-development crew about the orange sweet rolls I have been eating all of my life, I was overcome with gratitude towards the selfless woman who had made all of those sweet rolls, and— as most food inspirations happen, on a lark— I told the group, let’s make a donut in honor of Mary Virginia McKenzie who has been sharing her donuts with a lot of Hattiesburg for all of these years. Let’s give ALL of Hattiesburg the opportunity to share in her passion. So, we created a potato-yeast raised donut and topped it with Mary Virginia’s orange sweet roll icing. They asked, “What do we call it?”

“We’ll call it the ‘Mary Virginia,’” I said.

Our small-batch donut shop opened a few weeks ago. We sell regular glazed, chocolate glazed, and a lot of other varieties. But the Mary Virginia is our best seller.

Some say it sells so well because of the name, some say the taste, still others say the shape. I’d say they’re all right. But I believe the reason the Mary Virginia is one of our best-selling donuts is because it’s in the DNA of the town. For over 50 years, people have been shown the kindness and generosity of one woman who started out with a simple idea— bake sweet rolls for her friends and family— and ended up with a lifetime of service, making several generations happy with her gifts and talents.

Onward.

Sugar Cookies

1 cup Butter

1/2cup Sugar

1 large Egg

1 Tbl. Vanilla

3 cups Flour

1 /2 tsp. Baking powder

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cream butter and sugar; beat in egg and vanilla. Sift flour and baking powder together, stir into mixture. Refrigerate about 1 hour, or until dough is firm enough to roll. On a floured surface, roll to 1 /8-inch thickness and cut with cookie cutters. Sprinkle the tops with granulated sugar. Bake 10-12 minutes at. Yield: 8 dozen small cookies.

ROBERT ST. JOHN  is a father, husband, restauranteur, chef, author, columnist, world-class eater.

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