LAnd of Plenty Editorial EDITORs Bill Rose • Susan Puckett Reporters John Bobo • Lauren McMillin • Neal McMillin Camille Mullins • Sarah Bracy Penn • Erin Scott Bowen Thigpen • Rachael Walker • Phillip Waller
Multimedia & photography Photo & Multimedia Editors Alysia Steele • Mikki Harris Photographers Jared Burleson • Paris Crawford • Alex Edwards Thomas Graning • DJ Jones • Lauren Loyless Gerard Manogin • Austin McAfee • Lauren McMillin Alessandra Richards • LeAnna Young Phillip Waller • Katie Williamson
DesigN Team Presentation Editor Darren Sanefski Design Editor Virginia England Senior Designers Elizabeth Beaver • Kristen Ellis • Ben Hurston Designers Caroline Callahan • Ignacio Murillo • Petre Thomas Katie Williamson • LeAnna Young Cover photo by Katie Williamson, cover design by Virginia England
the battle for
The Delta’s Stomach For Better or Worse, We Are What We Eat
The man who brought gelato to the Delta.
The debutante turned teacher of Delta cuisine.
The Ice Cream Maker
The Cake Ladies They took mama’s recipe and fed the cast of The Help.
The Micro Brewer Don’t like big name beers? Brad Harger will help you brew your own legally.
A Cheese Straw Society Guests floating in by parachute. Galas in tractor sheds. They party differently in the Delta.
Only in the Delta would people think to soak their pickles in Koolaid, then freeze them.
Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett knew that if they built it people would come.
There is a great love story behind this Chinese-American restaurant.
How Crawdad’s and the McCartys gave new life to Merigold.
When big casinos plopped down in Tunica, two favorite local restaurants reaped an accidental bonanza.
Clarksdale Serves Up the Blues
A Restaurant That Can Hold a Town
Building on the Blues The best music in Indianola is the sound of cash registers.
Mai Little China
Gambling on Success
Melissa Townsend The magazine editor who helped deify Delta food.
Prawns? In the Delta? One Delta family has found success by growing prawns.
Beaverdam Fresh Farms near Indianola grows fresh vegetables. Photo By Katie Williamson
alternatives on the menu. For example, Taylor Bowen Ricketts at Greenwood’s Delta Bistro grows her own herbs in pots just outside the back door and purchases fresh produce from local farmers. The restaurants and people crusading to make the Delta thinner have one thing in common. They want this singular swath of flat land to survive.
The O’s Another cherished Delta trait is imagination. The restaurants never seem to lack for it. Every restaurant has what former Viking cooking school instructor Elizabeth Heiskell calls “a bit of a Delta twist.” The elder high-ticket restaurants that locals sometimes call “The O’s” — Lillo’s, Doe’s, and Lusco’s – combine a mix of funk, food, and finery to create a decidedly Delta atmosphere. The newer eateries update the culinary scene while offering their own spunk. The plethora of soul food kitchens and barbecue smokehouses keep the classic Southern food flame burning bright. Even the heat lamp buffets at gas stations offer a tasty meal. Southern Foodways Alliance Director John T. Edge, who is also contributing editor of Garden and Gun magazine, insists that the proper measure for Delta restaurants must include the intangibles. “Delta restaurants have among the best backstories that could be told in the South. They come with historical pedigrees that are really compelling … whether tracing immigrant history through Sicilians, or tracing civil rights history through a place like Lusco’s. Many of the signal moments of Mississippi history you could plot on a Lusco’s timeline … By that measure, Delta restaurants are as good or better than any in the nation.” Edge is quick to declare that you can’t blame the Delta’s health issues on food. “I don’t think it’s useful to say, ‘Is food in the Mississippi Delta a problem?’ Food everywhere is both a problem and a pleasure. I think that’s a false argument, a straw horse. The Delta’s poor — that’s the difference.”
Doe’s Eat Place is a family business that has kept the authentic hole-in-the-wall feel since 1941. Photo by Katie Williamson
Food writer John T. Edge says Delta restaurants have some of the South’s best backstories. File photo / Ann-Marie Wyatt
The war on poverty The effects of that poverty are easy to identify. Obesity, diabetes, strokes, high blood pressure, asthma. The list doesn’t stop
Poverty remains a Delta dilemma. Photo by Jared Burleson
Buffet line at Mai Little China. Photo by Katie Williamson
at disease. Poor schools, white flight, food deserts, drugs, a lifestyle of lassitude. The Delta is a poor, all too unhealthy place. Ever clear-eyed and frank, Dr. Hunter Crose of Charleston concludes that the obesity epidemic “has to be a function of poverty. Poverty in America is right here. This community has so many challenges. Wellness and disease prevention is almost a comedy to me. We’ve got issues just so far beyond that. The other fish we have to fry are enormous. I’m all for health initiatives, but we have a lot of stuff to do in the meantime.” The obesity problem is the easiest to see. While peeking across the restaurant to see how delicious the other patrons’ orders look, propriety often demands looking quickly away. One would not want to be caught mid-gawk. The eyes verify the statistics. The Delta is the epicenter of America’s obesity epidemic. The Mississippi Health Department 2011 report Mississippi: Burden of Chronic Diseases states that 69 percent of the state’s adults are overweight or obese, with Delta counties leading the way. That translates into exceptionally high rates of heart disease, diabetes, and renal failure. Thus, many Deltans are dying.
From too little to too much
Shelves at Fratesi's grocery. Photo by Lauren McMillin
Katherine Woodyard studied Charleston health. Photo by Katie WilliamsoN
Dr. Alfio Rausa, the longtime Delta health officer, notes a surprising consistency. When he first came to the Delta with a team of young doctors in the 1960s, the biggest problem he discovered was malnutrition. “Malnutrition then was a lack of food. People were starving, couldn’t make it to the end of the month,” Rausa said. Now the swollen bellies of the hungry have been replaced by the taut elastic waistbands of the obese. “Here we are 47 years later, and guess what’s my problem? Malnutrition. Now I’ve got too much food. Everyone in the United States has available to us on average 3,500 calories a day of food. Just an overabundance in food. And the overabundance is primarily of food that is not good for you. Not that they are not good for you in and of themselves but it’s the product — rich in calories and poor in nutrients,” he said. Catherine Woodyard, an Ole Miss doctoral student, spent months researching health woes in Charleston. It was sobering. “The doctor
“The doctor told me the biggest thing he sees in children is iron deficiency and anemia. So you have these children that are obese but they’re anemic, because they’re overfed and undernourished.” - Catherine Woodyard
Dustin Pinion owns and operates Beaverdam in Indianola. Photo by Katie Williamson
farms then you haven’t really addressed the problem. You’ve just gone from one industrial agriculture to another. You end up with the same kind of labor abuse, same kind of absentee land owners extracting profit from land and people,” Edge said. But here and there, a few idealists are trying to do it their way. Dustin Pinion, operator of the 20-acre Beaverdam Fresh Farms near Indianola, is using his high energy to grow fresh vegetables, chickens, and eggs. Through a highly organized Internet effort, Dustin sells to local buyer clubs throughout the state. He knows almost every customer by name. Yet, in the end, farming has to be a business. Dustin wants to expand his operation and raise beef. But with the challenges of chemical drift, Dustin’s - John relocating from the Delta to the hills of East Mississippi in the near future. With all these hurdles, the Delta may need to be as creative about promoting health as it has been about coming up with great food in restaurants. Delta chefs, for example, have long been able to craft a beautiful dish out of what was available. “Take pork — you don’t cook pig ears down for two days to get them tender because you are expressing yourself as a cook by way
of doing that.” Edge said. “You cook pig ears down because pig ears are cheap. You in essence beat pig ears into submission until they are food. Do you express yourself as a cook in doing that, your ability to season and create something really beautiful out of that? Yeah, but what drove you to do that initially before a whitetable cloth chef got a hold of that idea was, you know, poverty. Poverty can be catalytic in the creation of food.”
“If you didn’t have the food component, the Delta wouldn’t draw as much as it does.”
But poverty can also strangle a place. As thousands have fled the region, as jobs have disappeared, as the Delta has gotten poorer, there has been no lack of doubters. Now, however, those who remain are more determined T. Edge than ever to find creative solutions. In town after town, local heroes are stubbornly opening new businesses, starting new restaurants, and pushing for a change of lifestyle. “Every town has something you can work with,” says blues entrepreneur Roger Stolle of Clarksdale. “If you don’t take advantage of what you already have, you’re just crazy.” Or, as Bubba O’Keefe put it, “Not every place is going to make it. But not trying is failure.”
The small yet significant successes such as Charleston’s Wellness Challenge foretell greater obstacles, too, can be overcome. Already, schools are change agents. Meals matter. New state guidelines and the steadfast insistence of cafeteria workers and teachers are boosting up to 10 meals a week from nutritional black holes to brain food. In Charleston, for example, the celebrated bread pudding is still dearly missed, but the middle schoolers are now reported to be excited on squash and creole green bean days. Teachers have heard stories about picky eaters asking their mothers to fix them some vegetables. Even little victories like these attract notice. In February, First Lady Michelle Obama came to Mississippi to praise the new statewide cafeteria efforts. Obama quipped that now the cafeteria kitchens have “replaced their fryers with steamers. Hallelujah.” The Center for Mississippi Health Policy has concluded that efforts like these have decreased childhood obesity among elementary students by as much as 13 percent.
Food tourists If the Delta’s obesity has drawn national notice, so have its restaurants, which have grown into reliable tourist draws as people from all over the world have flocked to the region to worship its blues heritage. “You think of planning a trip to Greenville, maybe you are going to go to the blues museum in Leland and go to Greenville to eat at Doe’s. Eating is part of the draw of Delta travel,” Edge says. “People travel to eat at the White Front Café (in Rosedale). For many of the tourists now who could be described as culinary tourists, it’s the White Front pilgrimage that’s primary and the B.B. King museum that’s secondary. “Or it’s the combination of the two that helps them decide, ‘Oh yeah, I want to go there on my vacation.’ If you didn’t have the food component, the Delta wouldn’t draw as much as it does,” he says. The Delta has many dishes that make an hour drive for a bite seem inconsequential. The moment you walk into the Crystal Grill and the corner of your eye spies the pie showcase, the perennial quandary is resolved. You’re going to have to save room for dessert. Sharing the sweet cloud of meringue is doubtful. A slice of coconut pie is hard to pass up. So is unhealthy food, if you’re used to it. It’s a siege and each victory is hard-won. When the state-mandated menu changes were first enforced at the Charleston middle school, students staged a valiant protest, self-righteously demanding a right to a greasy pizza slice. The cafeteria insurrection faded. As principal Becky Bloodworth observed, “They wouldn’t even give wheat bread a chance. They wouldn’t bite the sandwich at first. But now they see it really isn’t very different. They couldn’t care less whether it’s a white or wheat roll.”
Beaverdam Fresh Farms provides fresh free-range chicken, eggs and greenhouse tomatoes. Photo by Katie Williamson
Design by Virginia England Opening illustration by Kristen Ellis Rosedale’s tamale heaven. Photo by Katie Williamson.
DEEPER SOUTH 13
More than any other group, Italians set the standard for fine Delta food. The story behind it is pretty tasty, too. By SARAH BRACY PENN
Wesley Keen, general manager of15Lilloâ€™s. Photo by Jared Burleson
It was in the private dining booths, behind closed curtains, that the legend of Lusco’s was born. Photo By Katie Williamson
n a ramshackle house, at the highest peak of the warped, slanting floors, 87-year-old Florence Signa rubs garlic into the worn wood of her salad bowls as customers file in through the kitchen with the slam of an old screen door. Sixty miles east, Karen Pinkston leads diners down a narrow, dimly lit hallway and into a curtained booth where the push of a red button summons a waiter to take orders of hubcap-sized steaks, buttery broiled shrimp and whole pompano broiled with a secret combination of Italian herbs and spices. Somewhere in between, in an old white clapboard building on U.S. Highway 82, Deltans of every age and stage chow down on piping hot pizza pies and spaghetti while multiple generations dance to the tunes of a four-piece jazz band every Thursday. Italians have long set the standard for good dining in the Delta. For generations, if you asked where the best food is found, the answer would be “the three O’s” – Doe’s, Lusco’s and Lillo’s, icons all. Today, you can’t have that conversation without including Giardina’s, the flagship restaurant of Greenwood’s luxurious Alluvian Hotel. Ask another dozen Deltans and you’ll hear bragging about the old school fare at Ramon’s in Clarksdale or the Italian deli selection at Fratesi’s Grocery in Leland. And each one created by Italian immigrants whose family traditions and tricks from the motherland influence menus to this day. Lured to this fertile, flat land in the late 1890s and early 1900s, Italian peasant farmers came to pick Delta cotton and stayed to become some of the biggest farming families and most famous restaurateurs.
Today, spaghetti with pasta gravy and meatballs is as much a Delta staple as fried chicken, black-eyed peas and turnip greens. “Being immigrants, the best thing they knew how to do was cook good food, so that’s what they did,” said Karen Pinkston, owner of Lusco’s in Greenwood. “After a while, all Italians were in the food business in some capacity, whether it was selling food, cooking food or delivering it. It’s just what they knew how to do.” The Signa family of Doe’s, along with the Lusco, Lillo, and Giardina families, first found roots in the grocery business. Pinkston said in the 1920s, Papa Lusco used to load up a wagon of goods and cart them out to farm country, while Mama Lusco would stay behind at the store to serve lunch for businessmen downtown. Eventually, the store became a restaurant. Similar transformations took place in many Italian groceries. What started as a plate lunch for a few men led to daily herds of hungry customers, all eager for a little taste of Italy. The Delta Italians had made it—they found their forte, and it is there they have remained. Just as their ancestors did on the tough terrain of the Italian countryside, Lusco’s, Lillo’s, Doe’s and Giardina’s all lined shoulder to shoulder, gritting their teeth, straining their muscles and tilling the soil that would sprout the restaurant industry in the Delta. These longstanding establishments have endured massive floods and devastating fires and new ownership, yet they continue to thrive. So do the familiar faces inside. Take the 87-year-old matriarch of Doe’s Eat Place, Florence Signa. Flo has worked every job in the joint—waitress, hostess, cashier and cook. But her first night on the job was more of an accident. Flo’s boyfriend called her one night—“We had only been dating a few months,” she said—and cancelled a movie date. But Frank “Jughead” Signa had another plan in mind. “’Can you come fry potatoes tonight?’ he asked me. I thought, ‘What kind of date is this, frying potatoes?” Flo said, chuckling. That night led to many more spent in the crowded kitchen of the Greenville
landmark, where the sloping floors were never repaired after the big flood of 1927 and the side entrance is locked by a cutlet knife shoved between the dark stained wood door and its frame. Flo was wooed by Jughead in that very kitchen, watching him shuck raw oysters through an open window while she flipped sizzling potatoes in her frying pan. A year later, they married. Flo knew taking on the Signa name meant lifelong dedication to Doe’s Eat Place. What she didn’t know, however, is just how many people she’d touch there. It’s been 66 years since she began. She’s passed on the potatoes to another cook, but she still works three nights a week at the Greenville gem. Jughead died 17 years ago, but Flo finds comfort in this kitchen, even without him there slurping up two oysters for every three he’d crack open. From her perch at the highest peak of the kitchen’s slanting foundation, she can observe all of the happenings of the restaurant. Straight ahead, through the rising steam of simmering tamales and past
the potato cook, she can peer into the main dining area. A quick cut of her eyes to the right and there’s the side dining room, which was once the Signas’ bedroom when they still used half of the restaurant as their home. “This here. This is my spot,” she said, standing at the kitchen island, her hands gently rubbing a spot on the faux wood counter that has been worn down from handling countless wooden bowls through countless decades. Heinz tomato ketchup bottles filled with olive oil and a large tin saltshaker sit before her. “They tried to move me to the corner of the kitchen, but I couldn’t do it,” she said. “I couldn’t just turn my back on all these people. I like to see them and talk to them while I work.”
Behind closed curtains Over at Lusco’s in Greenwood, a list of menu specials in swirly cursive is inscribed on a whiteboard propped on an easel. These Lusco family recipes are served exclusively in March of each year, marking the anniversary of the red brick storefront on Carrollton
Through good times and bad, Doe’s has thrived on big steaks. Photo By Katie Williamson
After being spit out of an extruder, employees at Doeâ€™s roll the hot tamales and insert them into plastic baggies. Photo By Katie Williamson
Avenue. In its 80th year, Lusco’s still stands as one of the most famous and acclaimed eat places in the Delta. But in 1933, Papa Lusco probably never imagined the place of his name would become such an attraction for people in search of food that is always good and atmosphere that is arguably even better. In the early days, Mama Lusco’s cooking attracted Greenwood businessmen to the table. But what really brought in the flocks was Papa’s homebrew, served secretly during the Prohibition era. Although Lusco’s appeared as a fully functioning grocery, a whisper of the password opened the rear door, revealing a hallway of booths, each sealed off with a curtain. It was in those private dining booths that the legend of Lusco’s was born. The enticing lure of secrecy is perhaps what keeps customers coming after all these years. Each night, folks from across the Delta enter armed with their wine and liquor enveloped in brown paper sacks. They are led down the mint green hallway flanked by framed newspaper clippings and Lusco family portraits. Maybe they are seated in booths 5 or 10, the “Lovers’ Booths” that have seen couples get engaged. Or perhaps booth 3, which once served as Papa Lusco’s daughter Marie’s bedroom after she was married. But what is it that makes the privacy so alluring? Pinkston believes her customers yearn for the thrilling freedom that comes with being able to say and do whatever you please behind those drawn curtains. “But people forget you can hear every word they’re saying,” Pinkston said. The mystique of Lusco’s is further enhanced by the cuisine. A blend of Italian tradition and New Orleans flair, the menu boasts everything from penne rigate pasta topped with red meat sauce to their famous crisp battered onion rings and fried shrimp. You can’t forget the steaks dressed with Crabmeat Karen, with spinach soufflé served alongside. But the single dish that sets Lusco’s apart is a true New Orleans delicacy—pompano. The story goes that a loyal customer
had a taste of the delicate white fish in the Crescent City, and returned to Greenwood insisting Lusco’s serve it. The first pompano were brought up from the Gulf on a Greyhound bus, and a longtime cook broiled it whole and served it up in a lake of lemon butter sauce. Today, it remains one of Lusco’s most popular dishes.
Dance night in the Delta It doesn’t matter how fast you’re speeding down the highway through Leland, you can’t miss the enormous white and black sign that reads: Lillo’s Family Restaurant. The authentic Italian-American restaurant was formerly an American Legion hall, its simple white clapboard exterior and black shutters in no way alluding to
coming,” said Keen. “She’s 91 or 92 and still dancing. Nobody can believe she’s that old.” It all began when a local musician and longtime customer asked to play at the restaurant. Only one of the original four band members is still around, but the Lillo’s faithful remember Bubba Hubba, Dr. Bill Booth, and, of course, the eccentric old pianist, Boogaloo. “He used to say he was married to Tina Turner,” Keen said. “You’d have to fine tune him. He’d either be knee walking drunk or we’d have to put a little liquor in him.” Hanging on the wall is a portrait of Jimmy and Conchetta Lillo, the first generation who opened Lillo’s as a grocery in the summer of 1948. The Lillos claimed to be the first to introduce pizza to the Delta, and it remains one of the most popular items on the menu. “Back then, they would ask, ‘Do you want a pizza pie?’ And customers would ask, ‘Piece ‘a pie? What kind you got?’” Keen said.
