That’s what it’s all about for Hattiesburg’s new First Family – Toby and Kate Barker and daughter, Audra Kathryn.
It’s been a busy few months since Barker took the oath of office and gained another whole family. There has been putting a good support team in place, the start of meeting as many city employees as possible, meetings with the public to hear their concerns, passing a budget for Fiscal Year 2018, swearing in new police officers and court personnel, motivating students throughout the school district, supporting many worthwhile causes and dealing with the city’s infrastructure and growth, just to name a few.
So, when Thanksgiving rolls around, Barker looks forward to a day at home with his family.
This will be a holiday of firsts for Barker – his first year in City Hall, his first with a just-turned one-year-old daughter, and one with his mother living in the same town as he and his family.
Toby’s inlaws, the Northrops, are also Hub City residents, which truly means spending the holidays at home and not on the road to Meridian, where Barker’s mother previously lived, or to New Orleans, from which Kate’s parents hail.
All the family lives within a three to six-block perimeter of one another, convenient when a grandmother needs a hug and a kiss from a special granddaughter or when someone accidentally gets locked out of the house.
Through the years
Growing up, Barker remembers traveling to the family farm in Whynot, a small community outside Meridian, where his grandparents, great aunts, uncles and the like would congregate on a variety of holidays.
“My great uncle would fry a turkey and my sister and I would jump haybales and later my grandfather and I would walk down to the old slough,” Barker remembers.
After his grandmother died in 2001, the family started traveling to Barker’s great uncle’s house in Myrtlewood, Ala., “another booming metropolis,” for a noonday meal, and that became kind of the new tradition.
The Thanksgiving dinner meal would find Barker’s family with their feet under the table at his parents’ home.
“That changed when we got married and when my dad passed away,” he said.
Growing up for Kate meant gathering in the New Orleans house where her mother grew up and now is the home of her aunt. Thanksgiving included a collection of her aunt’s friends, other aunts, uncles, cousins, her brother and parents gathering in the Crescent City for the November holiday.
One Thanksgiving Kate remembers experimenting with turducken, which she described as different, but really good. And her aunt would always make oyster dressing, considered a holiday staple.
“There was a lot of New Orleans-inspired food, which was a little different from what we would have if we were from Mississippi,” she said.
With his five older siblings scattered across the country, Barker said they would get as much of the immediate family together as they could, including aunts, uncles and others.
The Thanksgiving menu was that of traditional Southern country food – turkey, and probably three or four different kinds of dressing, including Barker’s mother’s sausage and wild rice casserole.
“My grandmothers and aunts grew up in the Depression, but really knew how to cook,” Barker said, smartly adding, “not as well as my wife does.”
“But it was a sacred time for them because as poor as they grew up, that was the one time every year, even when they were kids, that everybody had enough (to eat), so that was a big deal.”
After they switched venues to his uncle’s house, Barker said it was enjoyable hearing his grandfather and his great uncle, both of whom had not lived together in 60 or 65 years, telling funny stories and talking about growing up.
“It was interesting to hear how both their dialects had changed in that time, even though they only lived an hour and a half apart,” Barker said.
After the big meal, Barker remembers watching football was always a big tradition.
“And then toward the end, our last Thanksgiving with my grandfather was after I had been elected and I think it was Brett Favre’s last Thanksgiving Day game,” he recalls. “Hearing them offer color commentary on Brett Favre and how ‘that boy Rogers’ was never going to get a chance, but that was O.K., was enjoyable,” he laughed. “And I think they (the Packers) played the Lions and they always just beat up on the Lions on Thanksgiving.”
All about the food
For Kate, now a professional chef, good food has always been a part of her life.
“My mom cooked quite a bit when I was growing up,” she said. “Pretty much we had meals together every night. She cooked and I was right in there with her.” But it wasn’t until Kate was in college that she really developed her love of cooking. In order to graduate from college she lacked a one-hour class.
“Cooking was available and I thought I could ace it,” she remembers. “It was through that when she realized how much she really enjoyed cooking. She was also working in a coffee shop where the owner had catering jobs that Kate was able to help her with.
“It was through those two things that I realized how much I really enjoyed it,” she said. “But it wasn’t until much later, when we were married, that I decided to do something more professional with it.”
But Kate said food has always been a big part of her family’s life.
“My parents being from New Orleans, food has always been a part of our culture. And Toby can attest to this, for Christmas, Thanksgiving, anytime, it really doesn’t matter. Whenever we get together to have a meal, it tends to be a long meal, not because we are eating the entire time, but we eat and then we just sit around the table and talk. We just linger and that is the culture, the New Orleans culture, that I grew up loving.”
The First Lady said she didn’t know any different and Toby has learned to become accustomed to that.
“Three-hours for lunch and that’s alright,” the mayor added.
“I mean it’s dinner and we talk and there’s time between courses and there’s dessert and coffee and it’s just fun,” Kate said.
All in the family
Now that the immediate family is in the Hub City, the families have started doing things together, which they describe as fun and convenient.
Christmas Eve means Kate’s uncle from Florida bringing oysters he’s grown to grill, as well as beef tenderloin, which means they have to get an early start, usually around 10 a.m. with drinks in hand.
“We eat all afternoon then head over to Christmas Eve church service,” said Barker. “On the way home Kate’s uncle and I stop by one of the local establishments still open for one drink and then head home for a four or five-hour Christmas Eve event.”
