Byrne remembered fondly as chef, business owner, former first lady of Natchez

Published 6:02 pm Friday, March 29, 2024

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NATCHEZ — A woman who was a force in Natchez society and business during the modern heyday of the city, Helen Loveta Byrne, has died.

In the 1970s in Natchez, oil was booming and the Sidetrack was jumping. Byrne began the Sidetrack in 1971 with her friend, the late Florence Turpin, and her mother, the late Helen Bearden. It became a wildly successful Natchez restaurant. If there was an event to be celebrated in Natchez, families and friends celebrated at the Sidetrack.

Byrne was first lady of Natchez during the entire time her ex-husband, Tony Byrne, served as mayor from 1968 to 1988. The two married in 1959 — her second marriage — and divorced in 1992.

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Her daughter from her first marriage, Pat Mullins Jonaitis, was 7 years old when her mother married Byrne. She had two children with Byrne, daughter Kristie Byrne Chandler of Birmingham, Alabama, and Kevin Byrne of Austin, Texas.

Byrne’s death was unexpected, her daughter Jonaitis said, though she went peacefully. Byrne had planned a gathering and meal with her family for Easter. She still lived alone and continued to drive and enjoyed playing cards until recent months.

“We are still going to have that Easter dinner together,” Jonaitis said. Byrne’s three children were together Friday, planning details of their mother’s funeral and obituary.

Byrne, 92, was born and raised in Franklin County and took pride in her country-girl heritage. She graduated from Franklin County High School in 1949, where she was drum major.

More even than her natural business acumen or love of playing cards with friends, Byrne will be remembered for her love of food and cooking..

“She was always in the kitchen,” Jonaitis said. “She and (the late) J.P. Trosclair would get in the kitchen and she would taste what he was cooking and tell him it needed something, and JP would say, no it does not. He would turn his back and she would add it. And he would say and do the same thing to what she was cooking.”

Kristie and Kevin Byrne recall going to the A&P Grocery with Byrne’s grocery list and because it was before the days of cell phones, they would be paged to come to the office phone because she had forgotten to tell them to get something she needed, Jonaitis said.

She told The Natchez Democrat in October 2014 for a story in Natchez the Magazine that she was not afraid to prepare or eat wild game or parts of an animal from which others shy away.

“The best meal I ever had in my life was tripe in Paris,” Byrne said. “Oh, yes, I knew what I was eating. I’m from the country. I love all that — sweetbreads, chitterlings, though I don’t like to prepare them.”

Others still recall fondly the dishes from the Sidetrack, like Byrne’s fish and shrimp, spinach salad and warm bacon dressing and Bluff High Pie.

“(The spinach salad)  was a take off on the wilted lettuce salad they made in the country when I was growing up,” she said. “Everyone steals ideas. We would change them a little bit and make them our own…I don’t know what it was that made the Sidetrack so successful. Everything just jelled. It was just the right time. The oil business was going great, and it was a great time in Natchez.”

Lifelong friend Diana Nutter said she will remember Byrne as a loyal friend who was much fun.

“She has been in my life most of my adult life,” Nutter said. “She was a worker, and she expected others to work as hard as she did. Loveta was a mentor to many.”

Nutter said Byrne was also known for having a quick temper, but that it didn’t last long and all was quickly forgotten.

In addition to the Sidetrack, Byrne owned the Serendipity Gift Shop, and later owned the Pompous Palate with Shelly Dearing. She and her then-husband renovated Glenburnie and they also owned The Burn for a time.

After her divorce, Byrne moved to Vicksburg for a short time and owned Anchuca, a historic home there.

Mary Lees Edwards Wilson, who owned One-of-a-Kind on Main Street in downtown Natchez, posted on social media that Byrne was a mentor to her.

“She was an inspiration to me. A mentor,” Wilson wrote. “I worked at Serendipity for her and carried a lot of what she taught me in owning One-of-a-Kind for 40 years…such a strong, smart and talented lady.”

Byrne died Wednesday at her Natchez home.

“Of comfort is that she was giving directions on how to make her shrimp salad until about 3 hours before her time came. She was at peace in her final moments and in the comfort of her home,” Jonaitis said.

Funeral services are Thursday at 9:30 a.m. at St. Mary Basilica. Visitation will be from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. at the church. Burial will follow at the Natchez City Cemetery. Laird Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.

In the Natchez the Magazine story from 2014, Byrne said one of her favorite holiday dishes to prepare was her cornbread dressing. That recipe follows.

Loveta Byrne’s Cornbread Dressing

1 1/4 cup melted butter

1/2 cup minced bell pepper

2 cups diced celery

3 cups minced yellow onions

1 teaspoon black pepper

2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage

1/2 teaspoon poultry seasoning

1 teaspoon Accent seasoning

4 eggs

1 1/2 cups chopped toasted pecans

5 to 6 cups chicken stock

6 cups crumbled cornbread

1/4 loaf stale French bread, cubed

1 bunch green onions

3 tablespoons fresh, chopped flat-leaf parsley

1. Place butter in skillet and sauté celery, bell pepper and onion for 15 minutes.

2. Place cubed bread in a large mixing bowl and add crumbled cornbread and sautéed vegetables, chicken stock, salt, pepper, sage, poultry seasoning, Accent, eggs, green onions, parsley and pecans. Mix together.

3. Pour into a buttered casserole dish and bake at 325 for 45 to 60 minutes.