“But people forget you can hear every word they’re saying” -Karen Pinkston
From the Delta to Napa and back
the entertainment to be had within. Upon entering, diners are hit with a heavy smell of garlic. Family snapshots and portraits from the St. Joe homecoming dance litter the cashier’s counter. Candles flicker to the rhythm of a dozen ceiling fans, and there is a certain coziness to the wood paneled walls. On most nights, owner Wesley Keen and his crew serve up broiled catfish and shrimp supreme in lemon butter sauce, as well as Italian classics eggplant parmesan and spaghetti with pasta gravy. But on Thursday nights, a Delta tradition has taken off. For twenty years, the tables have been pushed to the walls and the Lillo’s jazz band plays out tunes as couples of all ages shuffle across hardwood floors. This is Thursday. This is Dance Night. From 60 miles off, they come. Whether they can dance or not, they come. It is not unusual for 100 people to show up. “I’ve got one lady who calls me if they’re not
Giardina’s began as a grocery-turnedrestaurant on Park Avenue. Hailing from the tiny Sicilian town of Cefalu, the Giardina family quickly found their place serving steaks and seafood in private booths. Local rumor has it that Giardina’s curtained booths are inspired by those of Lusco’s. The restaurant has since relocated to the Alluvian Hotel in downtown Greenwood. Now under the ownership of Fred Carl, it is the premier fine dining restaurant of the area. Carl did not have to go far to find a chef. Enter 29-year-old Lee Leflore, Carl’s Delta-raised nephew and a descendant of the Choctaw chief for whom Leflore County is named. Leflore’s only been the chef at Giardina’s for nine months, but he has had a lifetime of training in his Italian family’s kitchen. He began working at the restaurant at 18, but has since ventured across the country studying the ins and outs of the fine dining experience. After receiving a degree in hospitality management at Ole Miss, spending a year at the Culinary Institute
Giardina’s in Greenwood’s Alluvian Hotel is an upscale Italian restaurant where, like at Lusco’s, diners can experience a private meal in their own curtained booth away from prying eyes. Photo by Katie Williamson
of America in Napa Valley and a stint in Emeril Lagasse’s New Orleans kitchen, Leflore was called back to the Delta. Like most Italians in the Delta, marinara is in his blood. His family, the Barrancos, reserved pasta for Sunday meals. He remembers hearty dinners of eggplant parmesan and Italian sausage, always served alongside homemade pasta and dressed with Barranco pasta gravy. “[Pasta gravy]’s more of a Sicilian thing. It’s really hard to say why. It’s a gravy because it’s so thick. It’s not like a thin tomato sauce or marinara sauce,” said Leflore. Regardless of its unknown etymology, pasta gravy has become a Delta tradition all its own. In years past at the annual Italian Festival of Mississippi in Cleveland, where convicts dressed in emerald green and ecru stripes stir vats of pasta gravy with canoe paddles, all of the great Italian families duked it out for the best pasta gravy recipe.
When it comes to Giardina’s menu, pasta gravy is the dressing of crisp calamari and house-made Italian sausage, as well as the final touch to angel hair pasta and veal parmigiano. Other family classics on the menu include Jojo’s lasagna and Camille’s bread, named for Leflore’s grandmother and great-grandmother, respectively. Traditions run deep for Giardina’s Restaurant. Delta Italians have come a long way since the late 19th century. The majority of Delta Italians come from two regions—Ancona and Sicily. They came by the boatload into either Ellis Island or the Port of New Orleans, where plantation owners immediately hired the eager immigrants as sharecroppers. The work on the plantations was tough—but not as daunting as the labor in Italy. “In Italy, they’d line ‘em up across the field and they would shovel across it all day long ‘til dark and they’d walk back. That’s how bad it was over there,” said third
generation Delta Italian Sam DiAngelo. In time, Italians would own some of the biggest farms and restaurants in the Delta. But it wasn’t always easy being an immigrant entrepreneur in early 20th century Mississippi. Discrimination found its way to Chinese, Lebanese and Italians alike. Steve Fratesi, a fourth generation Delta Italian, remembers what it was like to feel different. “Back then, we didn’t want to be Italian,” Fratesi said. In fact, most Delta Italians can speak only a few words in their native language. At the time, it seemed assimilation paved the road to success. But now, the prosperous Delta Italians are enormously proud. And it shows on menus like the one at Giardina’s. Despite his fancy culinary training, Leflore has left the menu untouched. Well, almost. “My dying meal would be pasta Sunday,” he said. “Rigatoni is my favorite. I put it on the menu, and it’s the only thing I’ve added.”
Design by LeAnna Young
Turnips as big as softballs grow in the Samuel Chapel United Methodist Church garden. Photo by Jared Burleson
Growing Food Desert in the
Black churches in the Delta are preaching the gospel of gardening. It could be their salvation. Story by Phillip Waller
FRIED CHICKEN, Fried Kibbie Clarksdale is known for being black and white. But don’t forget the Lebanese. And their food. Especially their food. Story by John Bobo
orks and knives clattered against china from the old country on the night Dad’s soul went to The Underworld (or maybe great-grandma Mamie was just being dramatic). A mere month into my parents’ courtship, my mother invited my twenty-something father to family dinner. His first Lebanese feast. Mom’s faint olive skin began to explain itself in the overtly ethnic picnic that Mamie Abraham Meena had strewn across the dining table. The entire family, plus guest, reverently lowered themselves into their chairs. Dinner was served. Murmurs and gathers of comfortable chatter filled the space above their heads. “Mamie,” my father asked. “You got any ketchup?” As silent as the many darting eyes that shot across the table, the room turned to ice. He knew he had misspoken. From the bounty of unfamiliar Mediterranean food, Dad—a descendant of the first white family to settle in Coahoma County—had piled his plate with a dish that seemed recognizable enough. These discs of fried meat, like chestnut-colored hockey pucks, auspiciously sat in the middle of the table. Wasn’t this fried patty akin to the many burgers he’d gobbled beneath the mosquitoed white light of Spruce Street baseball park? Was natural law not on his side? How sinful his assumptions were. Mamie fetched the Heinz from the back of the cabinet and, stoic, she slammed it next to him not unlike a judge banging her gavel. His face was as red as the errant bottle. Yes, it was meat. Yes, it was fried. But this was kibbie, and you do not put ketchup on kibbie. My dad has two story-telling voices: one for normal recollections and an extra syrupy drawl for the stories he loves. Stories like this one. Jesting at his oblivion to the sin he committed, Fincher Gist “Jack” Bobo uses this savory Delta accent to hammer out his
Mary Martha Bobo sets out Southern staples and Lebanese favorites for a house full of out-of-town guests. Photo by Thomas Graning
Jack Bobo made the mistake of thinking a tray of fried kibbie was a tray of burgers. Photo by Jared Burleson
Lebanese cooks have always been willing to mix their homelandâ€™s food with local staples. Hence, this table full of southern favorites Photo by Jared Burleson
that some, if not a lot, of the raw mixture will be eaten prior to being fried or baked. Raw is my preferred form. McKay is a bit of a celebrity. Known to all as Barbara, she is nothing less than family to the more than 20 Lebanese customers that request her by name several times a month. Her glossed violet lips are pursed as she remembers her late friend, Evelyn Nosef. “Mrs. Nosef was one of my favorite customers.” Having strictly a phone relationship for over a decade, Nosef would call in her order exclusively to McKay and have someone pick it up. They had never met. Until the day the meat department phone rang. “She wanted to see who I was. When she got there she said ‘I’m Evelyn Nosef and you’ve been cutting my steaks and kibbie for 14 years.’” The freckles on McKay’s cheeks dance when she laughs, remembering a time Nosef “got so mad.” McKay had been on vacation and someone was filling in for her. But Nosef knew the difference between a novice and a professional. “The manager had to calm her down. She came in exclaiming ‘Barbara didn’t do this! I know she didn’t do this!’” This kind of passion is the reason Kroger still has a meat grinder at all. According to McKay, the national grocery chain has all but entirely moved to pre-packaged meat. “They send in the ground bison ready packaged, ground lamb, ground beef, ground chuck, ground sirloin—even the chili meat is already packaged and ready to sell.” Everything but the kibbie. The Lebanese folk have made sure of that. “They buy enough kibbie to keep us grindin’,” McKay says. “We sell enough to keep that grinder and that’s the only reason.”
The good old days Louise Wilson—known by all acquaintances as “Weezy”—is one of McKay’s “faithfuls,” responsible for keeping Kroger’s grinder churning. Also, Weezy is Mamie’s sister, making her my aunt with a pair of anteceding “greats.” How very great she is indeed. In her kitchen, a forest of monkeys
Barbara McKay says the only reason Kroger still has a meat grinder is the continuous 33 demand for kibbie. Photo by JARED BURLESOn
plays on the jade wallpaper. Red flowers bloom between the troublesome primates, completing the pattern. Across the breakfast table, she faces me, sitting in front of the verdant chaos. She is the master of this space. This is her kitchen. “Growing up was fun because we had a lot to eat. At Thanksgiving we’d have turkey and dressing and kibbie,” Weezy says. “Lebanese people, they’ve gotta have a full table or they don’t feel like they’re doing you good.” Weezy’s father (my great-great grandfather), Sam Abraham, immigrated to the United States in 1893. He was one of the thousands of Lebanese to leave Lebanon between 1878 and 1924, marking the First Wave of Arab immigration. Most of these newcomers were peasant farmers fleeing persecution by the Turkish ruling class. My great-great grandfather, like many other immigrants, got involved in the mercantile business, peddling door to door—at least at first. They found this a stable alternative compared to other minorities largely involved in the difficult peonage of sharecropping. Many Lebanese found the moderate climate of the Delta to be agreeable with this line of work. My great-great grandfather finally settled in Clarksdale in 1916.
Cakes in the bathtub
“Lebanese people, they’ve gotta have a full table or they don’t feel like they’re doing you any good,” says Louise Wilson, better known as Weezy. Growing up, she recalls Thanksgivings when the family would 34 have turkey and dressing and kibbie. Photo by Phillip Waller
Her flip-phone rings, breaking the stream of oration. It’s her son, Bill—who lives 3 doors down—calling to check in. “He told me to stop sendin’ him text messages,” Weezy laughs after folding the phone carefully with both of her hands. “He said he can never decipher them and it makes him worry.” We get a good laugh out of this. “Now where were we?” she asks. “The Lebanese socials.” “Oh! Yes.” Her eyes squint. Her face glows. I can tell it’s a fond memory. “We used to pile up in the car at Christmastime and drive all the way to Vicksburg for a dance. All the Lebanese families. It was several groups of us.” To this day, Lebanese folk flock to Vicksburg on special occasions. The statewide Annual Lebanese
Mary Martha Bobo and her husband Jack Bobo start to wash up after preparing Lebanese and southern cuisine for their son’s friends at their Clarksdale home. Photo by JARED BURLESON
Dinner is held in Vicksburg each February, now in its 52nd year. She tells me about all the meals she cooked for Bill and his friends growing up. Cars would spill out of her driveway on certain nights during his high school years. “Joel would call me,” Weezy says, recalling one of Bill’s closest friends. “He’d call me in the afternoon and ask me what I was cookin’ that night. I said ‘What difference is it?’ and he told me he wanted to be thinkin’ about it during football practice.” Weezy chuckles. “It got so bad that I had to start hiding my cakes in the bathtub.” So every week, cars would line Anderson
Boulevard, the door would burst open, and chairs would crowd around the table. Hands, a variety of colors from white to shades of brown, reached for their portion of that exotic Lebanese cuisine. This is Weezy’s kitchen.
Cultural riches My mom, Mary Martha Meena Bobo, used to take me on drives. We’d loop through the flat, sinuous roads of Clarksdale in the bright moments after my release from Presbyterian Day School. Allowing me enough time to finish whatever gas-station fare or Sno-Cone I was munching, she would drive through the old neighborhoods
of her childhood. Oblivious to either her repetition or my attention, she would always point and comment at the same houses. “Every time grandma Mamie would come in town she’d grab me and we’d go to that house and I’d drink Cokes and eat lemonheads,” Mom says at the white brick house on Cherry Street. “Me and Mamie used to visit some lady in that house, I don’t remember who she was,” at the dwarf house on Elm with blue shutters. Now on my drives, 57-minute ones from Ole Miss to Clarksdale, I’m reminiscing. The ruler-straight trajectory, an anesthetizing path from Lafayette to Coahoma County, does a number on
Mary Martha Bobo washes dishes and cleans up after preparing and hosting a lebanese feast for Ole Miss student reporters travelling through the Delta during thier Spring Break. Students enjoyed kibbie, both fried and raw. Photo by JARED BURLESON
your imagination. Recently I haven’t been able to drive this endless pastoral landscape without thinking of Lebanese food. Everything about a field reminds me of kibbie – baked kibbie, to be precise. The expansive vista of plowed earth like a casserole dish. The sepia of dirt like cooked kibbie mixed with the gravelly grain of bulgar wheat. The perfect linear furrows of crop that flicker beyond my driver-side window are like the rows of the baked dish. The kibbie is lightly scored into perfect square plots, indicating appropriate portion sizes. (But no cook worth her tabouleh would consider merely one square an adequate serving size.) Nothing brings me home like kibbie. Along with the foods paired with it, kibbie was identifiably essential to my unassimilated family of the past. Therefore it is exponentially more important to me. Even the unforgivably bad kind is redeemable (don’t eat kibbie from the hookah bar in Hattiesburg; I’ve tried it and I’m sure grandma Mamie is still doing barrel rolls in her grave). But it is redeemable because of what it represents. It’s always an experience to meet someone with a Lebanese-sounding last name and rejoice after an affirmative response to, “Do you eat kibbie?” It may be a stretch to use my ethnic dishes, my “soul foods” as McKay calls them, to make wider claims about ethnic connectedness. My food and I are only one strand in this complicated web. But is it really that much of a stretch? From my very early days as a student at Ole Miss, I became aware that many people viewed the Mississippi Delta with a condescending frown. I had no idea so many people thought of my homeland as a third-world country, topping all sorts of ugly lists: teen pregnancy, heart disease, obesity, struggling schools, poverty. Those are statistics that cannot be disputed. But what has bothered me for some time is the undeserved stigma that usually accompanies these unpleasant rankings. It is the blind presumption of unknowing outsiders that my home is a culturally shallow land of racial prejudice and societal polarity. As if it’s only whites and blacks,
anything different. For myself, the first time you hear it, you are taken aback a little bit because you think you’re the same as everybody else, but then the first time you hear it you start realizing ‘Wow, maybe I’m not.’
Would you say that food was a big part of your life growing up? It was. We had gardens that my Mom took care of. She grew lots of different vegetables. We raised chickens, ducks, pigeons. My dad bought an incubator so he hatched eggs and raised them and that was our food. We went fishing on weekends. We grew our own food, we raised our own food, we caught our own food. So I would say it was a big part of our lives.
Why pigeons? Well, pigeons are one of the favorites of Chinese and French. We raised a lot of different birds, not just chickens and ducks. We raised quail, pheasant, and guinea hens.
What sort of things would you grow in your garden? Was it traditionally Chinese? Well not necessarily. It was a lot of the traditional things that people would eat like tomatoes and beans, but also vegetables that weren’t so well-known back then. Things like bok choy, Chinese long beans, and bitter melon.
You say you traveled a good bit after college. What were some of the foods that you were exposed to?
I got my (banking) degree, I was going to go to Ole Miss law school. I decided that wasn’t for me. I was not going to be a person that was going to sit behind a desk all day.
What flavors/ingredients do you most associate with the Delta? Well, the Delta is known for a lot of different things. Some things are odd and you wouldn’t think that it should be known for that, like tamales for instance. I guess for me, I think the ingredients more or less — the vegetables that we grew up eating. And the techniques. A lot of deep frying.
Did your family’s restaurant serve only Chinese food? No it didn’t. I used to always like to say it was the most schizophrenic menu you have ever seen. Because when we bought the restaurant we kept the existing menu, which was full of fried things and the usual steaks, but my parents also incorporated this Chinese-American menu on the other side. This menu had just the ubiquitous Chinese-American items like chop suey, fried rice, sweet and sour pork, and beef broccoli. Very common things, nothing authentic about it. We had that for the longest time, until I graduated from Ole Miss and came back into the business, and that’s when I slowly incorporated the more modern cuisine that I’m doing now.
There are so many different restaurants in the Delta owned by different ethnic groups. Why are these restaurants so successful?
I went to South America and Puerto Rico; I tried some Latin food while I was down there. Traveled a lot throughout the States and I wouldn’t say there was a regional cuisine that I was attracted to, but by that point had gained a huge interest in food and wine. So I was more or less visiting the great restaurants in every city. I spent a lot of time in northern California in wine country so that kind of increased my interest in wines.
Well, it’s just become a part of the fabric of the Delta; people don’t think anything otherwise. People accept you as part of the community; I don’t think they see you strictly as a specific type. There are several examples in the Delta. Lusco’s in Greenwood started out as Italian per se, but you wouldn’t think of it as an Italian restaurant. There is this place in Clarksdale [Rest Haven], they serve a lot of Lebanese food, but you don’t think of it as a Lebanese restaurant. I don’t think you would categorize it as anything; it is just a restaurant in the Delta.
You studied business; did you always plan on owning a restaurant?
Many ethnic restaurants in the Delta serve American food as well. Why do you think that is?
No, I did not. When I was growing up in high school I would work every weekend and a lot of nights, too, because it was just part of the family business and our way. My friends were all going out having fun, going to games and stuff. Not that I didn’t, but it wasn’t an every weekend thing for me. I was like, “I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.” In college, I thought maybe I wanted to work in a bank or in the corporate world. After
In a small town you’ve got to be all things to all people. You can’t pigeonhole yourself into saying, “Well this is a Chinese restaurant.” If you want to survive in business, just like any business, you’ve got to diversify.
Many of them are ghost towns. They are. It’s sad to see and sad to say but it’s just the economic reality of it. There are not a
I didn’t want to be stereotyped, so I did everything I could to get away from that. But as I have grown as a chef and evolved, I rediscovered who I was and came full circle in how I cook and what I cook and what I do.
Describe how you cook today. How has your Delta upbringing informed your menu at Acre? More than anything, the menu at Acre is seasonally and ingredient-driven. We Chef David Schrier cures some don’t really hang our hat on the locavore lamb to make lamb bacon. movement even though we try to source most of the produce and meats locally. I lot of opportunities down there so the younger want the ability and flexibility to be able to serve morel generation is going to go off to college, if they have mushrooms from the Northwest in the spring. I want that opportunity, and they are going to move off. to be able to offer my guests skate and wild striped bass from the Atlantic, two of my favorite fish. I want How does anybody make a living running a to serve Wild Alaskan or Colombia River salmon when restaurant in a ghost town? they are running in the spring. Otherwise, I don’t People drive all over the Delta to go eat, compared serve salmon the rest of the year. Growing up as a to Memphis. Memphis is a fairly big city; it would take Chinese-American in the Mississippi Delta afforded you 35 to 45 minutes if you lived on one end of the me a perspective on food that most cooks don’t have. I city and then wanted to go downtown to eat. It’s no absorbed the cooking techniques as well as the flavor different, say, if you lived in Cleveland and you wanted profiles of the various cultures there. Even though to go to Greenwood for dinner. So it’s just a matter you might not see overt references on my menus, of driving to a different town as opposed to driving hints of the flavor profiles sneak in there somehow. from one part of the city to another part of the city.
Should the rest of the world care to explore Delta cuisine? Of course. Southern food is enjoying a lot of publicity in mainstream media now. So I think the Delta plays a big part of it.
What’s so special about the Delta? The mystique. People always say that. There’s a lot of history there and it’s unlike any other part of the South, where in some ways things have changed and evolved and in other ways things have not. You can drive through a lot of the small towns and see people living the same way that they were 40 years ago.
In your career, how have you tried to keep food traditions alive? Earlier in my career I did everything I could to get away from it. I didn’t cook Asian-influenced food and I didn’t cook Southern-influenced food, because when I was starting to get known they were writing about this Chinese chef cooking the food I was cooking in the middle of nowhere. You just don’t see that. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed, I didn’t want to be categorized,
Why did you fight so hard to not be stereotyped? Back in the late ‘80s, there was no Food Network. People weren’t as obsessed with food as they are now. So when they see somebody like myself, especially in the Delta, they would see Chinese chef first, Chinese food first. So that’s the reason I moved away from all that, and that’s mainly why I think I was getting the national and regional attention that I was — because I wasn’t a stereotype.
Is there anything you would want people to know about the Delta or Mississippi in general? Yeah I do. I have traveled all over the country cooking, and when they would ask me where I am from and I would say “Mississippi,” I would hear the stupidest things. I mean people think there are still lynchings down here. For the longest time I was a traveling ambassador of fighting those negative stereotypes. It’s a great state; the Delta is a great place. There is a lot of history there. We are not a bunch of backwoods hicks that are running around lynching people or riding around in our pickup trucks just getting drunk on highways.
Design by Virginia England
Charleston Middle School cafeteria worker Michelle Coffey, left, and principal Becky Bloodworth have seen improvements in students’ eating habits.
the little Town That
Cared How Charleston stopped talking about weight and started losing it.