“It’s about being together and enjoying really yummy food that brings us together as a family,” Kate said. “There’s just an excitement about that, and something I grew up being around. It’s funny how much conversation tends to gravitate back to food all the time.”
Things changed when the couple married in 2008. And with it came new traditions.
Thanksgiving lunch was always done with the Northrops while dinner was with the Barkers.
Christmas Eve was at Kate’s parents and Christmas night in Meridian with Toby’s family. The couple’s Christmas morning included getting up at a leisurely pace and then lunch from a Chinese restaurant before heading north to the Queen City.
“That’s become a tradition now,” said Kate. “We have Chinese because those restaurants are really the only places open.”
Toby said now that his mother is in town with the rest of them, this year will be different.
“We are still figuring out how it’s going to work, but I will not miss that drive north during the holidays. Our families are both here, so we’ll all be together and we won’t really have to go anywhere.”
And the family’s holiday meals, which happen around 1 or 2 p.m., don’t include paper plates, napkins or plasticware, but china, crystal, silver, cloth napkins, candles and real flowers.
“It makes it special,” Kate said.
Kate grew up with her family meals served buffet style, while Toby’s were family style with all the food on the table and then passed.
“The first time I ate at his house I thought that was so strange, because that’s just not how we served a meal, even just regular old dinner. It was strange to put all the food on the table. It’s not a big deal, but just interesting the differences.”
While a 1 or 2 p.m. mealtime might mean only one eating for the day for many, Barker laughed saying they find a way to get in two meals.
Kate said this Thanksgiving will be a time to reconnect. “We’ll take this time to reconnect with our families, except for our immediate families, our parents, his siblings are scattered, so there’s not a lot of time offered to reconnect and this is just one of those days where we get to spend the day with one another.”
Everybody contributes to the Thanksgiving meal. Kate said typically she and her mom do the turkey. “And then I’ll do a couple of side dishes and she’ll do one, and then everybody else will contribute something, kind of a collective effort,” she said.
The menu also features a spinach and artichoke casserole, made by her mom, Donna, that Kate describes as “divine and fat free (not at all); it is delicious!”
“Sometimes we’ll do a corn pudding, some yeast rolls and always a pumpkin pie of some sort.”
And the cranberry sauce?
“My mom is all about the canned cranberry sauce,” laughs Kate. “I tried to make real cranberry sauce one time, but she said, “it’s just not the same,” so it’s canned jellied cranberry sauce. It has to be jellied. Mom has a nice pretty little dish she puts it in. I give it to her, I don’t eat it, so what do I care? I fought for it because, I felt like, ‘Come on, we’re better than this, Mom.’ We’re from New Orleans where the food is fantastic, but no, she wants that jellied cranberry sauce; whatever makes her happy.”
Barker added that his family is all about the canned cranberry sauce too.
A nice wine is also served with the meal.
Favorite dishes include Barker’s uncle frying the turkey or his aunt’s dressing, chocolate pound cake and his mother’s sausage and wild rice casserole, “kind of one of the last ones I grew up with that is still available.”
While Kate is big on leftovers, Barker is a little less enthusiastic, unless someone “prepares it for me,” he said. “I don’t like to go through the process of heating everything up. It’s a lot of work.”
For Kate, there’s nothing better than a turkey sandwich with dressing and whatever is left over just kind of smushed together. “I feel like leftovers might be better than the day they are served,” she said.
Spending time with those other than family during the holidays also proves difficult with everyone being so scattered.
“Our big month with friends is October and Halloween because we do so many events together – pumpkin carving at the Keg and Barrel, The Avenues Halloween Parade and the Run for your Life Almost 5k Run,” said Barker.
Barker has really enjoyed getting into Kate’s family’s Christmas Eve tradition.
“I look forward to that more than anything else now, because all of her folks from New Orleans come up, her uncle from Florida, who does all the food festivals in New Orleans – French Quarter Festival and JazzFest – drives in from the Sunshine State.
“It’s his growing the oysters and just everything that goes along with that and the time spent catching up that’s special,” said Barker. “And they bring the good coffee from New Orleans too.”
Kate explained that at Christmas they draw names, but the gift giving is not the most important part.
“As wonderful and fun as it is to get gifts at Christmas, it’s more important to us that we spend money on the food,” said Kate.
“That’s kind of true,” added Barker. “Everybody gets a gift, but that’s not our total focus. It’s like we get to the end of the day, and ‘Oh yeah, we forgot to do that.’ It’s really about the time we get to spend together and eating, and the gifts are fun, but it’s a little bit of an afterthought.”
During this year of firsts, Kate said they are truly blessed.
“We have a lot to be thankful for. We’re so thankful for our health, Audra’s health, her existence (she turned one on Oct. 30) and our family that is close by.”
It’s all of these traditions Toby and Kate are looking forward to passing down to their daughter.
Audra’s dad really wants his daughter to know her living relatives and the ones who are no longer with them. “I think it’s important for her to know where she came from, not only her namesake, but to know all of the grandparents and great grandparents that she won’t get to know, but that are a part of her.”
“I just hope she will become attached, like we’ve become attached to the time we spend together as a family,” said Kate. “And that she will grow to love and anticipate our Thanksgiving and will look forward to it like we do, and we did as children and not dread it.”