Six days a week Doris Martin rises at 3 a.m., dresses and makes the five-minute drive from her home on Buck Egger Road in Caledonia to the Cal-Kola Express, a convenience store/gas station on Highway 45 not far from Columbus Air Force Base.
Martin arrives shortly after 4. She first removes from the grill Boston butts that have been smoking all night. Then she puts biscuits, bacon and sausage in the oven for the group that will inevitably be waiting at the front door when a coworker unlocks it at 5.
For the next four hours, a steady stream of customers will ravage a hot bar Martin hustles to keep stocked, first with breakfast fare, then chicken (fried, strips, gizzards, livers and wings), rib tips and barbecue.
Cal-Kola breakfast customers run the gamut: laborers, school kids, day-care providers, retirees, commuters and Columbus Air Force Base personnel.
“This place has the best breakfast,” said David Sommers on a recent weekday morning. Sommers, in desert camo, was waiting for one of Martin’s sausage biscuits. The senior master sergeant is wing staff superintendent at CAFB.
Sommers said when he returned stateside a year and a half ago after 17 years overseas he was “hungry for some great American food.” The shrimp and crawfish at the Cal-Kola Express fit the bill. He is no less enthusiastic about the store’s chicken. About a month ago, he became one of Martin’s breakfast regulars.
Sommers offered an opinion that usually evokes one of two responses, a look of incredulity or knowing nod of agreement.
“Gas stations in Mississippi have great food.”
Sommers favors a nearby Texaco on Fridays for its fried fish.
Pierce Richard Gill, a 70-year-old Vietnam vet, lives in Hamilton, where he retired after 32 years at Kerr-McGee. One morning we spoke he was headed to his cabin on what he calls “the old Tombigbee.” Gill, too, is a Cal-Kola repeat customer. He was having rib tips Martin had just taken off the grill.
“And boy, were they delicious,” Gill said later. “I know you shouldn’t eat and drive, but I started on them as soon as I got on the highway. I had barbecue sauce everywhere.”
It’s almost 9 a.m. and Martin, now four hours on the job and dusted with flour and splattered with cooking oil, offers me a container of rib tips. I try one. It’s delicious. With its dry-rub sauce and just-off-the-grill freshness, Martin’s tips would do any Memphis barbecue joint proud.
Doris Martin, 56, has cooked at Cal-Kola for three years. The soft-spoken grandmother worked at the airman’s dining hall at CAFB for 12 years and was head night cook at a Waffle House for 12. She put in 10 years at Walmart before coming home to care for her mother.
After her mother’s death, Martin began looking for work. She wasn’t optimistic about her prospects. Then she found the job for which she is perfectly suited, virtually in her backyard.
“I love it; I love every bit of it,” she says of her present position.
Judging from the comments of Cal-Kola store manager Yasser “Yazz” Jabar, the feeling is mutual.
“We never had one like her,” he says about Martin. “Miss Doris,” he calls her.
She’s great with customers,” says Jabar. “She knows how to make the customer smile.”
Then Jabar offered what may be the most profound praise you could give someone who cooks for the public.
“Miss Doris, she cooks from the heart,” he said.
I asked him what exactly that meant.
“She cooks as if she’s cooking for her own family.”
“You can never ask for nothing more than Miss Doris,” he added.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
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