Story and photos by Lauren McMillin
HARLESTON – Fed up with fat, this little town declared an all-out war against obesity. They called it the Tallahatchie Health and Wellness Challenge. And a funny thing happened. Unlike almost everywhere else in the Delta, one of the fattest places in all of America, people rushed to accept the challenge. A total of 170 residents – 13 percent of the adult population — signed up for intensive classes in healthy living, seminars in how to cook nutritious food and a high-profile weight loss contest that climaxed at the annual Gateway to the Delta Festival. Hundreds packed the square to enjoy the music of Super Chikan, the Gateway Gospel Choir, Kudzu Kings, a mechanical bull, a 5K run and walk, inflatables for the kids and something you don’t normally see at big festivals – booths that offered helpful tips on exercise, healthy shopping and cooking and, yes, how to lose weight. There was even a porkless barbecue, a tribute to Scissors, the two-time world champion hog, a local hero of sorts whose statue sits just outside the city limits. The winner of the biggest-loser campaign, Trency Bynum, lost 15.2 percent of his body mass – 48 pounds – and won $1,000. He did it by regularly, obsessively walking from nearby Oakland, 12 miles up in the foothills above the Delta, to Charleston until the fat started melting away. The Delta had never seen anything like it: an entire town focused on the battle of the belly.
The lockers at Charleston’s schools are quiet after hours. During the school day, the halls are full of children, many of them getting used to the healthier lunchroom menu.
For Glenna Callender, executive director of the Charleston Arts and Revitalization Effort (C.A.R.E.), which helped spearhead the Wellness Challenge, it was a do-or-die proposition. After all, she said, Tallahatchie County has some of the “poorest, fattest, sickest, undereducated” people in the state. Local activist Cal Trout, one of the leaders in jumpstarting C.A.R.E.’s effort, was stunned by its success. “(Charleston) is kind of ground zero for a health crisis in the state,” he said. “I don’t know of another place where the town itself got involved in trying to address the issue.” The Wellness Challenge “brought people from every area of the community out,” Trout said. “It was addressed on a town-wide level and I think that is unique, especially somewhere like here, where wealth disparity is so great. People from every corner of the community came together, and it created a dialogue about health and wellness which did not exist before.”
iPad Extra: Download the Deeper South App to see what kids eat at school in the Delta.
A host of problems It couldn’t have come soon enough for Dr. Hunter Crose, a local physician from South Carolina. From the outside, Crose noticed the problem right away. “I didn’t even recognize it as a physician,” he said. “You recognize it as a citizen when you drive through the community. Everyone is obese: Older whites, older blacks, younger whites, younger blacks.” How did Charleston get this way? Crose attributes it largely to a limited access to healthy food and the strong presence of fast, processed food. “People told me before I came down here that I would put on about 20 pounds, because the best food you’re going to find is in gas stations,” he said. “They’re right.” Granted, you can get a “fresh fit” sandwich at
the local Subway or a vegetable-heavy homemade salad at the China Cabinet. The most popular dining destinations, however, may be Mr. Jiffy and Gas Mart, gas stations with hot lines and large dessert tables. The town does have a sizable grocery store, a SuperValu. Occasionally complicating things, some say, is that among some African American women, curves are viewed as more desirable than being slender. “I have African American ladies who are grossly overweight asking me for appetite stimulants,” Crose said. “Most folks, you would think, in that situation, would ask for something to curb their appetite to promote weight loss.” Still, given the alarming rates of teen pregnancy, school dropouts, high unemployment and crime that plague the Delta, Crose doesn’t rank diet and exercise control at the top of his priority list. “I’m all for health initiatives, but we have a lot of stuff to do in the meantime,” he said. Callender, on the other hand, decided Charleston’s health couldn’t wait. Callender spends her time directing C.A.R.E., which has helped breathe new life into the town. It has beautified the square, painted aging buildings and produced summer camps and programs that focus on the arts and the history and education of Charleston. But with 37 percent of the county labeled obese, she saw the health issue as critical to the town’s success or failure. “That’s not anything we want to brag about or be complacent about,” she said.
Weaning the children Oxford publishing entrepreneur Ed Meek, a Charleston native, put Callender in contact with the Department of Applied Sciences at Ole Miss and soon Catherine Woodyard, a doctoral student, arrived in town. Woodyard focused her dissertation on health research in Charleston. While many adults in the town are obese, the problem is most clearly seen in children, she found. “Childhood obesity is sky-high,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe, watching these kids get out of school, how much obesity there is in the children. It’s about 20 percent higher than the national average.” At Charleston Middle School, the problem became so prevalent that faculty members knew what the children had for breakfast, or didn’t have, the moment they stepped off the bus. “You just smelled the syrup off of them and knew it was going to be a bad day,” said Becky Bloodworth, principal of Charleston Middle School. This school year, however, Charleston Middle School
has taken drastic measures to improve the health of students and faculty. Fryers were removed from the cafeteria, desserts were taken off the menu, and vegetables were introduced, many that children had never before seen. Additionally, physical education and recess have been added, and an unused classroom has been transformed into a faculty exercise room. “At first, the kids were really mad,” Bloodworth said. “Some of them were refusing to eat, but now they’re fine. The first month they complained a good bit, but now they couldn’t care less whether it’s a white roll or a wheat roll.” Woodyard was impressed to find how seriously C.A.R.E. was taking the obesity issue. “They realized that the county itself was very, very unhealthy,” she said, citing statistics that ranked the county 81st out of Mississippi’s 82 counties in terms of health. “As a community, they wanted to address these health issues, but didn’t really know how or have the resources to.”
Gateway to the Delta Through Woodyard’s extensive research, including focus groups, interviews and health seminars in the community, they came up with the idea for a health festival and weight loss competition. The town is known for its annual Gateway to the Delta Festival. To spur the community’s interest in health concerns, however, Woodyard and her group of local coordinators decided to center the theme of the festival around health and wellness. The group, consisting of Woodyard, Trout, Robert Salmon, CEO of Diabetic Shoppe and Callender, along with Tallahatchie General Hospital Administrator Jim Blackwood and the hospital’s dietician, Brady Taylor, came up with the Wellness Challenge. For two months, citizens participated in weight control seminars and health screenings, in hopes of shedding pounds and perhaps winning the top prize at the festival. Charleston hopes to repeat that success next year. Besides planning for a second Wellness Challenge, CARE activist Cal Trout.
the town is excited about a grant from the James C. Kennedy Foundation that will fund a community wellness center, a spinoff from the project hatched by Woodyard. She will be its director. The idea is to provide a place where people can not only exercise but learn how to cook with fresh, healthy foods. Charleston has “no YMCA, no exercise facilities, no community gym,” Woodyard said. Now, using momentum from the health fair, “we can hopefully bring change to that community,” she said. Blackwood, who played a key role in obtaining the Kennedy grant, said that while a wellness center may not solve all of Charleston’s problems, it is certainly a step in the right direction. “I think, like a lot of complicated issues, there is no real silver bullet,” he said. “There are multiple pieces that need to be pursued. The wellness center could be a big piece of the puzzle, providing education to folks on diabetes education, on nutrition education, on health and wellness, where adults and children can engage in group exercise,” he said. All of which has Ed Meek excited over the future of his home town. For a while, he admits, he actually stopped going home to visit. “The town was dead the last time I went over there,” he said. Once C.A.R.E. began to take charge, however, the community began to pick itself up off the ground. Meek noticed a drastic difference. “I can’t find another community like Charleston in the Delta,” he said. “There’s not a vacant storefront on the square, and that tells you something about the vitality. C.A.R.E. has brought that back and made a community environment and a healthy environment. Now, is it perfect? No, it’s not. “Charleston can be a beacon of opportunity for the Delta,” Meek said. “This is a grassroots effort to do something. This is a beginning.”
Design by Virginia England
CARE executive director Glenna Callender.
Hospital administrator Jim Blackwood.
The Walking Man At 340 pounds, Trency Bynum decided to lose weight. So he walked it off. Thirteen miles a day. Story and photos by Lauren McMillin
HARLESTON — Three miles in the morning. Eight miles at night. Sauntering through 85 degree heat, weighed down by baggy sweatpants and an Adidas hoodie. This was Trency Bynum’s idea of how to get in shape. Step after grueling step, Bynum walked his way between Charleston and Oakland. Working his way up to 13 miles, Bynum walked right into first place in Charleston’s Talahatchie Health and Wellness Challenge. Weighing 340 pounds never bothered Bynum. It never even crossed his mind that it might put his health at risk. Being big was just part of the family gene. Bynum never imagined that he would lose weight. Never imagined that he would adopt a healthier lifestyle. And he certainly never imagined that he would serve as an example for others in one of the fattest, unhealthiest regions in America. Born and raised in Trency Bynum found it Charleston, Bynum hard to resist fatty foods. grew up surrounded by two things: family and food. “With my mother and father, I’ve always been a Christian,” Bynum said. “Growing up, I’d never been in trouble, never smoked or drank. Always been a family guy.” Like many in the Delta, Bynum was a big eater almost from birth. “My mom always said, ‘Eat what you can,” and we did…I’d eat 10 out of 13 pieces of fried chicken. … It was hard to resist it. If you’re
raised on that kind of food, it’s hard to change.” So hard that nearly 40 percent of Tallahatchie County’s population is either obese or overweight. Still, with such strong roots in this small town, Bynum doesn’t know of anyplace else he’d rather live. In fact, strong support from his family encouraged him to get involved in Charleston’s Wellness Challenge, an event that changed his life. “My sister said ‘you need to lose some weight, and they’ve got a weight challenge going on,’” he said. “So I just turned around and said ‘well, I do need to lose some weight.’ So I decided to get at it.” Before that, he said, “I stayed active all the time, and so my weight didn’t really bother me. I stayed cutting grass, hauling firewood, washing cars, I’ve always been active. My weight didn’t really bother me unless I was bending over, tying my shoe up.” The fight to cut back was a drastic change from the way he grew up. “I didn’t know it was bad. Most people just eat fast food and go,” he shrugged. “But the seminars (at the Wellness Challenge) taught me to stay under 1500 calories a day, no Diet Cokes, more exercise.” Even now, he sees his old habits in children of Charleston. “The kids, you can’t help them,” he smiles with a shake of the head. “Those children come in here and run straight to the refrigerator.” Lounging in a worn recliner in the living room of his cozy home, crowded with wooden furniture and snug sofas, Bynum still has on his dust-colored jumpsuit from his job as a machine operator at Traxit North America, LLC, in Clarksdale. He says that the Wellness Challenge was not his first attempt at weight loss. He recalls another at his previous job, when he and a co-worker decided to see who could lose more weight, introducing Bynum to the idea that if he put enough work and effort into it, he could win. Perhaps because he had been through this before, Bynum didn’t really feel the need to exert himself when the Wellness Challenge began. “The first week, I didn’t really try,” he said. At first, he just cut his portions at the table. “Then I’d see everybody else trying, and so that helped motivate me more to push harder.”
THE Carl EFFECT Story by Lauren McMillin
Fred Carl gave his struggling town a great restaurant, a great book store, an elite hotel and a nationally-known kitchen appliance factory that employed thousands. But when he sold the factory, Greenwood cringed.
reenwood’s downtown is a testament to just how much one well-heeled investor can accomplish. Roughly at its middle sits the Viking Cooking School, where passers-by can watch through a picture window as aspiring gourmets try to reproduce what the experts have taught them. Farther up the street, surrounded by posh antique shops and boutiques, is the popular Turnrow Book Company, whose upstairs café became the hot spot for celebrity sightings in 2010 during the filming of “The Help.” Right next door is the luxurious Alluvian Hotel, easily one of Mississippi’s top hotels, and its popular Giardina’s restaurant with its curtained dining booths. Back across the street, above the cooking school, is the Alluvian Spa. At the nearby Mississippi Gift Company, locals and tourists shop for all sorts of Magnolia State souvenirs, gifts, pies and cakes and get to enjoy the work of local artists. A short distance away, on Main Street, is Taylor Bowen Ricketts’ imaginative, art-laden Delta Bistro, just around the corner from the Front Street corporate offices of the Viking Corporation, the town’s second largest employer.
The Midas touch And on almost all of it are the fingerprints of Fred Carl, who looked at a down on its heels business district and saw possibility. When many retailers were giving up on downtown, Carl was investing. With his Midas touch, he bought a few properties and his corporation, Viking Range, bought more. They bought out tenants who were ready to sell or retire. They started a few restaurants and shops, which encouraged other business people to start up their own businesses, renting refurbished space from Viking.
It was all made possible by the increased traffic created 10 years ago by the Alluvian, the center of the wheel from which most of the other retail development sprang. The hotel’s success was all the more impressive because it came at a time when most people would have laughed at the prospect of building a successful luxury hotel in the poverty-stricken Delta. Before that, when his wife wanted a bigger, better oven, Carl decided to create one. Soon, he had hatched Viking, the local industry that makes high-end commercial ranges designed for home use. It became the town’s biggest employer and, along with Carl himself, a catalyst for downtown redevelopment.
A shaken confidence As other Delta downtowns suffered, Greenwood’s was slowly making progress. Then, on Jan. 31, 2013, a shudder went through the city. Viking laid off about 200 employees, roughly 20 percent of the company Carl had just sold to Illinois-based Middleby. Half of the job cuts were implemented at its Greenwood operations. In the wake of that decision, Carl retired as CEO. Overnight, the confidence of many in this old cotton town was shaken. “I think we fell into the false security of Viking staying the same and never changing,” said Beth Stevens, executive director at the Greenwood-Leflore County Chamber of Commerce. “We just never really thought that it could happen. We just got comfortable with Viking being the pillar of this community.” If Viking’s new owners could do this, people feared, might they not eventually pull out altogether, sending Greenwood into the kind of downward spiral seen by so many other Delta towns as people and industry departed? “If they were gone, it would probably be pretty detrimental,” said Jamie Kornegay, who owns Turnrow alongside Carl. But a few months later, Greenwood’s palpable fear has turned into optimism, at least publicly. Carl made it known that he still believes Greenwood has “a bright future” and to help it along, he plans to open two new restaurants – a revival of the Serio’s Italian
The Alluvian Hotel helped awaken downtown Greenwood. Photo by Katie Williamson
Both Giardinaâ€™s and the Alluvian seek an upscale motif. Photo by Katie Williamson
Giardinaâ€™s Chef Lee Leflore cooks up a tasty feast. Photo by Katie Williamson
At Delta Bistro, presentation is everyhting. Photo by Lauren McMillin
Turnrow BookStore, a hot spot for celebrity sightings. Photo by Lauren McMIllin
It takes lots of food to feed the masses. Photo by Katie Williamson
restaurant that used to be here and a gastropub that Ricketts will help create near the Alluvian. On top of that, Viking donated the old Elks Lodge to the Carl Foundation, which will renovate it into a spiffy meeting place for public and private events.
Betting on Carl And just like that, once again, Greenwood is betting on Fred Carl. “We have a real solid base to work from,” Carl said. “We have a great deal of momentum, pride and excitement, and I think that will sustain the continued vitality in Greenwood.” He said he would remain “committed to the further development of Greenwood through the Carl Foundation.” To fully understand what that means to people here, “all you need to do is drive down Howard Street,” said Paige Hunt, executive director of the Greenwood Convention and Visitors Bureau. There, shoppers are filling the stores, gathering in restaurants and wandering into the Alluvian to admire the art on the walls. But it’s not just Howard Street. Over on Main, a few paces from the Yazoo River, Delta Bistro provides just one example of the creative ingenuity Carl has spawned. Besides the imaginative dishes – fried alligator and barbecue elk brisquet – diners are treated to walls covered with paintings by Ricketts and other local artists. To get to the bathrooms, you walk through a
heavy curtain of silver beads. And outside in the alley, Ricketts grows pots full of herbs and fresh produce, which she tries to incorporate in the menu.
Lighting the fuse Carl’s bold decision to invest in a slumping downtown became contagious. “He purchased a lot of property and renovated a lot of property, which enticed businesses to want to be in downtown Greenwood,” said Hunt. “I think at the end of the day, it’s his love for this community. He saw the need to invest in it, and he did. I think that a vibrant downtown leads to a vibrant town.” Carl, Ricketts said, wants to “not just preserve the Delta but he wants to improve it. “There are no Mississippi towns of this size that have the class and impeccable taste of this town and what he has single handedly done for the area,” she said. “What was nice about it was that it bled over into the town. There was a real pride in that local food culture and traditions,” Kornegay said. “Hopefully what he did was light the fuse on that, or maybe a more appropriate metaphor for that would be sow the seeds for that, and that it would grow up organically now by other people in the community and other interests will continue it without the support of the corporation.” Tim Kalich, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth, has witnessed The Carl Effect from its very beginning. “I’ve been here 31 years in April, and Viking
celebrated its twenty-fifth year of production last year, so I’ve been here the entire time,” Kalich said, recalling its growth from the early stages “when it had a few employees and its first customers to where at one point it had about 1,200 employees here.” As Kalich sees it, Viking did more than just offer people jobs, making it now the city’s second biggest employer, trailing only the hospital. “It was our largest employer until the recession hit,” he said. “A lot of people depend directly on Viking for their livelihood, as well as people who indirectly benefit from that. “The second thing is that if you were to compare Greenwood’s downtown area, in particular, to what it looked like before Viking Range started, it’s been a dramatic improvement,” Kalich said. “Viking has been the catalyst for the rebirth and renovation of our downtown. It’s done much of it itself, although other companies have also done similar things, either taking storefronts that had been abandoned or underutilized and completely restoring them, or giving their own businesses a facelift.”
Dealing with it Once Carl sold Viking and the layoffs were announced, the vibrancy seemed to dull for a moment. While the situation initially appeared bleak, especially for those laid off, the overall mood around the town has now turned hopeful. “I think we’re just kind of taking it day by day,” said Hunt. “Once the shock wore off, that was sort of a ‘Wow,’ but now it’s back to business as usual.” Greenwood isn’t the only Delta town that has dealt with such concerns, something its citizens understand far too well. “In a lot of ways, people were relieved (Viking) didn’t get shut down,” Kornegay said. “They’re sucking it up now and saying ‘We can do this,’ and they’re moving ahead. This is just the reality. The whole country is seeing this. It’s not just us, and people realize that.” Stevens agrees. “Every company that goes through change goes through this, and Viking is no exception,” she said. “This could be any company in Anytown, U.S.A. I think it’s going to be critical for the ultimate success of the company. I think that it probably was a necessary streamlining of Viking in order to poise them to do bigger and better things than what they’ve done.” As it tries to build up its blues tourism and lure more people downtown, the last thing Greenwood wants is for visitors to think that the situation will only get worse. “There are rumors but this is not a doom-and-gloom
situation, this is business,” Hunt said. “(Viking’s) still a viable entity, and things are still going on in Greenwood. We’re not wallowing. We’re trying to work and let people know that Greenwood’s still open for business.”
Planning to stay For its part, Viking has said that it plans to stay in Greenwood, that it doesn’t plan any more layoffs, that it plans to keep the Alluvian operating, and that it plans to improve and introduce new Viking products. Those statements have helped reassure the populace, but that nagging fear of a sudden exit remains. Regardless of what happens, it has now become clear that the Carl influence on the city will remain. That’s enough to cause most folks in Greenwood to take hope. Confident Viking is here for the long haul, Stevens dares to hope that expansion is in the future. “I think that there is some opportunity there,” she said. “I think that they have some products that could definitely find their way to the top of the market. They’re going to take the products that they make and make them even better… I think we’re going to see Viking do some exciting things.” As Kornegay puts it, “It is kind of the end of an era. Viking is such a personal part of the community, and it may still be, who knows.”
