August 4, 2010 11:51:00 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
While most of the world slumbers at 4 a.m., the day is under way at Ole Country Bakery in Brooksville. As the ovens warm, main baker Christon Peaster is already working on some of the best fresh-baked breads and specialties to be found in the region. The former school teacher has become "the backbone of the bakery," says Ole Country founder and owner Geneva Nightengale.
Peaster isn''t alone in the pre-dawn hours. Betty Kincaid and Amy Koehn both rise and shine, often meeting Peaster even earlier, to prepare special orders and to make ready for the first customers when doors open at 6 a.m. And there are currently 16 other dedicated people keeping the tradition alive at this Mennonite community bakery that has, in its 29-year-history, become a destination for anyone who appreciates homemade goodness.
White breads, honey whole wheat, cinnamon raisin, nine grain, Amish friendship, poppyseed, banana nut, pumpkin, Italian herb and cheese, pumpernickel, sour dough, lemon nut ... the list goes on. Fresh loaves line the wooden racks in the bright bakery, their aromas scenting the air. Cheerful red and white checked curtains accent white walls. A medley of tables, each topped with a brightly-colored pot of ivy, invites visitors to sit a spell, take a break from the heat. It''s a friendly place to relax with lunch from the bakery''s deli and catch up with friends and neighbors.
For the sweet tooth
Geneva Nightengale knows man does not live by bread alone. Pastry trays are filled with delights like cream cheese twists, apple fritters, lemon squares and caramel nut cinnamon rolls. Pecan tarts, doughnuts, fudge brownies, jumbo muffins and cookies of every kind tempt. The experienced bakers also make wedding and special occasion cakes, as well as petit fours.
Fresh pies and pluckett bread, homemade preserves, a variety of layer cakes, local honey, homey cookbooks and framed embroidered proverbs add to a yesteryear charm.
It''s a sight Nightengale didn''t envision when she opened Nov. 22, 1981.
"When I think back to when I started, I never thought I''d still be doing this so many years later," she said.
Living in western Kansas with her large family of nine brothers and seven sisters, the girl who would grow up to start Brooksville''s renowned bakery had plenty of opportunities to learn her way around a kitchen.
"To keep food on the table for that many, we were constantly cooking," she smiled. "I''ve always enjoyed baking. ... I''ve always loved to get my hands in the dough, and smell it when it comes out of the oven."
As a wife and mother of three small children, she moved to Mississippi with her husband in 1966. Fifteen years later, Nightengale bravely decided to try to turn her love of baking into a livelihood. She couldn''t have chosen a busier season to launch.
"We opened right at Thanksgiving and Christmas," she vividly remembers. "It was almost a nightmare. We didn''t get much sleep; it was any and all hours, day and night. When I think back to those days I don''t see how we ever did it -- I think the Lord knew we needed it and pulled it together."
The original plan was to be open only three or four days a week. Demand dictated otherwise. The popular establishment is now open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays. Sunday is the Lord''s day.
Transitions and trends
In almost three decades, Nightengale has seen more than her share of changes. Farms and farmers have come and gone; a Highway 45 by-pass was constructed outside the bakery''s front door ("It almost killed us. We barely survived; nobody knew how to turn in here," she said); and Ole Country itself has undergone two expansions to increase kitchen and dining areas.
"We added lunch in 1990; that was a big plus for us and helped us grow," stated Nightengale.
Weyerhaeuser''s location to the area has also been a boost. With the huge plant only "9 or 10 miles away," the bakery delivers lunches and cakes for special occasions on a fairly regular basis.
The bakers have seen shifts in customer likes, too. More people ask for sugar-free products now, as well as grain breads, like the pumpernickel or nine-grain, Nightengale said. In cake and pastry decorating, "when we started, everything was so elaborate, but now it''s more simple -- people are going for taste more instead."
Doing it right
The Ole Country family takes pride in the bakery''s reputation for high quality products, putting their best into each loaf, cake, cookie or roll.
Peaster, 35, takes particular care in "keeping things on schedule, getting the breads right, getting them to turn out with their best appearance."
While new breads or sweet treats may be added to the repertoire from time to time, the daily "menu" is a testament to tried-and-true winners that have held their own with a widespread clientele.
Fortunately for the Golden Triangle faithful, as Christmas nears each year, Ole Country Bakery brings cakes, pies, breads and rolls to sell at a satellite location in Beans & Cream in The Shops at Brickerton in Columbus on designated Saturdays. A few bakery pastries are available there daily, too.
For Nightengale, even after 29 years, a primary reward remains unchanged. "I just love to see people enjoy food; that''s been one of the blessings for us."
So, next time you''re driving near the small town of Brooksville, look for the blue sign and wood-planked storefront. Park by pots of colorful country blooms and ferns. Rest a while in one of the comfy front porch rocking chairs after surveying all that''s offered inside. The welcome mat is always out at this, one of Mississippi''s most bountiful bread baskets.
Editor''s note: Ole Country Bakery is located on Highway 45 South in Brooksville. The phone number is 662-738-5795. Hours are 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.
OLE COUNTRY BAKERY POPPY SEED BREAD
3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups milk
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons oil
1 1/2 to 4 tablespoons poppy seed
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
1 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/2 teaspoons butter extract
For optional glaze:
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon butter flavoring
1/2 teaspoon almond flavoring
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup orange juice
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.