Design by Virginia England
Turnrow’s Jamie Kornegay hopes 51 Viking is here to stay. Photo by Lauren McMillin
The lemon pie at The Crystal Grill 52 a towering skyscraper of comes with meringue. Photo by Will H. Jacks
The Temple of
At the Crystal Grill, mountains of meringue hover over the pies. How do they do that? Like most good things, it’s a secret. Story by Rachael Walker
has been the talk of the town, the
can’t tell you, I can’t tell you,” said Johnny Ballas, owner of the historic Crystal Grill restaurant. Ballas can’t tell me. He can’t tell anyone. He can’t tell a trick, one that his uncle and father mastered in the 1930s and passed onto him. This trick
wider Delta and anyone who has seen
the results of this family secret. Perfectly poised and peaked meringue tops the chocolate and coconut cream pies at the Crystal Grill. Meringue that appears as high and white as the snow covered French Alps. You will find it hard to not ask Ballas or another member of
It is hard to imagine Greenwood without The Crystal Grill. Photo by DJ Jones
Johnny Ballas owns the restaurant, which has been in his family since 1933. Photo by DJ Jones
his staff the forbidden question: How do you get the meringue that high? From as far off as Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, they come to marvel at what has become a Delta icon—a mountain of meringue that will not topple. It has become almost synonymous with the name Greenwood, a place where the size of the portions is legend, the conversation flows like the sweet tea and diners feel they are sampling a slice of local history. The Crystal Grill is not all pie, of course. This renowned restaurant across from the railroad tracks has a vast and diverse menu, including traditional Southern cuisine, American Italian and at times some of the Ballas Greek influence. The place has been in the family since 1933. Mike Ballas, Johnny’s father, was born in Pensacola, Florida, grew up in Greece and returned to the U.S. as a young man. He came to Greenwood in the 1930s to work with his brother-inlaw, buying into the Crystal partnership. Johnny grew up in the restaurant. He fondly recalls learning the trade under his father’s watchful eye. “Back in those days, Cokes came in a wooden box. He would stack up a couple of CocaCola crates and I would stand on them and cut meat. He taught me everything I know about cooking,” Ballas said.
Like many Mississippi restaurants in the tumultuous civil rights era, the Crystal, located at the intersection of the white and black communities, was caught up in the war over segregation, once exist ing as a “whites only” key club. But today, black and white eat together comfortably. “The Crystal Grill shows an openness to all races that eat there,” said Greenwood Commonwealth Editor Tim Kalich. “It has come a long way, as has the town of Greenwood. Both are a lot more progressive.” Ballas graduated from Mississippi State University and went into business with his sister for a time but returned to work full-time at the Crystal in 1977. Since then, he has been carrying on family traditions such as the meringue pies, while expanding and diversifying the Crystal’s menu. The wide variety of food is no accident, said Ballas. In fact, it is another secret to success. “It’s more work, it takes more prep time, it takes more employees, but that’s the thing that I think we offer that the chains can’t offer. Most of them don’t have the variety that we have but that’s what sets us apart. And hopefully we do it all well and that’s the thing I hear a lot of people say, everything we get here is good,” said Ballas. The strong family ties that have propelled the Crystal have been helped along by an unusually devoted staff. Several, such as Macy B. Wetherspoon, in the kitchen, and waitress Rivers Coleman, have worked here for almost forty years. Annie Johnson, the senior pieBallas won’t reveal the mystery recipe maker, has been at the Crystal Grill for that allows the meringue to sit so high longer than she can remember. Johnson on his pies. Photo by Will H. Jacks now only works part-time but she has passed on the art to a younger woman Johnny and his wife Beverly have one daughter, who who works five days a week. “There’s works at the University of Mississippi. The daughter and always been another class taking over for the older generation, her husband have no plans to take over the restaurant. and then they pass on,” Ballas noted. “On a daily basis they “Unfortunately I’m afraid it will have to be sold and make eight to ten chocolates and eight to ten coconuts and hopefully find someone that has the desire to keep it those are sold daily and we make a new batch the next day.” where it is, to continue the tradition,” said Ballas. It is hard to imagine Greenwood without the Crystal But don’t worry, Greenwood. The Ballases have Grill. But Ballas said this might be the end of the no plan to take the secret of their signature meringue line for his family’s ownership. Running a successful to the grave. That will be part of the deal. restaurant requires long hours away from home and Design by Petre Thomas eventually takes a toll on your body, Ballas said.
C Howl N’ Madd Perry says that “after a long night of playing, I sure get hungry.” Photo by Thomas GraninG
AAman manplays playspool poolatatGround Ground A man plays pool at Ground Zero Blues Club Zero ZeroBlues BluesClub ClubininClarksdale. Clarksdale. Photo by Thomas GraninG in Clarksdale. Photo by Thomas GraninG Photo by Thomas GraninG
LARKSDALE — Across the stained, Sharpie-scribbled tablecloth, bluesman Bill “Howl N’ Madd” Perry pours a steady stream of sugar into a steaming cup of strong, black coffee. He recounts, with an ever-ready laugh, a question that caught him off guard recently. “I showed up here one night and someone goes, ‘Hey, Howl N’ Madd, have you tried your sandwich yet?’ Me, I didn’t even know about it.” Indeed, here at Ground Zero Blues Club there is a sandwich – a Philly cheesesteak “sammich” — named in honor of this blues guitarist and fixture of Clarksdale ‘s world-famous music scene. James “Super Chikan” Johnson and Josh “Razorblade” Stewart, two other frequent Ground Zero headliners, also have tasty tributes, as does Highway 61, the foremost artery of the blues. This tourist mecca knows how to market the music with the food. Like a bluesman mid-show after a hard pull of whiskey, the Mississippi Delta’s blues scene has been remarkably rejuvenated in the past few years. Roots music entices fans from Liverpool to New York to Tokyo to come down to the Mississippi Delta for a pure blues experience. But the local restaurant fare, both venerable establishments and new endeavors, has many tourists staying longer and exploring further afield. The same culture that gave blues its vitality, its verve, also shaped a finger-licking good food culture. The duet of blues and food endows hard-pressed towns with a fresh spark. All you have to do is listen to the accents in the lunchtime crowds that pack Abe’s Bar-B-Q and Rest Haven to get a sense of how the blues has helped the local economy.
Ground Zero The region offers what Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art Inc., terms the “no frills” blues culture. Take a look at Ground Zero, which receives the brunt of the Hertz rental cars and tour buses. The father of Clarksdale’s blues revival, though appealing to masses, clings stubbornly to the battered sofa on its sagging front porch and allows drunken scribbling on the rough wooden walls, encourages
58 club that turned Clarksdale The blues back toZero the blues: Ground Zero. Ground Blues Club in Clarksdale, Photoby byAlex AlexEdwards Edwards Photo
Sylvester Hoover owns and operates Hoover’s Grocery and Laundry. Photo by Jared Burleson
dancing on the bar and avoids frills like a bluesman would run from Bieber. The blues club kitchen did not have to reinvent the deep fryer to please the crowd. Its carefully designed menu features classic $9 southern plate lunches, the avowed best burgers in town, and as owner Bill Luckett boasts, “the most southern food on earth” -- fried grits. All in all, Ground Zero dishes out a great, greasy repast that satisfies tourists eager for their first taste of Southern food. The wait staff recommends accordingly. If you want a modern twist of Southern-fried excess, split a dozen of the fried Texas tamales. For a true taste of the local blues heat, order a half-dozen of Mr. Turner’s hot tamales. Restaurants and blues musicians alike know that blues fans want it both real and raw. The Delta’s candid manner serves the region well for, as Stolle contends, blues tourists will spot tacky “in a heartbeat.” The Clarksdale businessman Kinchen ‘Bubba’ O’Keefe is confident the town can give visitors the true blues ethos. “Clarksdale’s unique. We’re one foot in this century, one foot in the past century. We’re edgy, refined,” he says. Indeed, blues and food have long been associates. The music and Southern specialties such as Delta-style tamales came from a combination of hardship, time, and ingenuity. Playing blues for tips and selling food and drink out of the house created a thriving side economy: the juke-joint. The director for the Delta Studies program
at Delta State University, Dr. Luther Brown, acknowledges that the joints “certainly used to serve food. Juke joints often served fried fish, or ‘chitlins,’ or pork chops, or something like that. Southern country soul food cooking. Hot tamales, too.” All Night Long Shake is one of The juke’s kitchen was many bands that has played at Ground Zero Blues Club since never far from the stage. On 2001. Photo by Katie Williamson Friday and Saturday night, many members of the black community would go to the iPad Extra: Download the jukes to eat, drink, and be carefree until Deeper South App to see and hear the blues at Ground Zero. the sunlight crested the cotton horizon. Near Merigold, Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, the last bulwark of the country juke joint, depth, easily enough for immersion, the shows the change of scene in the Delta. neighborhood is in an abject state. Even People from all over come to pay tribute to the most naive tourist can’t fail to see the the many-wigged proprietor, William “Po’ blues in those shabby shotgun shacks. Monkey” Seaberry. Only the anticipated Hoover acknowledges this element’s arrival of Hot Tamale Man ruffles the impact on tourists. “Those people want pulsing vibe of the juke. Around 10 p.m. organic. They don’t pay $5,000 for a lie. the crowd starts to rumble, asking whether They want to see where Robert Johnson he’s arrived with his $10-a-dozen tamales. Every Thursday night out of his truck bed, Daryl More -- you can call him “Homeboy” -- fills up to-go boxes with his homemade tamales for the hungry ride home.
came from. They don’t want painted-over.”
All about sex
against the boss man or toward their
Many dedicated tourists seek out the Robert Johnson guide Sylvester Hoover in Greenwood. Hoover lives and works in the Baptist Town neighborhood, the last place Robert Johnson played. So named because of the adjacent creek’s consistent 4-foot
Often, blues artists invoked southern dishes in the heart of their music. Blues lyrics are full of innuendo, often aimed lovers. Food references allowed songs to be radio-appropriate. “No matter what food you make,” says Brown, “there’s a blues song about it. It’s usually signifying sex. It’s not talking about food. Food is definitely used for a metaphor.”
Hot tamales are standard fare in the Delta. Photo by Katie Williamson
Poor Monkey draws locals and tourists to the unique dance club/ bar. Photo by thomas graning
Owner, Willie Seaberry, also known as “Po’ Monkey,” opens the doors on Thursday. Photo by Katie Williamson
Baptist Town’s own Robert Johnson adheres to this signifying tradition in his 1936 recording They’re Red Hot. In the song, he croons about a favorite girl: Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ‘em for sale / Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ‘em for sale / She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime / Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine.
It’s real simple Stretching parallel to the Mississippi River, Highway 1 merges into Joe Pope Boulevard by the Eagles football stadium at Rosedale. At the modest wood-framed White Front Cafe, Barbara Pope has her family’s famous tamales for sale by the trio. On a classic red tablecloth, she serves up an order of three tawny tamales speckled with crimson drops of her piquant spice. Blanch Turnage, a retired high school history teacher, quips knowingly: “You’re really going to want more than three. I promise.” Without so much as a nod to the complement, Pope tells her story in a gentle voice. The strongest pull of the South,
family, brought her home from Chicago to care for her now 105-year-old mother. Back in Rosedale, she became her brother Joe’s tamale apprentice. While working at Dattel’s Department Store, Joe learned the tamale craft from his childhood friend’s father in order to earn some extra money on weekends. Just as Joe personalized the recipe, Barbara gave it her own riff. Yet at the heart of these tamales is simplicity: beef brisket and cornmeal. Her tamales are for savoring, like a favorite vinyl record. True to the code of great cooks, Barbara guards her recipe. But she does not mind if her neighbor Turnage helps her out with the hard, monotonous part of tamale making: rolling. Southern food was a family affair for Turnage as well. She remembers that her mother operated a cafe on the north side of town. But the traveling bluesmen stopped on the south side, the “end of town.” Gay Ruth’s cafe fed musicians such as Tyrone Davis, Willie Cox, and Bobby Rush as they headed north for Memphis and beyond. These days, Rush still comes by the White
Front for an occasional taste of tamale. Tamales and the blues are no longer found solely in hidden dives off the highways. As towns develop their blues legacy, restaurants follow. Twenty miles east of Rosedale in Cleveland, state Sen. William “Willie” Simmons, the proprietor of The Senator’s Place, and harmonicaplaying bluesman Rush, close friends, keep the blues and soul food partnership alive. To the right of an engraved mirror portrait of Simmons, a rainbow sherbet-colored poster proudly hangs, commemorating the opening night blues show which gave the restaurant an electric start. The two hosted a fundraiser for army veterans at the state Capitol in March. Rush plays sweet blues. Simmons cooks fine soul food. People give generous tips to charity. Working in the blues hub of Clarksdale when the B.B. King Blues Museum opened virtually in her Indianola backyard in 2008, Trish Berry had an epiphany. “I learned when I worked in Clarksdale that blues tourists are coming. I just kind of thought I could cut my commute from
FOOD FOR THE SOUL It’s so routine that in Cleveland, two such soulful beacons lie less than a mile from each other on Highway 61 – The Senator’s Place and The Country Platter. Story by Bowen Thigpen
At the Country Platter, a memory of home cooking quickly comes to mind. PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
he sign in front of The Senator’s Place says it all: “Delicious Food for the Soul.” Less than a mile down U.S. Highway 61 is another celebrated soul food place, The Country Platter. Having lunch at these two soulful beacons is a little like having lunch with the family — a very big family, except with an “all you can eat” buffet line. Walk through the white wooden doors of The Senator’s Place and instantly, a memory of home pops into your mind. You are seduced by smells of fried food, fresh vegetables, “famous cornbread,” by the sight of busy waitresses, all wearing the same bright red shirts, black pants, and a black or blue apron. And the sounds of conversations ranging from business deals, to golf in Shelby, to who pays the ticket. There’s a lot of laughter, a lot of smiling and shaking hands and slapping on backs and waving at each other. Aldermen make political rounds for the upcoming election. If the proprietors are to be believed, soul food, long the dominant force in little eateries scattered across the region, does much more than fuel the body for the day.
“One of the great things about soul food joints: it’s a place where social distinctions are softened. You can see a workingclass brother or sister next to a judge or an attorney or a doctor, just socializing,” said Adrian Miller, self-proclaimed “soul food scholar” and author of Soul Food: The Surprising Story of an American Cuisine, One Plate at a Time. Miller, a lawyer by training, has been dissecting the soul food meal for the past 13 years. In the predominantly black Delta, soul food has always been king. It’s the “indigenous food of that area,” Miller said. And anyone who has ever visited Cleveland knows just where to find it. Ask Billy Nowell, Cleveland’s mayor, who has lived there his whole life, a devoted soul food devotee. About once every month, Nowell treats his secretary to a meal, and it’s always at one of two places. “It’s either the senator’s or Jimmy Williams,” Nowell said.
Two beacons for the soul State Senator Willie Simmons “stumbled into the restaurant business” in 2003 and started The Senator’s Place. Jimmy
Williams’ restaurant, The Country Platter, celebrated its 20th anniversary in July. But it’s not only their food that Cleveland relishes. They have an impact on the community apart from their role as soul food restaurateurs. “Being in the restaurant business and serving in the Senate, they kind of supplement each other. We look at it and say we are serving in both situations,” the 20-year senator said. Nowell chooses The Senator’s Place not only for “outstanding food,” but for his friendship with Simmons and, of course, for political networking. “He and I talk a couple of times a week about current events, things happening around here, what we can do for the best of everybody,” Nowell said of Simmons. “He said that the more we can communicate, the better off we will be.” And then there is Jimmy Williams, who in 2010 became the first African-American elected king of the Junior Auxiliary’s Children’s Benefit Ball, Cleveland’s premier charity fundraiser. Williams regularly uses his restaurant, The Country Platter, to help those in need. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas,
he cooks meals for the needy and senior citizen homes. “This past Christmas we did about 600,” Williams said. “I do the bulk of the cooking. And they get a hot meal. They don’t just get something left over.” He also gives away toys, clothes, and window fans during sweltering summer months. “I enjoy doing it. Feeding people. If it was the money, man, I’d be gone a long time ago.” Williams was born and raised in rural Bolivar County. “Had very little. And I’ve always said that if I ever got in the position to give back, I would, because I know what it is not to have,” he said. Coming from a family of 14, Williams was taught that hard work pays off. “I’ve been working since I was six years old. Mom taught me that growing up when we had to get up and go to the fields to chop and pick cotton. That’s just stayed with me,” said the towering man with huge, steely hands, the kind that have known manual labor. It was at home that Williams and Simmons both learned to cook. Simmons, raised on a farm in Utica alongside 11 siblings, loved to watch his mama cook in the kitchen.
Simmons will never forget those meals. Always, lots of vegetables. Butter beans. Okra. Rice and gravy. But his favorite was fried chicken. “We would have to sometimes fight over different pieces because Mama wasn’t gonna cook more than two chickens,” the senator said. Many of the recipes the restaurant uses come from those memories. It didn’t take long for Williams to learn how to cook it all himself. He’s been cooking since he was 10. Now 66, you can taste that half-century of experience in his food.
“I enjoy it,” says Jimmy Williams of his hard work running a soul food place. “If it was the money, man, I’d be gone a long time ago.”
When both owners constructed their menus, they knew just what they were going to be cooking — what people wanted to eat. “They come in looking for neck bones, looking for the collard greens and the turnip greens and the cabbage. They just, well, pig out so to speak,” Simmons said with a grin and soft chuckle. For better or worse, soul food encourages you to do just that. Pig out. Plus, soul food evokes memories of home, especially in the South. People in the Delta grew up on this stuff. “Sometimes you go to a restaurant because you just want an experience and you want something you can’t get at home. But I think it’s the opposite with soul food,” Miller said. Both men tell stories of people moving off and returning to the area. The first thing they want to do is eat a plate of good, homecooked soul food. “I look at it as a service. And that service is to be able to provide an affordable meal to individuals that is going to allow them to reflect and remember growing up,” Simmons said. “I have a lot of Delta State University kids, and boy they get up there and say it’s just like being at home. They’re crazy about it,” Williams said.
PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
In the same building that now houses the Country Platter, civil rights leaders used to plot their attack on local discrimination. PHoto by Thomas Graning
The sign at The Senator’s Place says it all. photo by katie williamson
Both tell stories of people from all over the world stopping by to eat their specialties. The senator has had visitors from Chicago, St. Louis, Australia. As Simmons spoke, Taylor Rollins of Chicago sat two tables away, chowing down on black-eyed peas. “We don’t have anything like this in Chicago. I come here every time I come here to see my grandmother. You can eat here and you can eat at The Country Platter, and you don’t have to eat again until the next morning,” he grinned.
Shooting for consistency Simmons and Williams are very hands-on. When not dealing with legislation in Jackson, Simmons is at the restaurant, mingling and speaking to anyone who comes in. He’ll observe the spaghetti, barbequed baked chicken, fried catfish, turnip greens, green beans, and everything else on the serving line. Simmons can tell by sheer eyesight whether it has been cooked correctly. “When I look at it, I’m going to the kitchen and I want to know, ‘What did you do to that batter?’” he says, cackling. He strives for consistency. Customers know when something doesn’t taste the same. They know when a new cook is in the kitchen or when too much pepper is being added. “It may be Mary cooking today, and Sally tomorrow. But we want Sally food to taste just like Mary food,” he said. “We want The Senator’s Place signature on all our food.” The Senator’s Place has a policy: “If you don’t like the food, we’ll pay for it.” In the 10 years the restaurant has been here, it has paid only three times. One day, two ladies ate several plates of
Soul food has long been the dominant force in the little eateries scattered across the Delta. photo by thomas graning
food, but then told the waitress they didn’t enjoy it. So the manager, Simmons’ daughter, called and told him of the situation. His response: “What is our policy? So pay for it.” The ladies then took two to-go plates home for their husbands. Williams is more involved in the everyday operation of his restaurant. “I’m here every morning by 3 a.m. Depends on what I got to do, really. But I’m usually in bed by 6:30 p.m.,” he said, chuckling. “I have a prep crew that comes in and preps. So when I come in the morning all I have to do is start cooking.” Unlike the senator, The Country Platter serves “a real country breakfast” with country ham, biscuits, grits, hash browns and the like. Mindful of the Delta’s statistics on obesity, both restaurants try to be health-conscious. The senator uses turkey necks or drumsticks to season his vegetables instead of the more common fat back. Williams doesn’t use a lot of grease or salt and peels his own sweet potatoes. Both try to use fresh foods when available. They use some frozen food, but try not to use canned foods. “Peaches and green beans are the only things we use out of the can,” Williams said. “That’s the problem with a lot of these schools — the obesity problem — because they are just dumping all this crap out the can.” Simmons hired one of the cooks from a previous owner’s staff. She told Simmons’ wife that she was working much harder than under the previous owner because back then, “she didn’t have to do all that cooking of vegetables.” The senator offers healthy alternatives to traditional soul food dishes, such as smoked or baked chicken. There are always at least four different vegetables on the line every day. “You can come in here and choose a non-fattening menu to put on your plate. It’s up to you.”
State Senator Willie Simmons says at The Senator’s Place, “if you don’t like the food, we pay for it.” photo by katie williamson
Have you ever wondered why you feel so full after eating a soul food meal? “Junk food will fill you up, but the next hour you’re ready to eat. Soul food stays with you,” Williams explained. They can tell when their customers enjoy the food. “When you serve someone a plate of food, and I pick the plate up off the table and it’s clean, then that makes me know I’ve done a good job,” a grinning Williams said. Both restaurants draw a diverse clientele, which is not unusual in the Delta. Stop by most fast-food places and many restaurants and you will see something similar. It is not unusual, however, to see black and white customers eating at the same table in The Senator’s Place and the Country Platter. “When white customers come in here, they aren’t coming because Willie Simmons, senator, owns the restaurant. Or because Willie Simmons is black or whatever the case may be. They come because they have heard there is some good food here and they came to check it out,” the senator said. While racial separation still marks significant parts of Delta life, food is one area where people generally agree. “People walk in and they just say ‘Hi’ to everybody. It’s not uncommon to eat beside someone you don’t know at a place like the senator’s or Jimmy Williams. “It’s the company and the connectivity that happens around those meals” that makes them so special, Miller said.
“Soul food” first appeared on plantations in the Old South. Black slaves working in the kitchen to prepare a meal for their white owners had to make do with whatever was available to them. Miller said that blacks were supremely celebrated for their culinary abilities. In the 19th century, the standard of cooking was French cuisine. America’s response to this standard? “Well, take a look at our black cooks … They were often put on the same level as French chefs,” Miller said. White people praising black cooks for their food in a region that has been racially torn for more than a century. This, in part, is also what soul food is all about. Soul food didn’t die with end of slavery. Blacks and whites alike loved it too much for that. Black women often worked as “help” for white families, cleaning, taking care of children and cooking meals. The name wasn’t always soul food. The term was popularized with the advent of civil rights and a desire by black people to protect their own culture. Just as “soul brother” and “soul music” emerged, so did “soul food.” Today, you get the feeling here that the name doesn’t really matter. It’s the food that counts. As Taylor Rollins put it, “I don’t know about bringing people together and all that other stuff, but I do know one thing: It’s my food, brother. I couldn’t live without it.”
Design by Katie Williamson
The iconic buffet offers guests a traditional soul food experience that includes southern classics like cornbread, turnip greens and fried chicken. PHOTO BY KATIE WILLIAMSON
Entrepreneurs Is there no limit to the creativity of the Delta? Story by Erin Scott
“It was so frustrating. There was no good beer here,” said Brad Harger. So he made his own. PHOTO BY KATIE WILLIAMSON
Jennifer Roden, left, helps her mom, Gwen Toomey, bake cakes after school in Greenwood.
“We try to create something fresh and new,” said Hugh Balthrop, who brought gelato to the Delta.
PHOTO BY Erin Scott
PHOTO by thomas Graning
Pecans, cakes, gelato, home brew, barbecue rubs. In a region that celebrates authenticity, small, creative entrepreneurs are popping up like cotton in the spring, tempering the Delta’s long-suffering climate of unpredictability. Determined to succeed, they are doing their best to prove that micro-businesses can help boost an economy. They are pioneers, following a drive and an instinct, taking outside experience and inspiration and creating new tastes that push tradition but stay uniquely Delta.
Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream Company
ll Hugh Balthrop wanted to do was keep smiles on his kids’ faces, so he started making homemade ice cream. Before he knew it, he had one of the tastiest little treats in the Delta. Today, Sweet Magnolia Ice Cream has become a Delta delight, popping up on menus from Delta Bistro in Greenwood to outlets as far away as Memphis . It happened before Balthrop knew it. In studying books to find flavor ideas for his kids, he kept coming up with more and more ideas for new flavors. As he started selling them, the business grew swiftly and moved from the backyard guesthouse to warehouse space in Clarksdale behind the chamber of commerce. He enrolled in Penn State University’s Ice Cream Course and found out how much more could be learned in the world of frozen treats. The answer: A lot. “I’ll go through books and get inspiration like with this Lemon Drop. I just said, ‘Oh, that’d be different.’ We try to create something new and fresh,” said Balthrop. It’s the flavors that have led customers to get hooked on what is really gelato in the Delta. “I was a little hesitant about saying it was gelato initially, just because I didn’t think people were that familiar with it. And so they taste it, it’s like ‘Wow!’ The flavor is a little more dense.”
Balthrop mixes up a new batch. PHOTO by thomas Graning
That’s because it doesn’t have nearly as much air whipped into it. People loved it so much, he’s bought a bigger gelato machine, imported from Italy, naturally, to handle the higher volume. “Salty Caramel is the number one seller,” said Balthrop. “Number two is Whiskey and Pecans. It’s a seasonal flavor. We try to get creative.” Balthrop finds much of his inspiration in his Southern surroundings. Banana pudding, moon pie, lemon poppy seed, sweet tea and Mississippi Mary’s pound cake have turned up as ice cream or sorbet flavors. “It depends on what we can get in season,” he said. ”We support local farmers.” For example, pecans come from Tutwiler, blueberries from Grenada and fresh whole milk from the Brown Family Dairy. The Balthrop family came to the Delta by way of Washington , D.C. , where Hugh had an art gallery, and his wife Erica had become a gynecologist and obstetrician. It was her summers visiting family in the Delta that made her want to move. Every time she returned to her roots, she fell more deeply in love with it. Hugh came along for the ride and now he’s glad he did. “All my children were born in the Delta,” says the stay-at-home dad turned ice cream man with kids ages 4, 7 and 10. “This allows me to have a creative outlet. This is what I love to do and this is my passion right now. The smiles you get from kids and adults alike are just priceless.”
When The Help was shot in Greenwood, the Delta Delicacy ladies baked all the cakes on the table in the pivotal scene at the Junior League Ball. PHOTO by erin scott
andwiched between a health food store and a vitamin shop lie the kitchens of Delta Delicacy. “It was mama’s recipe,” Gwen Toomey says of what has created a busy second job and a rewarding hobby for this enterprising group of three schoolteachers. “She was a great baker. She’s 80 years old and still helps us out in the shop.” When that happens, three generations of women from tiny Money are in the Delta Delicacy kitchen baking caramel cakes from the recipe that built the business – Gwen, her neighbor Adrian Tribble, and Gwen’s daughter, Jennifer Roden. Before they knew it, their cakes were getting shipped out of state, featured in magazines and the movie The Help, and thrilling brides at fancy weddings throughout the Delta. But back to Toomey’s mom.
“At Christmas she would make cakes. Ambrosia cake, jam cake, German chocolate and caramel. Just good cakes. And when I was growing up you didn’t have cake all the time. It was an occasion,” Toomey says. Now after the school day, the three women become bakers for a few hours each evening, creating chocolate, caramel and strawberry cakes that are sold through the Mississippi Gift Company. “Momma taught me. Then I threw a lot of caramel icings out before I ever got it right,” relates Toomey, who can lecture at length on the difficulty of cooking with caramel. “My brother and I ate a lot of cakes that didn’t look pretty,” interjects Roden. Toomey jumps back in: “My husband Don used to love it. [He’d say] ‘Did you mess one up?’ I gave Adrian the recipe and she threw a lot of caramel icings out. We took the cakes to school for different functions.” Roden finishes the story: “And we realized there was a market for them. A lot of people don’t
cook anymore, especially my generation.” For a few hours most evenings, the ladies are hard at work, creating chocolate, caramel and strawberry cakes that are sold through Mississippi Gift Company. PHOTO by erin scott
Something that is great for business at Delta Delicacy. So the passion for cooking and baking has been passed down. Roden recalls sitting on the kitchen counter as a child, mother Gwen giving her flour and water. “I would put my hands in that bowl and just play with it.” What started as cakes for friends and school fundraisers led to wedding cakes. The first of which was for the wedding of Adrian Tribble’s daughter. “We didn’t go to the ceremony. Jen and I stayed with the cake,” Toomey says of their first one, a banana-pudding number that they drove in 110-degree weather at six mph in a Chevy Tahoe, with Roden in the back watching the top tier start to slide in the Delta heat that the Tahoe’s A/C couldn’t quite vanquish. Fortunately, they made it before the cake collapsed. “There was no pressure because no money was exchanged,” says Adrian, shrugging. The two other bakers disagree. Since then, Delta Delicacy has baked cakes for everything from “baby reveal” parties to book clubs, including one in New York that ordered a caramel cake to savor the Southern story of The Help. For the movie version, they baked all the cakes on the table for the scene at the Junior League Ball. “We joked that each cake needed a ‘stunt cake’” says Gwen, explaining why they had to bake multiples of every cake. While the movie was in town, Delta Delicacy had crew members coming in to buy a few for themselves as well. Lately, they’ve been expanding a little at a time, bringing more of the community into the act. They host cookie- and cake-decorating sessions for children. But they learned that even tasty cakes and cookies have their limits. They had to establish a minimum age limit after an icing-stuffed 3-year-old on what may have been a sugar high felt compelled to bite someone on the posterior, leaving lip marks of powdered sugar. Which, the ladies might say, is just one of the hazards of success.
Delta Brewing Supply
n a storefront on Washington Avenue, in a long and narrow room with a vaulted wooden ceiling, a small, but steady clientele streams through in search of the Holy Grail – ways to brew their own beer. Brad Harger, his wife, Karen, and nephew Cedric Williams have opened Mississippi’s first home brewing supply company to sell small batches of craft brews as well as all the supplies for all things to do with fermentation and mold. The shelves of the shop have cheese- and wine-making kits as well as many varieties of beer and a refrigerator full of different yeasts for brewing. On this day, it’s a range of customers, from a new elderly female brewer making her first batches to a man in for root beer to local craft brewers and a home brewer with stronger tastes in mind. The root beer aficionado bubbles about the stuff he drank in Nebraska as a child. He’s excited he can get the yeast here. The female novice says it’s really her husband who wants to brew the stuff, but she allows that she took the home-brewing class with him and that she decides what they drink and what they brew. Who knew this market existed? Harger did. For him, it was instinctive. “Beer. It was so frustrating. There was no good beer here,” he says when asked about why he opened shop in December of 2012. It all took him back to why he became a home brewer in the first place. “I didn’t like beer. I couldn’t stand beer because all I had ever had was Bud, Miller, and Coors.” So he sharpened his skills and now shares his knowledge in the Delta. “At first we wanted to open a brew pub. And then we found out if you have a brew pub you can only sell your beer in Mississippi to customers who come to eat food in your business. So we said, ‘OK, let’s open a brewery instead.’ In Mississippi, you can sell your beer to the distributor but you can’t sell directly to customers and we were like, ‘We don’t want to do that!’” Although it was technically legal in Mississippi to brew beer, this spring, Gov. Phil Bryant signed a new law clarifying that there is no need for a permit to brew for personal consumption. The law took effect July 1. Its passage was music to Harger’s ears. “We bought downtown because it was so affordable. Actually, my wife bought the building while I was out of town. It’s not the busiest neighborhood. It’s pretty slow, and dead after hours. Hopefully we get folks thinking about opening something next door or down the way. We’ve noticed neighbors fixing up
Jars full of hops line the shelves of Delta Brewing Supply. PHOTO by Katie Williamson
Harger’s new business in downtown Greenville draws a loyal clientele. PHOTO by Katie Williamson
A Cheese Straw Society
Gayden Metcalfe says women there are never shy to pull out the silver. She calls polishing silver “a southern lady’s version of grief therapy.” Photo by Jared Burleson
At Metcalfe’s elegantly furnished home, Delta entertainment is on full display. Photo by Jared Burleson
It wouldn’t be the Delta without a decanter of Scotch on a silver tray. Photo by jared Burleson
here’s a man—a legend, really— named Lewis Watson, who liked to jump out of airplanes. So much so, that whenever he and his wife were invited to a party, the hostess knew to find a wide-open space outside to place their martinis. And sure enough, as guests mixed and mingled with cheese straws and glasses in hand, the Watsons would float down from the sky, landing squarely in front of their cocktails. The tousle-haired guests would raise their glasses, toast their audience and join the festivities as if they’d just walked in through the front door. Julia Reed loves to tell this story, and she has millions more just like it. She has taken these stories all the way to Washington, D.C. and New York and New Orleans where she tells them to roaring crowds of New York Times writers, Vogue editors, screenwriters and socialites. Gayden Metcalfe has a million stories of her own. “We’re an eating, drinking, talking society,” she said. One of her closest friends told her once, “I had to move back to the Delta because I never heard a good story anywhere else.” Reed and Metcalfe hail from Greenville, a hospitality-obsessed city that likes to claim more writers per square mile than any other in Mississippi. Tales of extravagant Delta hospitality have been retold in print since William Alexander Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee instructed the world on the proper way to make a mint julep. Outsiders couldn’t believe the hyperbole, wondering out loud whether these lavish bashes were myths, little tales embellished for dinner party chatter. But what’s to embellish? This is a place where the silver isn’t stored away long enough to tarnish. Many joke that a Delta girl will ponder over a Rorschach inkblot and say, “Now, that looks like Chantilly silver to me! Or maybe that’s Tiffany?” Whatever the pattern, a Delta hostess is never shy to pull out the silver. “If you have it, why not use it?” Metcalfe says. She believes the more you use your silver, the less you have to
At the Greenville Country Club, ladies lunch on â€œThe Duo,â€? tomato aspic and homemade chicken salad with a side of fresh fruit drizzled with celery seed dressing. Photo by Jared Burleson
polish it. Polishing silver is “a Southern lady’s version of grief therapy.” Reed — author, magazine columnist, former New York Times food writer and daughter of former Mississippi Republican Party chief Clarke Reed — went on to New York to share these hilarious tales. She has compiled many of them into four books, all collections of essays detailing what she calls the “relentlessly over the top” ways Deltans celebrate. Metcalfe has remained in Greenville, but has shared her stories coast-to-coast by coauthoring a trilogy that lifts the “magnolia curtain” separating the Delta from the rest of the world. Both have won national attention as chroniclers of this entertainment culture—this other side of the Mississippi Delta. Beyond the boarded-up boutiques and abandoned factories of Greenville, there is a whole different world that Reed, Metcalfe, and many others have attempted to reveal and explain.
A Special Place It is a genteel society with an appreciation for the finer things in life. The Percy family’s parties were legend but Greenville’s love of society did not stop there. It is home to the first debutante club in the state, which for decades has presented young ladies to society at Christmastime at the country club. It is the birthplace of the Junior Auxiliary, home to no less than eight garden clubs and a thriving arts culture that has spawned noted authors, artists, sculptors and a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor. What other town in the Delta has a writer’s garden with plants culled from the seeds of the Percys’ own landscaping? You can’t understand this world until you experience it. One day spent riding around Greenville in Metcalfe’s sleek black station wagon provides at least a glimpse of the Delta joie de vivre. When Metcalfe hears a car pull up the loose gravel drive, she’s waiting at the door to invite you inside the exquisite foyer of her ivy covered red brick home. She’s wearing a smart black dress, a strand of pearls, and antique gold coin earrings. Her bright white hair is swept up neatly and tied off with a
Delta ladies spare no effort when entertaining guests. Photo by Jared Burleson
thin black grosgrain ribbon. She smiles the Gayden smile and welcomes you inside. You are greeted by a stuffed bobcat lounging on a chaise, and above, the hide of a grizzly bear hangs from the railing of the second-floor landing. Weaving through the white sofas of her sitting room, she leads her guests into the floral covered walls of the dining room. Crystal goblets and silver mint julep cups are perfectly aligned in neat rows on the glossy mahogany table, and a crystal dish holds cinnamon pinwheel rolls. There is a tray set with china coffee cups on delicate saucers alongside a silver coffee urn. And atop a doily-lined silver stand is the snack that is never forgotten in the Delta-cheese straws. Forget the Queen City of the Delta. Greenville is the Cheese Straw Capital of the World. “We have this horrible thing in the Episcopal church called ‘The Peace,’ where after the sermon you have to stand up and give the peace to everyone. Shake hands and say ‘Peace be with you, peace be with you.’ I just say, ‘Peace sit down,’” Metcalfe jokes. “My husband Harley leans over every time and says, ‘Who brought the cheese straws? This is like the ten minute break.’” Over coffee, she rattles off a list of must-dos for this quick tour of Greenville. First, a visit to the Greenville Arts Council, a busy non-profit she founded with other faithful Greenvillians. It is housed in the E.E. Bass Cultural Arts Center, a restored middle and high school which is also home to the likes of Delta Center Stage, Delta Children’s Museum and a 1901 vintage Armitage Herschell carousel adored by generations of schoolchildren. It hosts art exhibits, concerts, parties and other events, including a Southern Foodways Alliance traveling exhibit celebrating the life of legendary New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne, who hailed from Sunflower County. “My husband told me I’m so involved that the only clubs I’m not in are Sam’s Club and Ku Klux Klan,” she jokes. She’s a member of the Greenville Garden Club, the oldest garden club in the state. “They say behind every man is a strong woman,
but I say the Greenville Garden Club can stand on its own,” she said. Enroute to the next stop, Metcalfe’s SUV glides past St. James Episcopal Church, where she is an active member and is seen in the pews every Sunday. “Location, location, location,” she says, pointing to the red brick church. “When you die, you come out that door, cross the street, and process over here to the Greenville Cemetery. Afterwards, we all go through the other double doors and into the reception hall for a little food and drink.” Metcalfe knows a thing or two about funerals. Her book, Being Dead Is No Excuse, is a sidesplitting guide to planning the perfect after-party when a relative reaches the afterlife. It includes anecdotes of a woman lying in state across her pristinely polished dining room table and a crop duster sprinkling a man’s cremated remains onto a cotton field. Naturally, she brings any guests to the cemetery, a place she calls “the best address in town.” “Juuuuuust visiting,” she says with a grin through the open window to a friend taking a stroll through the rows of graves. Next is lunch in the sunny, white-tiled dining room of the Greenville Country Club. Metcalfe and her posse enjoy panoramic views of the golf course and tennis courts while sipping sweet tea. They lunch on “The Duo,” tomato aspic and homemade chicken salad with a side of fresh fruit drizzled with celery seed dressing.
Delta weddings She recounts the day her daughter was married, an event her friends still rave over years later. “Most girls in the Delta want to get married at 6 o’clock, so they can have a lot of food and a lot of drinks and a big party. And I’d always told her, you don’t have to get married to have a big party. We will be delighted to have a big party without you making this commitment,” she said. “But my daughter, little Gayden Bishop Metcalfe, said I don’t want to have just a wedding. I want to have a wedding day.” The day began with a brunch, followed by the wedding that afternoon. The reception
For Delta ladies seeking to entertain in a special way, Lagniappe’s one-stop specialty shop has shelves of china and Juliska pottery, among other items. Photo by Jared Burleson
You can’t entertain in the Delta without fine china. Photo by Jared Burleson
was held in the Metcalfes’ backyard, where caged birds were sprinkled throughout. The day ended 20 miles outside of town in Benoit with a black-tie affair at the Burrus House, colloquially dubbed the “Babydoll” House after the 1965 film was shot there. “We went out there because she wanted all her European friends to see the cotton. We had drinks in the front yard and a seated dinner inside. Then we recessed to the back yard where we had the ‘jukin’ band from hell,’ but oh, did I dance with everybody,” she said. Julia Reed has her own Delta wedding tale. For her second wedding, she held the rehearsal dinner in an abandoned cotton gin — “My mother took one look at the place and said, ‘Julia, you’ve lost your mind.’” Long banquet tables were lined with fried catfish, boudin, crawfish rémoulade—all nods to her new home in the Big Easy. Guests clad in black tie also feasted on a true Southern beast, a massive roast suckling pig. “It was such a dramatic sight in the middle of the pitch-black Delta. It’s the classic thing we do—create something out of nothing. I just had all of these people from out of town and I wanted to show them where they were,” she said. Reed preaches the philosophy of “the high and the low.” She loves this combination of black-tie elegance meets down-home cuisine. This mix of gritty reality and genteel fantasy is, in essence, what often defines Delta entertaining. “There’s no point in trying to be pretentious. That’s not who we are,” Reed said. “My mom always said, ‘As long as you have food that tastes good, everyone’s happy.’” When entertaining in Greenville, Reed often picks up fried chicken from Fratesi’s Grocery and serves it alongside a steaming chafing dish of crabmeat Mornay. “[The rehearsal dinner] just reminded me of what it must’ve been like to be in the early days of the Delta when it really was the ‘most southern place on earth,’” she said. “It was a time when they thought, ‘We’re stuck with mosquitoes and snakes, so we might as well drink cane and eat fine food.” And that’s exactly what they do. In the Delta, if you want to be entertained, you
have to make the fun yourself. It’s been this way since rich landowners traveled to this fertile floodplain and started clearing cotton plantations out of the rugged swamps and forests. There was always a push for a good party during the long period between planting and picking season. Those months saw a party every night, sometimes lasting for days. They were dazzling, Gatsby-esque affairs where the rhythm of the band was in tune with the chatter, and the beat of the drum made ripples in a drink that was poured by the bartender’s very heavy hand. “I remember when I was a kid, I’d literally get up in a pear tree, and my friend Tee would pull a plank out of the fence and we’d just watch the parties. I had a great bird’s eye view of all the parties at my neighbor’s house,” she said. Through her books, her latest being But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!, Reed has attempted to recreate this “mad-cap” entertainment culture she grew up in. But there’s much, much more to the story—and it lies in the true spirit and hospitality of a Deltan. “I brought the British Ambassador down to the Delta once, and he is still kind of bowled over by the sort of generosity and spirit of these parties,” she said. It truly is a different world—a place unlike any other. It’s a world that requires an invitation. But here in the Delta, it’s easier to score one than you may think. “It’s such a funky place that’s attracted all these types of people—from river rats to journalists to politicians,” Reed said. “That’s what I’ve always loved. It’s such a melting pot. And in the Delta, there ain’t no standards.”
Design by Elizabeth Beaver
IN THE DELTA? Yes, prawns. Beaten down by cotton and catfish, at least one Delta family has found success by growing prawns. And restaurants are gobbling them up. Story by Rachael Walker Photos by Katie Williamson
ff a bumpy blacktop near Leland, at the end of a winding dirt road, stands a white clapboard farm house where guests are greeted by a black Labrador called Decoy and a golden retriever named Catfish. Standing between a big metal tractor shed and a hoop house is a striking woman with raven-black hair and a cheerleader’s perky smile, waving you in. “Steve, they’re here,” Dolores Fratesi yells. Her husband, unshaven, is wearing muddy work pants and boots, apologizing sheepishly for his appearance. The heavy rain from the day before left a sloppy mess, and he’s been dealing with the repercussions all morning. Eager to show what they’ve built here, they lead us into a hoop house filled with several large water tanks. She takes an empty glass, scoops up some of the water from a tank and proudly holds it up for all to see. It looks like dirty water. But look closer. Each of these microscopic particles, she explains, is a baby prawn. By September, they will be full-grown, ready to be sautéed, stir fried or even wrapped in a sushi roll. Prawns? In the Mississippi Delta? Yes, these Southeast Asian crustaceans have found a home in the heart of catfish-andcornbread country. And the Fratesis are a big reason why.
The promoters They were the first farmers to start growing what they and other farmers hope will be the future of aquaculture in the Delta. They have become crusaders, nudging chefs to put them on menus and farmers to put them in their ponds. They have taken their story to the media, promoting the growth of prawn farming in the same way proud parents wax eloquent on the accomplishments of their children. Steve comes from a long line of farmers, Italian immigrants who settled here more than a century ago to till the Delta soil. Like so many young Deltans, he planned to break from farming and went off to Mississippi State University to study accounting. There, he fell in love with Dolores, who was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in Greenville. They married and moved to Memphis. But the pull of the Delta soil was too strong. They moved back to Leland to join the rest of the family in farming cotton and soybeans. In 1985, as cotton’s allure waned, they started growing catfish in manmade ponds, a hot new trend at the time. The industry boomed during the 1980s and 1990s but it peaked around 2003, when imports of cheap Asian fish similar to catfish began to flood America’s shores, undercutting local growers. Since then, many catfish growers in the Delta have fled the businesses. “Currently there are no catfish farms in Bolivar County and perhaps just a few in Sunflower County,” said Ramona Rizzo of Rizzo Farm near Cleveland. The Rizzos sold out, too, returning to row crops. But luck was with the Fratesis. Even as catfish were peaking in popularity and profitability, they had already begun their prawn adventure with the help of experts at Mississippi State. Now they grow nothing but prawns, finding a new use for some of those empty catfish ponds. They have even won national recognition for introducing this new, very different food trend to the Delta. The challenge is spreading the word and getting it to catch on.
The harvest Come the last weekend of September and the first weekend in October, a caravan of cars and trucks from all over the Delta will roar down the winding dirt road bearing containers and ice chests that people will fill with a delicacy being hailed as the new seafood, 100 percent sustainable and eco-friendly. It will be almost like a festival, a celebration that only comes once a year, when the prawns grow big enough to be harvested and plopped on plates in homes and restaurants from here to Memphis. Lauren Farms, as they call the place, sells the freshly harvested prawns by appointment over those two very busy weekends. It also sells them frozen year-round. “I’ve had people from five states come,” said Dolores. “We’ve got a good trade, I would say, from about three hours’ drive.” When they started, people thought they were nuts, one more Delta farmer desperately trying to diversify against long odds and finding another loser. But they stuck with it. Dolores works hard to get the word out. She does regular cooking demos at the Greenville television station. Dolores also pushed to
The first 86 family of Delta prawns, Steve and Delores Fratesi.
A Delta debutante, a planter’s daughter from Rosedale who married a farmer – Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus (Luke) Lamar II from Sumner, great-great-great grandson of L.Q.C Lamar. She wrote “Somebody Stole The Cornbread From My Dressing” and became lead instructor at the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood. She lives near Oxford at Woodson Ridge Farms, where she caters parties and provides fresh produce to restaurants from Oxford to Memphis. 90
Story by Camille Mullins Photos by Jared Burleson
Tell me a little about your childhood. If you didn’t cook in the Delta you were incredibly bored. If you didn’t have people over to your home then you didn’t get invited to their home and so I grew up with my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother, my father all being incredible cooks and entertaining. It didn’t matter what event it was, the first thing we were thinking of was, and still to this day is, ‘What are we gonna eat?’ ‘‘What are we gonna cook?’ So that was ingrained in me since I was born. Growing up in the Delta is probably one of the best experiences anyone could ever have, especially in Rosedale. There is something about living that close to the river that changes you. We were completely free, we could run and play and go. It never even occurred to us that there would be any danger or anything to worry about, so it’s a pretty amazing place.
Where else have you lived besides Rosedale? I grew up in Rosedale and then my parents divorced and we moved to Memphis, but I would always go back to Rosedale. And then I lived in New York for a few years and then I came back and lived in Memphis and met my husband there, and we moved back to the Delta 11 years ago. We lived in Memphis for a long time but my dad has never left Rosedale so we always came back to Rosedale. We moved to Oxford a year and a half ago.
What is the Delta food you most crave today? It’s always tamales.
Do you think the combination of blues and food can turn the Delta around? As far as helping the economy? Absolutely. I think it’s what we are most known for but then once we get them there, they see all the other amazing
things that have to do with the Delta. It’s a big calling card, the blues and food.
Have you always been interested in food? What triggered that interest? It’s just how I grew up so it was very natural for me to turn my love of food and my ability to cook into a career. Which is what I do with catering. It’s what we do every day. By cooking, hopefully our guests or our clients feel like they have been invited into our homes even though we are really in their homes.
it, like Rosedale for example, not only are the vegetables incredibly expensive but the quality is really, really poor. We are losing an entire generation that cooks and so a lot of people are depending on the fried chicken at the Double Quick to eat. I mean they are literally eating out of gas stations. When I lived in Rosedale and would take the kid to school in the morning I would stop by the
How is it that so many different ethnic groups have such successful restaurants in the Delta? They have all adapted their cooking even though it’s a Lebanese recipe, because it’s here in the Delta and they can’t get the things that they would get in their home country. So all of them have a bit of a Delta twist on them so that is a little more familiar and more powerful to people of the Delta. I also think that because you don’t have a whole lot of choices, anything that is new and different is exciting. So if someone is bringing a Lebanese dish or an Italian dish you definitely are going to try it.
What do you think is the chief cause of obesity in the Delta? I think one of the main issues in the Delta is the fact that the Delta used to be a place where every grandmother, mom, aunt, uncle somebody in your immediate family had a huge garden and you had tons of fabulous vegetables from spring all the way into the fall and then that overage and what was harvested was frozen or canned and then you had that to last you through the winter. Unfortunately, that has completely stopped. In small towns you are lucky if you have a grocery store that has produce. The towns that do have
You won’t see anything grown at Heiskell’s Woodson Ridge Farms on the back of a Sysco truck.
gas station to get gas and there would be kids lined up out the door, and I mean little kids— first, second, third grade, who were buying what they called “junk” and it was junk. They would buy chips and candy and gum and that was their breakfast and their lunch. The food in the cafeteria was so horrible that they couldn’t even think about eating that, even though it was free. There is an entire generation that has no idea how to cook and the things that they do know how to cook are very, very unhealthy.
What are some of the steps you have taken to fight obesity? I am on the board of a new grant that was awarded to the Oxford School district.
It’s a Farm to School grant so we are trying to work to get new recipes that the kids will like. Training the cafeteria workers to cook from scratch rather than cook from the Sysco truck. Pulling the fryers out of the kitchen so that’s not an option anymore. Also educating the children and getting them excited; if we can get them when they are young then we have got them for the rest of their lives. But when you try to go into middle school and high school it is incredibly tough. Oxford was the only school district to get this grant in Mississippi, and all hopefully will create a model that can be taken to the Delta and then to the coast, to Jackson, to Brookhaven.
How would you describe the food of the Delta? “One of the main things is the fact that there is food that is completely
rooted and 100 percent Delta. I don’t know that there is any other place like that. Curry dip, pimento cheese which I still believe was founded, started, made, originated in the Mississippi Delta, the best cheese straws in the whole wide world — that’s 100 percent the Delta. Fried pickles, really? No one else, no other place in the state of Mississippi came up with the fried pickle. A lot of it is using what you have in order to make it work. Oh and the tamales. I mean, that’s a whole ‘nother ball game when we start talking about the tamales.
What were your favorite foods growing up? All the O’s. In the Delta we have about 6 really fabulous restaurants and they all end in O’s. We’ve got Doe’s, Lusco’s, Lillo’s anyway.
The south has specific food ways. In your career, have you tried to keep those food traditions alive?
Absolutely. I mean I don’t try to push menus on anyone, but I certainly suggest strongly menus that are place-oriented. When I was in the Delta it was so easy. We would have so many people coming in from out of town that we would have ‘standard Delta’ menus. We would do fried chicken, turnip green dip, little moon pies, pimento cheese dip, and Delta tamales, of course.
Is there one dish that you most enjoy describing in your books? Jezebel sauce. Just because the name is so hysterical. I don’t know where the name came from but we always say it’s obviously because whenever people leave a party it’s all they’re talking about. There
are lots of different recipes but the one that we use is apple jelly, orange marmalade, horseradish and mustard. And so it’s great for hams or pork tenderloins.
Tell me a little bit about Woodson Ridge Farms. What does the farm do? What is your role in the farm? We moved to Oxford two years ago to start this farm. We grow chef quality vegetables for 40 restaurants in Memphis and 20 restaurants here in Oxford so we grow things that they can’t purchase anywhere else. You certainly won’t see it on the back of a Sysco truck. Luke was a cotton farmer from the delta and I am a chef so he was building houses and we were approached by our partner Sandy who wanted us to come over here and grow vegetables. He was servicing all the
restaurants in New Orleans and wanted us to do the same thing here. He had already bought this property so we partnered with him. We also do our CSA community supported agriculture so we can get all of our vegetables into the hands of the public.”
Do you think the Delta’s dying? The economy is…pitiful. There are hardly any really good, really strong companies that employ across the board at all levels of skill sets. Yeah, I think tourism is amazing in the Delta and I think it’s growing and I think that anything that is southern is incredibly hot and very fascinating to the rest of the United States, and anything that we can do to build that is certainly going to help the economic level of the Delta.
You say that southern is incredibly hot and very fascinating for
the rest of the United States. What’s so special or different about the South or the Delta? The Delta is like no other place on earth. It has more soul than any place I have ever been in my entire life. The people are the thing that makes the Delta what it is and they are absolutely the craziest, most real, unpretentious, down-to-earth, and loving people that I have ever been around. Everyone has a very strong sense of place and strong sense of their roots and their past. There is a huge sense of pride with the people that do live there and that love it. Everybody is in it and you’re in it together. No, it may not be the best place in the entire world. There isn’t a Target on every corner and you give up a lot to live in the Delta but the reward is huge.
Design by Elizabeth Beaver
Heiskell grows chef quality vegetables for 40 restaurants in Memphis and many in Oxford.
Oxbow Market makes their own marinades and seasonings.
Andrew Westerfield, owner of Crawdad's restaurant.
Photo by Alex EdwarDs
photo by Jared Burleson
Jamie Smith creates a new work at McCarty's Pottery. Photo by Jared burleson
Roosters of all shape and sizes at Miss Delâ€™s General Store are ready for a new home. PHOTO BY LAUREN H. LOYLESS
Saviors At The Crown restaurant in Indianola. Photo by Thomas Graning.
As people flee the Delta by the thousands, innovative local chefs and businessmen are finding ways to tempt them to stay. Itâ€™s all about survival. Just ask the folks of
Clarksdale, Merigold & Indianola Story by Bowen Thigpen
Plants of all genres can be found at Miss Del’s General Store in Clarksdale. Photo by LAUREN H. LOYLESS
Clarksdale Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett knew that if they built it people would come.
ack when cotton was King, business was brisk. The Alcazar Hotel was one of the biggest in the Delta and movie fans packed a nearby theater. Cadillacs and Lincoln Continentals cruised down Delta and Yazoo Avenues in search of a parking spot. But mechanized farming and the wane of King Cotton dealt a heavy blow to Clarksdale. After decades of decay and white flight, downtown streets were lined with vacant buildings. But everything changed in 2001. Local attorney Bill Luckett teamed up with his good friend Morgan Freeman and made what some folks here thought was one of the stupidest business decisions they had ever heard of. They opened Madidi, a fine dining restaurant on a street that looked deserted. They threw hundreds of thousands of dollars into it, creating an upscale decor and an ambitious gourmet menu that included rack of lamb and sweet corn succotash. It was an instant hit. And it lost money. But they kept at it because, as Luckett put it, “Morgan and I kind of wanted to jump-start downtown.” The two could have stopped there. They had done their job. Instead, they opened Ground Zero Blues Club on the opposite end of Delta Avenue, creating an instant attraction for international blues fans. Ground Zero offers traditional blues food, from
Marvell Fox has manned "Smoky Joe" grill at Ground Zero Blues Club for the past 5 years. PHOTO BY KAITE WILLIAMSON
hot tamales to plate lunches to the “best burgers in town.” They even offer fried grits, or as Luckett likes to say, “the most southern food on earth.” “We went from no restaurants to our opening two restaurants, and now there are like eight or ten open,” Luckett said. After 10 years of trying, Madidi finally shut its doors in February of 2012. The restaurant didn’t make a dime in the ten years and three months it was open. People told Luckett he was crazy, that running a business and not ever making money was plain ignorant. Luckett knew it made no business sense, but his eyes were set on the future. Madidi had planted the seeds.
The Transplants Roger Stolle, a native of St. Louis, was one of the first. “Transplants,” as the locals called them. Stolle opened Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art Inc. in the spring of 2002. “When I first moved here, the first two years people were still bailing from downtown. It was like a mass exodus,” Stolle said. “If you weren’t out of here by 5:30, you were the last man standing. Your car would be the only one for three blocks.”
Oxbox Market was created by locals who returned home. Photo by Jared Burleson
Then others started arriving. People like Theo Dashbash of the Rock & Blues Museum. Stan and Dixie Street of the Hambone Art Gallery. Shonda Warner opened Miss Del’s General Store, dispensing organic fertilizers, homegrown vegetables and gardening supplies. For about five years, the transplants came, drawn by the town’s rich blues history. As legend has it, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in order to master the guitar. Bessie Smith breathed her last at what is now the Riverside Hotel on Sunflower Avenue. Muddy Waters’ humble cabin now resides in the Delta Blues Museum two blocks from Ground Zero. “Things like cultural tourism are important to a place like this. This is where it comes from. People will want to come to the land where blues began,” Stolle said. But there was still something missing. Blues tourism helped prop up a town (pop. 17,692) that lost 13 percent of its population from 2000 to 2010. But people needed a place to eat. Other than Madidi and Ground Zero, there were few food options from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Downtown needed restaurants to survive. “Food brings people together, whether it’s generations or races or national, local, or international. What’s one of the common things? Everybody eats,” Stolle said.
The Locals A switch flipped. The restaurateurs arrived. Some locals, but mostly natives of Clarksdale who moved back home. All were determined to do something creative to help their hometown.
Oxbow, Yazoo Pass, Stone Pony Pizza and the Dutch Oven opened their doors, providing a strong downtown roster Oxbow Market offers a selection to complement of produce, and other foods. Photo by Alex Edwards longtime anchors Abe’s Bar-B-Q, Rest Haven, Ramon’s, the Ranchero and Hicks’ World Famous Hot Tamales in other parts of town. The seeds had now sprouted. “I find it interesting that restaurants are what people have done, since statistically it’s such a horrible business to get in to. But they have, and they’ve been successful,” Stolle said.
Oxbow Market Owned and operated by Hayden and Erica Hall, locals who moved away and came back, Oxbow Market originally opened as a restaurant. Hayden Hall’s first job in the restaurant business was washing dishes at Madidi. After marrying his “junior high sweetheart” Erica in 2006, they moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked under renowned Austrian chef Wolfgang Puck. After a brief stint as executive chef at the Clarksdale Country Club, the couple moved to New Orleans, where Hayden worked under upscale restaurateur Susan Spicer. But once again, they came back.
Oxbow’s Hayden Hall loves to tell costumers how to whip up new dishes. Photo by Jared Burleson
“We’ve always felt the need to live here, but in order to really grow this town, we felt like we needed to go away for a while,” Hall said. “But we saw a few people that were opening galleries and shops, and we just felt like we could contribute. It doesn’t take a million dollars to revitalize a community. Let’s take what we have and expand on that,” Hall said. Oxbow served almost 150 people a day, had 30 seats, and had six items on the menu that fused local and worldly flavors. Simple, but just how they wanted it. “People said, ‘You can’t do it. It won’t work.’ But I said, ‘We can do it. We just have to do it the right way.’ So we were a restaurant for almost two years, and we did really well. Had a lot of local and regional notoriety, which is great,” Hall said. With dishes like black-eyed pea hummus, ginger slaw and tuna tacos, they caught the attention of People, the Travel Channel and Travel + Leisure magazine. “Who would have thought fresh tuna tacos would have been successful in Clarksdale? But that was their most popular item,” Stolle said. “We wanted to take things people were familiar with and add elements to that food that they were unfamiliar
with. Like, ‘I know a burger, but I don’t know garlic aioli and balsamic jam and smoked gruyere cheese and baby arugula.’ They’re just like, ‘Whoa, man!’” Hall said. In mid-December of 2012, the couple transformed the restaurant to a market that often showcases the produce of local farmers. The closing of the restaurant made many customers unhappy. “The Delta is reluctant to change. But that’s the whole mindset about getting people to do things a little out of their comfort zones. People really can eat local eggs and drink local milk,” Hall said. Hall loves to grab items off the shelves and tell customers how to use them to whip up new dishes. The market provides fresh produce as well as local milk and ice cream. “Here we are in the most fertile grounds in the U.S., and (most) of our food comes from somewhere else. That’s the biggest challenge I’m trying to change,” Hall said.
Yazoo Pass Upon its opening in late 2011, Yazoo Pass filled the void of a communal gathering place. Located in the old F. W. Woolworth’s building on Yazoo Avenue,
“The Pass” offers an upscale coffee house/bistro environment, something Clarksdale has never seen. “I’ve always wanted to do this for Clarksdale, but I didn’t feel like they could handle it for a long time. I just didn’t think it was ready,” said Meri Tenhet, Clarksdale native and daytime chef. “But there came a time about five years ago when I thought, it can support this now. There are enough hip, young people coming back home who were used to that sort of thing.” Yazoo Pass offers anything from pastries and biscuits and great coffee in the morning, to soups, sandwiches, a salad bar, and frozen yogurt during lunch. At night, the lights dim and the restaurant turns into a fancier dinner spot. There isn’t one fryer in the building. “It is a great change of scenery from the grittiness of the blues scene,” Tenhet said. “We try really hard to offer that same kind of food, but in a healthier way.”
Hayden Hall at Oxbow Pantry says Deltans need to eat outside their comfort zones. Photo by Alex Edwards.
Stone Pony Stone Pony Pizza offers a fun place for people to enjoy really good pizza as well as a nice bar. “It feeds a couple of different audiences, which is neat because we didn’t have that downtown. There was nothing to fit that niche,” Stolle said.
Dutch Oven The Dutch Oven was created in an old passenger train depot near the blues museum by members of a Mennonite community who moved to the Delta in the 1960s. The daily specials, written on a blackboard behind the counter, are what make lunch a big draw here. Fresh-faced young women wearing prayer caps and long print dresses serve up casseroles, poppy seed chicken, white chili soup and more. The towering cakes and large slices of pie are a meal in themselves. Yazoo Pass offers an upscale coffee house/bistro environment.
The Anchors It’s not like there weren’t restaurants here before. Clarksdale is rich in food history. “We’ve had Abe’s since 1924. That’s a draw. Rest Haven is a draw. Ramon’s. Another draw. But you still need a variety of places,” said Bubba O’Keefe, 57, a longtime advocate for Clarksdale revitalization who has created lofts for rent above the restaurant.
The Present Residents still shake their heads in wonder at the food options in Clarksdale today. Things have changed dramatically since Luckett’s seemingly impractical decision to open Madidi. “Now I pull out on a Tuesday or Wednesday. Someone takes my spot as I pull out. Just lined with cars. People
Photo by Jared burleson
would have laughed at you if you said you were going to have that 10 years ago. There was no belief,” Stolle said. “Now it all seems kind of normal. The thinking has just changed. People don’t consider it crazy anymore.” O’Keefe had watched in horror as downtown shriveled over the decades, growing darker with each newly vacant storefront. But now he sees something entirely different. “You can’t create interest with a whole downtown that is totally dark. No lights are on. No cars. No activity. You flip the lights on, you bring the people in. Now. Now you got a show.”
Merigold How Crawdad’s and the McCartys gave new life to Merigold.
E Merigold’s entire population can fit into Crawdad’s. Photo by Austin McAfee.
nter Merigold’s city limits and start your stopwatch. Tick. Tick. Tick. Drive past the ruins of its downtown. There’s just buildings. Old, washed up buildings. Buildings whose windows and doors are boarded up with rotten and faded planks of wood, and in some cases hidden from view entirely by thickets of bamboo and shrubbery. One minute passes, and your tour is done. There used to be several grocery stores. A blacksmith shop. Hardware stores. Gas stations. A railroad. Hundreds of people packing the streets on a Saturday. But like so many Delta towns, mechanized farming hit the town like a tsunami. The people left. But don’t be deceived into thinking this is just another forlorn Delta ghost town. Merigold is still on the map thanks to two restaurants and one world-famous pottery studio: anchors that save this tiny bedroom community seven miles from Cleveland from disappearing.
Steaks and chicken lie on the grill at Crawdad’s. Photo by Austin McAfee.
An intimate meal at Crawdad’s. Photo by Austin McAfee.
In dead center is Crawdad’s, a man-cave mansion big enough to hold the entire population of Merigold with room to dance. There might even be enough animal heads on the walls for all 400-plus citizens to have one. Whitetails. Moose. Elk. Turkeys. Duck. Gargantuan souvenirs from African safaris such as dik-diks, kudu, bushbucks, a lioness. A stuffed leopard gets its own display window right above the bar. And that’s just the way owner Andrew Westerfield wants it. Mayor for the past 40 years (“mayor for life,” friends say), Westerfield has lived in Merigold his entire life. A lawyer, Westerfield never had a clue he’d open a restaurant. “We didn’t even have a menu for a long time,” he said. Just a place for a good ole Delta boy who “really likes crawfish.” And he knew other people did too. “It started off as a process to get crawfish to have parties with,” Westerfield said with his deep southern drawl. So Crawdad’s opened on February 29, 1984, in a roadside shack with a big crawfish pot and not much else. Originally, the “restaurant” raised its own crawfish on a ten-acre plot. Now it buys from Louisiana, also serving lobster, steaks, fish, shrimp, you name it. The manlier, the better.
Andrew Westerfield’s love for crawfish led to the creation of Crawdad’s. Photo by Austin McAfee.
But Crawdad’s does much more than serve good food. It helps hold the remnants of this town together. While he didn’t know that would be the case, Westerfield now knows that’s what it’s become. “That was a big part of what I tried to do. Have somewhere or something to help Merigold,” “ Westerfield said. “It turned out where it helped a lot of young folks that were able to get jobs. You would have 20 to 25 young kids working that would take on a lot of responsibility. Crawdad’s wouldn’t have made it without them.” - Andrew Crawdad’s became a fulltime restaurant in 1987. It was one room, 22 feet by 14 feet, all cypress with pine floors. “Every time we had some extra cypress we just added a room. And every time we added a room people would fill it up. So we’d have to keep on adding rooms,” Westerfield said. To the point, he says, that it was too big.
That’s the Delta for you. It’s one big party, a party that if one person knows about it, everyone is invited. “A lot of these places take on the personality of the town,” Westerfield said. That’s just what Crawdad’s has done. It’s no coincidence that the oldest chartered hunting club in Mississippi, Merigold Hunting Club, played a huge part in the restaurant. Pictures of kids at the club lined the walls. Whitetails from the club were mounted on the wall. Memories filled the entire place. And then it burned. All of Westerfield. it. Well, except two grills. “The damn thing. I had paid off the last note on all my building in December of 2001. And on January 2, 2002 the bastard burned,” Westerfield said, the pounding of his fist coinciding with every word pouring from his mouth. “We had a great African collection of animals that got burned up. We had a great whitetail collection that got
Every time we had some extra cypress we just added a room. And every time we added a room people would fill it up. So we’d have to keep on adding rooms.”
Renowned potter, Lee McCarty in his studio. PHOTO BY JARED BURLESON.
burned up. Lord have mercy, that was terrible.” Things like his dad and granddad’s scale that was used as the official weight scale for the county. Things like a 55-inch “huge ass” cape buffalo that hung just far enough off the ground for an athletic 5’8” boy to barely touch with his fingertips. But you better believe that didn’t stop Westerfield. “Opened it in 139 days from the day it burned to the day it opened up,” he said with a sense of pride. New animals hang from the walls, many volunteered by wives who wanted nothing to do with them. Some duplicates of pictures from the old restaurant, but mostly new ones. A new scale placed in the exact same position as the old one. A kitchen bigger than most Delta restaurants. But everything else is pretty much the same. The layout is the same. The same size, same height. Just made of white pine from North Carolina now. Same boilers, too. In fact, the same employee has been boiling crawfish at Crawdad’s for the past 24 years. He has cooked “more crawfish than anybody in the Delta without any doubt, and probably more than anybody in the state of Mississippi,” Westerfield says with a prideful grin.
Oh yeah. One more difference — a powerful sprinkler system. Westerfield asked the installer if it would put out a fire. The response: “Sir, you got enough water in here that you better get the small children off the floor.”
The McCartys A few paces down the road sits a “simple, but elegant” restaurant, a 180-degree turn in the other direction from the testosterone-heavy atmosphere at Crawdad’s. The Gallery was started by worldrenowned potter Lee McCarty, who opened his McCarty’s Pottery studio in August of 1954. McCarty and his wife Pup, who died in 2009, took an old mule barn and converted it into the studio and pottery outlet. They insulated the old barn with cardboard, sweated in summer and froze in winter. In 1960, he won a national award at the Delgado Museum in New Orleans for his stoneware and began winning other honors around the country, drawing widespread media attention for the pottery he and Pup fashioned from clay that William Faulkner gave them from a ravine on his property in Oxford. Soon, people were showing up from other countries and every Delta garden club seemed to know just how
to find McCarty’s place, hidden behind dense thickets of bamboo and a cypress fence right behind what would eventually become Crawdad’s. As at Crawdad’s, there were no signs. That was part of the mystique. Once you get past the flower garden in the courtyard and the antiques and sculpture inside the cypress plank walls, the food at The Gallery is served on dishes that come from McCarty’s pottery studio. Sticking to a theme of simple elegance, this restaurant offers only two entrees — a traditional cold plate of homemade chicken salad with “Merigold tomatoes, a tomato casserole of sorts,” and a hot plate that rotates between shrimp or chicken crepes or a meatloaf with black-eyed peas and homegrown collard greens, all served with corn muffins. And then there are the two desserts — chocolate and caramel cobblers, both served with ice cream that’s all you can eat for kids. Stephen Smith, 47, godson of the McCartys, moved back to Merigold to run the business side of the studio and restaurant in 1998, seven years after the restaurant’s founding. His brother Jamie now spins the same wheel Lee and Pup spun for so many years. Both have proven Thomas Wolfe wrong. “You really can go home again,” said Smith, whose squinting eyes can barely be seen through his small, oval-shaped glasses when he smiles.
Smith said McCarty started the restaurant because there was “not much in the way of a nice restaurant for ladies in the area.” Also, McCarty’s father was a restaurateur, so he took it on as a hobby. Although the restaurant is small, only able to hold about 50, it serves its purpose in this town that is “actually doing well, and gratefully so,” offering a nice place for bridal showers, luncheons, and brunch. But it all started with Lee and Pup McCarty. “The saving grace really has been Uncle Lee and Aunt Pup,” Smith said. The studio brought people from all over the world to this small Delta town. “Lee and Pup had a vision, and being able to pull it off in Merigold? Absolutely fantastic,” Westerfield said. The McCartys were always dedicated to “living life on their own terms.” Every January, they took the month off. Every day after lunch, Lee still takes a nap. The place has never advertised. “As Lee and Pup said, ‘If you’re good enough, they’ll come’,” Westerfield said. Crawdad’s, the Gallery and McCarty’s are shining stories of local ingenuity that have helped keep this town alive. And as the 90-year-old McCarty, who has literally seen the town “disappear” before his own eyes, puts it, “I wouldn’t change anything.”
Some of Lee McCarty's 103 famous Pottery. Photo by Jared burleson
Indianola The best music in Indianola is the sound of cash registers.
ou can’t miss B.B. King’s influence here. His name is on the $16 million Smithsonian quality B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. His image is plastered on billboards. His bust, in bronze, sits in a local park bearing his name. He pumped money into Club Ebony, the old blues club that helped launch his career, to keep it going. And just in case you missed all of that, he returns to his hometown for annual benefit concerts. Like with actor Morgan Freeman in Clarksdale, it is impossible to understate how much the legendary bluesman has helped prop up this town’s economy over the years. The museum, which opened in 2008, traces King’s luminous career along with the civil rights movement. The reviews were so spectacular that tour buses loaded with European blues fans began to show up, creating more business for those already here and encouraging others, like Blue Biscuit owner Trish Berry, to create new ones. It all started when, desperate for ways to revive the town, local restaurateur Evelyn Roughton and others came up with the idea for a museum in King’s name. “We needed a museum. We needed to honor him,” Roughton said. After four years of deliberation, serious talks began and the town raised enough money to lure a federal grant and to get it built. It was an immediate success, though the recession has slowed down the influx of tourists. Now, on most days, Roughton can look around downtown and see the effects of that investment by counting the strangers on the street. Roughton is the owner of The Crown, a lunch spot in the center of the business district that serves Delta foods with a French influence. It’s renowned throughout the Delta as a gathering place for both ladies who lunch and “hunters in their camouflage. They always wipe their feet so we are perfectly happy with a little mud on their clothes,” Roughton said. Her smoked catfish pate won the Best Hors D’Oeuvre Award in the 1990 International Fancy Food Show in New York, and samples are always on display on an antique table in the gift shop that adjoins the café. “We tied Delta cuisine, specifically catfish, with French cuisine,” Roughton said. She is a
Trish Berry opened the Blue Biscuit across the street from the B.B. King Musuem. Photo by Thomas Graning
huge supporter of using the ugliest fish in the world, even at a more upscale restaurant such as hers. “You can use catfish!” Roughton said. Roughton has always been exposed to a Delta culture with a taste for the finer things in life, and for flavors more sophisticated than fried foods and field peas. Indianola is, after all, also home to another national icon besides B.B. King: Craig Claiborne, food editor at The New York Times for 29 years and widely regarded as the father of restaurant criticism. His mother, Kathleen, ran a boarding house in town for years, where she earned a reputation for European-inspired fare as well as Southern classics. Throughout his globe-trotting career, her son wrote about the cuisines of his childhood with no less enthusiasm than his more worldly discoveries. That appreciation for good food, both humble and high-class, is evident all over town. Besides the Crown, there is Nola, a hot night spot serving steak and seafood dishes as well as fancy burgers and such in a restored old movie theater, and Gin Mill Galleries, a combination gift store, restaurant and music venue in a restored cotton gin next to the museum. Lost Pizza – a wildly successful small chain specializing in Delta-inspired pies like “The Lucille” in honor of King’s most famous guitar – took root here next to the co-founder’s parents’ popular dairy bar/café, Pea Soup’s Lott-A-Freeze, a nostalgic favorite. Right along U.S. Highway 82 is the Indianola Pecan House, specializing in pecan treats of every variety.
Koolaid pickles soak on the counter of a Double Quick gas station in Clarksdale.
they’re sweet,” said Cyndi Young, who works behind the counter at a Clarksdale Double Quick, where the Koolickles are on display in a jar, where the addicts can spot them. On this day, the flavor is green apple, the shade a fluorescent green. Sitting at a table in his dining room, Sledge explained that a Koolickle starts out life like any other pickle, but after soaking in a brine of double-strength Kool-Aid and cups of sugar, they take on their distinctive flavor. “The texture of the pickle is the same, it just picks up the Kool-Aid flavor,” said Sledge. “You know they’re ready by their color. The color is like blood.” In small Delta towns, you can find them at the corner Double Quick, or if you know a little more of the local scene, you can stop in at a neighbor’s for a bloody red fruit punch or neongreen apple pickle spear to go with your bag of flaming hot Cheetos and grape Faygo. During the Delta blues season, you can get your pickle fix at food stands like Detective Sledge’s that pop up along the highways leading into Clarksdale. No one quite knows when the Koolickle craze started, but Sledge figures that it started south of Clarksdale in Leland. They burst into national notoriety in 2007, when John T. Edge, author and director of the Ole Miss-based Southern Foodways Alliance, wrote about them in The New York Times. “Depending on your palate and perspective,” Edge wrote, “they are either the worst thing to happen to pickles since plastic brining barrels or a brave new taste sensation to be celebrated.” The pucker of the pickles is something that suits the variety of tastes in the predominantly African-American community in the
Delta. “(Kool-Aid pickles) are just like the flaming hot Cheetos,” said Valeria Jones, manager of the same Clarksdale Double Quick. “It’s the sweet and the vinegar they like,” she said. “You get both tastes all in one package,” said Young. Sledge remembers a time when pregnant women pushed peppermints into pickle spears or kids sprinkled dry Kool-Aid on their pickles to get the distinctive flavor well before the marinated variety came into vogue. “I used to think it was just a women’s and children’s food, but you’ve got a lot of men eating them too,” Sledge said. Vendors like Sledge make a small pile of money selling the pickles to tourists and locals alike alongside other Delta specialties like chili burgers and Ro-Tel fries, sort of a Delta version of Nachos where fries are smothered in melted Velveeta and canned tomatoes shot through with green chilies. “I’m lucky to get out there (to his food stand) two times a month with my schedule, but the pickles sell out every time,” said Sledge. “One time people thought there was a roadblock in front of my stand, there were so many cars waiting to turn in.” The Indianola- based Double Quick convenience store chain has been taking its share of the profits, too, by selling the pickles since 2007, with some stores now displaying posters calling them “Pickoolas.” The pickles are made fresh at each store and left to marinate before being sold for 50 cents per half. The sales became so profitable, that Double Quick applied for a trademark. Sledge sat down with me to reveal 10 simple steps to make my own Kool-Aid pickles. Recipe on next page.
Design by Elizabeth Beaver
Police detective Charles Sledge mixes up a new batch.
CHINA Thanks to a local girl and a Hong Kong-trained chef, Mai Little China is proving that a Chinese restaurant can do big things in this old cotton town known more for Italian restaurants and hearty steaks. Story by Camille Mullins
Hand rolling spring rolls for the buffet at Mai Little China. Photo by Katie Williamson
ucked away in a nondescript shopping center, next door to a Sherwin Williams paint store, Mai Little China regularly draws a bustling crowd for lunch. White and blue collar workers belly up to two buffet tables – one with the ubiquitous southern smorgasbord of fried chicken, black-eyed peas and the like and the other with egg rolls, stir fry and lo mein. Mai Little China is not the only Chinese buffet in town. What makes it unique is the story it tells. It is a tale of Chinese immigrants flocking to the Delta to plant new roots. And something else. A love story. The marriage of Cathy and Matthew Mai led to the marriage of their food cultures in a restaurant that gives new hope to Delta Chinese who for years have been watching their children leave the region for greener pastures. It begins with Cathy’s mother, who fled China at the age of 29 when Japan invaded during World War Two. She moved to America, where her best friend’s uncle ran a grocery store in the Mississippi Delta, a place where many Chinese had immigrated nearly a century ago — first to pick cotton, then, typically, to open grocery stores and send for relatives on the mainland. There were numerous Chinese groceries in Greenwood, though not nearly so many as the 52 once scattered across Greenville. Soon, despite the language barrier, Cathy’s mom opened her own grocery store, Mark’s Market, located right on the border between Greenwood’s black and white communities and determined to serve both. At first, she had to point to the items on the shelves but her customers eventually taught her English by telling her the names for each food item. Every night, she would ask Cathy what she wanted for dinner. “Whether she knew how to make it or not, we would do it,” Cathy says. “We would get flour all over the walls. She never fussed and never cared. And if it didn’t turn out we would just throw it out and start over.” It was her mom who first made her
Customers see an English menu but in the kitchen, the menu is in Chinese. Photo by Katie Williamson
The idea behind Cantonese food is to use spices to enhance the natural flavors of the food. Photo by Katie Williamson
feel food was special. And it was her mom who introduced her to her husband. Matthew’s grandmother and Cathy’s mother were friends. Once, Cathy accompanied the grandmother to China for a visit. Cathy and Matthew met in Hong Kong and Cathy thought nothing of it. No sparks. Nothing. But Matthew was interested. He was living alone and there was something familiar about this Chinese-American girl from the Deep South. He started calling. “I was not interested in a long distance relationship but he kept calling, so I said
‘I’ll talk to him, I guess,’ but I definitely didn’t plan it or expect it,” laughs Cathy. Like most Chinese in the Delta, Cathy is a Christian. She sent Matthew, whose Chinese name is Weifu, a Chinese translation of the Bible, not realizing that if the communist government knew he had it, he could have been arrested. Taking pains to avoid detection, Matthew read it. He was impressed with the high moral tone of Christianity and realized that it said something good about Cathy as well. It changed his life. He quit smoking and believes it
A lunchtime crowd rushes in aroundnoon to consume the likes of this Chinese buffet. Photo by Katie Williamson
ultimately made him a better person. They spoke for over 60 hours a month for one year, Matthew says. They tried not to look at their phone bills. At first, it was just a friendship. But finally, Cathy went back to China where they realized they had a lot more in common than just friendship. After a three-week stay, a justice of the peace married them in China and they began the arduous process of petitioning to get Matthew into the United States. It took 15 months. The transition was not always easy. â€œFrom Hong Kong to here is a
big difference,â€? Matthew said. He had grown up in a family of farmers, tending to rice and sugar cane. When he got out of school he went to work as a chef, the first in his family. He had gotten interested in cooking when he was seven and experimented a lot at home as he grew up. One day, he entered a contest to pick workers for restaurants in Hong Kong. Out of 300 entrants, Matthew was one of nine chosen. He learned his trade in an intense hotel restaurant that seated 900 to 1,000 people during a day that lasted from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. It was while he was
living in Hong Kong that he met Cathy. One of the things they had in common, he was delighted to learn, was a passion for food. Her mother had briefly run a restaurant in Greenwood and her great grandfather once had a restaurant in the Northeast. It is his 100-year-old family egg roll recipe that they use today at Mai Little China. It was Matthewâ€™s dream to open a restaurant here. After all, he was a chef, trained in Hong Kong, a place where the chefs are legend. So they gave it a shot and found out they were a pretty good team at the business.
Mathew Mai heats things up in the kitchen of Mai Little China. Photo by Jared Burleson
Chicken wings frying in Mai Little Chinaâ€™s kitchen. Photo by Katie Williamson
A family enjoys the upscale night time cuisine at Mai Little China. Photo by Phillip Waller
“I think we feed each other,” Cathy said, “because he was one of the first people in his family to get into cooking and I’m probably one of the last.” “His training and my experience, together, is just pretty powerful. We have the same taste but we also have different tastes in things. Sometimes I might like something a little different and it might make his better or vice versa.” Cathy designed the place, first searching southern states for just the right furniture, equipment and china and eventually finding what she wanted in New York. She decorated the walls with paintings of koi fish from a local artist. She helps out at the restaurant when she can, but her three children and a job in the payroll department at the county courthouse keep her busy. Mai Little China has endured for six years now and Cathy guesses that one reason she and Matthew work so well together is that they are both of Cantonese descent. The idea behind Cantonese food is to use spices to enhance – rather than mask – the natural flavors of the food.
Matthew is in charge of the kitchen, cooking all the American food and most of the Chinese food. Still, it has been a challenge. In Hong Kong, restaurant owners employ chefs to hire kitchen workers and buy all the food and the owner handles the business side. Here, qualified cooks and other workers were not easy to find. Matthew had to do it all. His mother works with him. It was important to Cathy and Matthew to draw as diverse a clientele as possible. Thus, diners can choose an Akaushi steak for $100. Or the BBQ Pork & Shrimp Egg Rolls for less than $10. They serve a buffet at lunch “because you only have an hour and if you go somewhere to eat that already takes up 10 to 15 minutes of your hour. Our purpose is not to offer you a cheap lunch; it’s to offer you a fast lunch where you can get in, get your food and get back to work without being late,” Cathy said. On most days, it seems to work. Lawyers, courthouse secretaries, construction workers and retirees rush in, fill up on their choice of buffet, and rush out.
For dinner, the candles come out, the lights go down and the tablecloths are in place. The hurried pace disappears. Mai Little China transforms into a much more elegant venue. As a child, Cathy insisted on variety when it came to the food that she ate. That mentality has carried over into Mai Little China. After all, how many restaurants in the Delta offer escargots? It can be seen in the desserts as well – crème brulee and bananas foster. The chef’s specials include steak au poivre, a ribeye encrusted with cracked peppercorns in a brandy cream sauce; macadamia mahi mahi; Catfish Mai with jumbo lump crabmeat, shrimp and prosciutto in a wine cream sauce; poached or braised duck; jumbo grilled barbecue shrimp and much more. And it is at night, in the more subdued, perhaps even romantic setting that if you are alert, if you watch closely, you might catch a quick glimpse of the chef smiling at his business partner.
Design by Katie Williamson
The busy lunchtime parking lot is reflected in the glass door to Mai Little China. Photo by Katie Williamson
Authentic slot machine on display at the Tunica Museum.
Gambling on Success When the big casinos plopped down in Tunica, two favorite local restaurants reaped an accidental bonanza. Story by Erin Scott Photos by Thomas Graning
t is easy to be lulled to sleep when driving up Highway 61 across the Delta, its rows of cotton and soybeans stretching endlessly to the horizon. Then, rising unexpectedly in the distance, a Goliath appears: garishly lit casinos towering over the flat, empty landscape. Inside these smoky palaces, slot machines ding and time seems suspended as people gamble paychecks at poker, craps and blackjack tables. There are two ways to measure time here, jokes Tunica Museum director Richard
Taylor, “BC and everything after.” BC stands for before casinos, which started arriving in 1992. Everything after is The Boom. Before The Boom, this was one of the poorest counties in the country, home to “Sugar Ditch,” an open sewage ditch along which lived people in leaky, ratinfested shacks. Jesse Jackson took one look and called it “an American Ethiopia.” The only gambling was at Harold (HardFaced) Clanton’s juke house craps tables, which some say made him a rare thing indeed – a black millionaire in the Delta. Tunica residents are proud of their gambling history. Clanton was so popular that the best blues artists in the country
played his place, he was known as “the black sheriff” and his huge funeral was held at a local high school gymnasium. Today, over at Harrah’s, one of nine casinos in what has become the third largest gambling location in America, Paula Deen’s life-size image smiles big and invites gamblers to eat at her buffet and stay to play. But many gamblers are drawn to two historic local restaurants that have stood the test of time. They have become beacons of authenticity, a constant for locals to hang on to. For decades, locals and visitors alike have flocked to the Blue and White, a classic American diner that started out in 1924 as a
The Blue and White is a classic American diner that started out as a gas station.
George McGaha and Ben Melton catching up at lunchtime in Tunica.
gas station and bus stop on U.S. Highway 61, “the Blues Highway.” About 10 miles north in Robinsonville, now known as Tunica Resorts, the same mix of people frequent the Hollywood Cafe, where the famous piano referenced in the song “Walking In Memphis” still sits in a place that touts itself as the creator of the fried dill pickle, now a southern staple. Walk in these two local landmarks and you’ll see tourists passing through from all over the world. But they are also gathering places full of local history. Both, like Tunica, have reaped a windfall from the influx of casinos. A big herd of
earth movers rolled into the cotton fields north of town and when the dust cleared, 6,000 hotel rooms had sprouted. Along with the casinos, golf resorts, outlet mall and airport, more than 16,000 gaming jobs materialized. The money was a godsend. New businesses began to open and brought new energy to what had looked like one more little town slowly shriveling. To step into the busy Blue and White at lunchtime is to step back in time. You can still see hints of the original Pure Oil gas station design – the canopy out front, the white-painted brick, the high-pitched roof. Gingham curtains
hang in the windows. The floors are still blue and white tile, the table tops are Formica, customers perch on chrome swivel stools and chairs cushioned with blue leatherette, and the walls are plastered with faded news stories and black and white photographs, reminders of days long ago, when cotton really was king. You can’t settle into your chair good without the friendly waitresses greeting you with molasses-sweet drawls and offering coffee. The menu hasn’t changed much either since it moved to its present location some 75 years ago. Fried chicken, fried catfish, pies topped with meringue, fried green tomatoes, chicken and dumplings and the like are still standard fare. Turnip greens, made fresh daily, are renowned as some of the region’s best. “We have three generations working in our kitchen. We have a grandmother who works with her daughter-in-law and her grandson,” said manager Charlotte Ming. “People have grown up with the Blue and White and it was always an icon as far as people who lived south of here” along U.S. 61, says Ming, who has commuted from Southaven for the last five years. “Anytime they had to go Memphis — that was the shopping mecca of the Delta — they always planned their trip around stopping for the Blue and White, whether it was for breakfast on their way in, or for dinner on their way out.” Nowadays, the Blue and White draws gamblers looking for home cooking, along with cowboys and spectators who flock to the frequent events at the new 48,000-square-foot arena that hosts rodeos, horse shows and livestock exhibitions. “We get a lot of traffic from the casinos and a lot of word of mouth,” says Ming. The small town vibe, though, remains strong as ever. Ming doubts there’s a resident in town who doesn’t have some early memory of the Blue and White. “I have customers that say it was the first place I ever ate a hamburger, and in our day and time it’s just baffling. They’ll say, ’Yeah I was 16 years old and I sat in here.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You didn’t have a hamburger ‘til you were 16!’ It was a totally different way of life and it’s all seen it right here.” Dick Taylor, a long-time regular, likes the fact that the walls are covered with history, something revered in Tunica. In fact, over at the museum, he hosts what’s known as The Tuesday Morning Club, a collection of local elders who gather to
drink coffee and chat about local history. “We don’t talk about politics or religion or current events,” Taylor grinned. “Remember a rule of the Delta: things can change as long it stays the same.” At The Hollywood, local farmers eat lunch next to the gamblers, who like to sample the house specialty, which has appeared on the Travel Channel and in countless newspaper stories. The story goes that the dish was hatched on the spot late one night in 1970 when a drunk came in to sober up and the food was almost gone. Tait Selden sliced up some dill pickles, battered them up and threw them into a fryer. A legend was born. Now they go through a five-gallon tub of pickles a week. The restaurant itself had a humble start. Originally in the tiny hamlet of Hollywood, the place started as a venue for a local band, the Turnrow Cowboys, to play. After a fire destroyed the original, it moved to its current location, a quaint 1922 farm commissary. Through the years, people operated a cafe there, but the big draw was the musicians who played on evenings and weekends. In 2007, John Almond
and Michael Young bought the building after Almond watched a group of Illinois customers snap pictures of a mouse. They were feeding
“We get a lot of traffic from the casinos and a lot of word of mouth.” - CHARLOTTE MING
crackers to the rodent and it kept bravely returning through a hole in the baseboards. “It just wasn’t being run the way we thought it should be.” The two men then renovated everything,
including the kitchen. The outside still bears the unmistakable design of the blocky old commissary. Inside, you can still see the lines on the exposed brick wall where the old shelves used to be. After a wedding reception, they held onto the decorations: bare tree branches strung with twinkling lights. Belly up to the bar and you’ll see too many rings to count. It’s made from what Almond estimates is a three- or four hundred-year-old slab of lumber. Nearby, left over from yet another event, is a HOLLYWOOD sign like the one that sits prominently on the hillside above Los Angeles. If you can’t bring yourself to try the pickles, there are plenty of other options: Fried catfish, shrimp or chicken; fried frog legs, burger, BLTs with fried green tomatoes. At night, they serve steaks, shrimp cocktails and wine. iPad Extra: Download the Deeper South App to see diners wolf down at the Blue and White in Tunica
Home cooking keeps customers coming 119 back to the Blue and White. Photo by Thomas Graning
Lit by tiny lights, the Hollywood sign hangs behind the bar at the restaurant of the same name.
It wouldnâ€™t be a meal if a platter of onion rings wasnâ€™t on the table.
The lunchtime crowd is after southern staples: cornbread, chicken and all the fixings.
Richard Taylor talks about colorful local history at the Tunica Museum.
At the Hollywood, pins on a big map of the nation represent the home towns of diners over the years.
Sharing food at the Hollywood. The restaurant has a very varied client base that includes gamblers, tourists and locals.
Almond says the nearby casinos have been a big help, even though the restaurant has “a very varied” client base. “We are on the Travel Channel and Food Network. People will be in the casino and go up to their room with nothing to do and be watching television and they see us and call asking ‘are you really here’ and we’ll say, ‘yeah.’“ Almond says. “There are some people from England who come and stay awhile in the casinos — older people. They’ll stay three weeks and they’ll eat in the fine dining and they’ll want to play card games and come here.” “You can tell the casinos are important because the casinos are not busy in December, January, February and we’re not either,” says Almond. By the bathrooms, at the back of the building, he points to a cork board with a U.S. map and a world map. He added the world map after tourists from overseas kept writing their hometowns on slips of paper and pinning them to the board. Some come for the stops on the Blues Trail
“There are two ways to measure time here, BC and everything after. BC stands for before casinos, which started arriving in 1992. Everything after is The Boom.” - RICHARD TAYLOR
or because they have heard The Hollywood mentioned in “Walking in Memphis.” “We are trying to get music people can count on for the weekends. We have two or three blues guys — Muleman Massey from Senatobia and Terry “Harmonica” Bean comes in here and of course we have the Turnrow Cowboys,” Almond says. John Almond is grateful for all that casino traffic. So is Dick Taylor, who knows that this area has always been rich in gambling of one sort or another. The money that Hardface Clanton pumped into the local economy, of course, was nothing like what pours daily through the big casinos. And you were never sure just how long he would last. “He had very nice cars and they were all very fast and when I asked him about it, he would say, ‘Well, there are times when I need to get away in a hurry.’”
Design by Petre Thomas and Ben Hurston
Melissa Townsend The editor who helped deify Delta food. Story by CAMILLE MULLINS Photos by DJ JONES As editor of the popular Delta Magazine, Melissa Townsend has familiarized readers from Memphis to Jackson with the best food and the best restaurants in the region. She was born and raised in the Delta, moved off to Chicago where she leaped into the restaurant scene, took cooking classes, then returned home to get married and fall in love anew with Delta food.
Where were you born and raised? Tell me a little about your childhood. I was born in Greenwood and grew up in Indianola, where my father’s family had the local car dealership. We lived in town and ran free around the neighborhood where we have close family friends. I lived in a swimming pool or on my bicycle.
Was food a big part of your childhood? Food is a big part of everything we do here in the Delta. Both my grandmothers cooked three meals a day. My mother was an amazing cook. She cooked balanced meals every night. Rarely did we eat Kraft macaroni and cheese and TV dinners as children. We had steaks and salads, fresh sweet corn and garden tomatoes and farmraised catfish. Only later, when I grew up, did I really appreciate the type of foods that we had in the Delta.
What is your favorite food memory? My maternal grandmother’s fried chicken was a huge treat and my paternal grandmother’s corn bread was amazing. To this day I cannot emulate either one. We had steaks quite often. My grandfather was a seed dealer and raised cattle on the side, so we had a freezer full of grass-fed beef, locally raised on his land. Cheese grits are probably my favorite food on earth. I loved them as a child but it grew into an obsession as an adult. It’s a Sunday-type thing; I will make a pot of cheese grits with extra-sharp cheddar, garlic and Tabasco.
Growing up, what were your favorite places to eat out and what did you order? In the Delta a restaurant is usually 30 miles away. But in my hometown of Indianola we had a restaurant called Angie’s which was a spin-off of the old Labella’s café, that dated back to the early 1900s. They were famous for their “floating” hamburger with chili and slaw. I was lucky enough to have grown up in the last part of their legacy in the last location, so the old drivein was still there. The tables were covered in red-andwhite wool oilcloth with a Chianti bottle with a candle in the middle that drips different-colored wax down the sides. I always ordered a floating hamburger. There’s history in it. I call Highway 82 “hallowed ground for the floating hamburger.” You can still order one today in Indianola on Highway 82 at Pea Soup’s Lotta Freeze and most any place west of Indianola that serves chiliand-slaw burgers. And then there was also Lillo’s in Leland, 10 miles away. That was our favorite Delta Italian restaurant. We probably ate more baskets of Saltine cracker spread with pats of butter from those peel-away squares on the table, but there we experienced oregano and distinct flavors in their famous pizzas.
Where else have you lived besides the Delta? I moved straight from Oxford to Chicago and lived there for 7 ½ years. I guess you could say I migrated north. Lord knows, my mother didn’t want me to marry a Yankee! Oddly enough I started dating someone from the Delta. I thought I would move south eventually, maybe New Orleans or Austin, but he wanted to move home. So we ended up moving back to where our families were and started our careers all over again.
What flavors/ingredients do you most associate with the Delta? Hot tamales are definitely a Delta tradition. You primarily have hot tamales with steaks. That’s truly Delta. In Greenwood, pompano is tradition. So each
town or little area may have their traditions. If we had visitors coming into town and were going out to dinner, I would feel the need to give the history of each dining establishment because that is what makes Delta cuisine unique. What makes our food culture unique is the experience that you have when you taste it. Dining on broiled steaks, shrimp, tamales and skillet fries sopped in the steak grease at Doe’s Eat Place is not an experience you’ll likely find elsewhere. In Greenwood, fried onion rings are served in the historic white-tablecloth dining establishments, behind Prohibition-era drawn curtains with a glass of wine. Old traditions die hard in the Delta.
Have you always been interested in food? What triggered that interest? Most of us acquire an interest in food from the women in our family. For me, it was when I moved to Chicago and found this entire world of food that I was exposed to. It was kind of interesting while you are coming of age and you’re out hitting the city restaurants and discovering wines and sharing that with friends. I started taking a cooking classes twice a month at a little neighborhood place for about three years. By the time I was married, I already had every piece of cooking equipment you could own. I was out learning but at the same time I was just beginning to appreciate the foods that I grew up on. I would have grits mail-ordered by the case to Chicago. I couldn’t buy a can of Ro-Tel tomatoes at the grocery store either so my mom would send them to me.
have walked, so that’s just our culture. I am on the road a lot and have noticed in the tiniest of towns there may be one little Quick Stop that is literally their only source of food. There is not a grocery store, no restaurants. So they are all lined out the door to order fried everything because that’s all that is available to them.
Do you have any suggestions for how to reverse this trend? Continuing to educate is the only thing we can do. It’s a challenge for even the most educated person with a decent income. You really have to plan. If you are going to cook and have nutritious meals with fruits and vegetables, you have to plan ahead, particularly in a place where you may have to go to three stores for all the ingredients. More and more people are growing their own food now, too.
How would you describe the food of the Delta to a first-time visitor? I would explain it as a melding of cultures, although not terribly exotic. In the home there’s a Creole influence. I grew up with the smell of onions and celery and bell peppers, the holy trinity of creole cooking. We have a Mexican influence with the hot tamales. We have the Italian influence and Greek influence. In the home, everything revolves around the hospitality and entertaining.
What do you think is the chief cause of obesity in the Delta? The cause is simply lack of education, which translates into low income, meaning if someone is hungry and they don’t have much money, then they are going to choose a honey bun at the grocery store for 40 cents. There is no regard for health. We don’t move a lot. People get in their car and they drive. After living in a city and then coming back to the Delta I have noticed that more than anything. I’m like, ‘Why are we driving three blocks to go eat downtown?’ In a city we would
Townsend at the Alluvian Hotel in Greenwood.
experience. And when people visit they crave and they find the authentic regional foods of the Delta that are simplistic and nostalgic.
What does our food say about the region and its culture?
Born in Greenwood, Townsend boasts that the Delta has “the most beautiful sunsets on earth.”
Do you think the Delta’s dying? I think it’s the opposite. On paper the demographics have changed but from a tourism standpoint it is night-and-day from 10 years ago. There are a lot of people out trying to keep the blues alive. You see downtown Clarksdale and it’s authentic; it’s like walking onto a movie set. We have one of the most unique places in America to visit. I love to see someone from the outside come in. A lot of Teach for America teachers fall in love with the Delta and stay here or move away and want to come back. We take our culture for granted in many ways, the charms and the little things that we do have. The key is being able to find a job. That’s not the easiest thing. But from a tourism standpoint I think it has exploded.
Why do you think that is? Many of the local towns, less than 10 years ago, finally realized that we have something here. We needed to preserve it, we needed to celebrate it, and we needed to open the doors. The Delta has always had a thriving arts community and literary legacy and we have the most beautiful sunsets on earth. It’s flat. We can see everything. Harvest season is a magical time here. The Delta is an experience is what it is.
Do you think the food helps boost the tourism industry? In a big way, yes. If you want to come and see the blues, you will want some barbecue, too – maybe try some fried dill pickles or catfish. In many towns that means tourism tax dollars that are helping support new, state-of-the-art attractions like the B.B. King Museum. To me, food is 90 percent of the traveling
It tells a story from the 1927 flood of the Mexican migrant worker that gave a recipe for hot tamales and a tradition was born. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have influenced us with Gulf shrimp and pompano. The fact that larger-than-life steaks are so famous in the Delta kind of speaks to our exuberant lifestyle, too.
Through your career, have you tried to preserve our food ways?
I definitely think I have played a small part in preserving our culinary heritage over the last 10 years through Delta Magazine. Through the years we’ve celebrated everything from old-fashioned cheese straws and milk punch to 1950s-era foods from Gourmet in the Delta and classic cookbooks, to farm-raised catfish. I lean on regional chefs, caterers and home cooks but occasionally create and test new spins of old favorites for Delta Magazine recipes, such as green bean bundles cooked on the grill. They’re amazing! The Delta Magazine Cookbook, which I produced, is one big celebration of both Delta classic and modern cuisine. I’ve never eaten more pimento cheese in my life.
What makes Delta Magazine so successful? There’s a common denominator. We have subscribers in almost every state. Increasingly we are seeing the Delta become a destination, so we have picked up a lot of those subscribers. The thing that is unique about Delta Magazine is that our appeal is not to just one demographic or age group. We also have a lot of male readers. It’s not just a girly, social, flower-decorating magazine. We do a lot of in-depth history or entertainment features that sometimes take a year to produce. In this day and age there are so many social magazines where you just flip pages and look at people at parties. We work really hard on our journalism and our photography. We know exactly who we are and what we want to be. In a NPR radio interview I was asked to categorize Delta Magazine, a publication with home interiors in one section and a spread on a Delta blues artist or funky shack in the next. But that’s our culture. That’s the Delta.
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