Delta delights: Southern cooking marinated in history
ATLANTA – Artists and writers draw inspiration from the time-frozen landscapes of the Mississippi Delta. Roots music fans frequent those lonesome highways to feel the spirits of bluesmen past.
I go for the food.
The Delta is a poor area with a rich history of good eating. Within the borders of this fertile floodplain – the Mississippi River to the west, a ridgeline of bluffs to the east — exists a strain of southern dining outside the barbecue and meat-and-three-vegetable standards. Homemade hot tamales and Kool-Aid pickles, sold in convenience stores. Gulf seafood, served in curtained dining rooms. Catfish, deep-fried with hush puppies or whipped into pate and smeared on crackers.
But finding these culinary gems can be a challenge. Most of the places that serve them don’t advertise, and some don’t even bother to put up signs to indicate they sell food at all. In this gregarious culture, word of mouth travels fast.
Outsiders hungry for an authentic taste of the Delta won’t be disappointed, though, so long as they listen to the locals. Here are three dining experiences that I most associate with this fascinating region, and where to find the best examples.
Greenwood is hundreds of miles from saltwater, yet a couple of restaurants in this weathered cotton town (the setting for the movie “The Help”) pride themselves on serving this hard-to-come-by Gulf delicacy.
I first tasted it in the mid-1970s while visiting Greenwood natives for the weekend. A group of us went to dinner at Lusco’s (722 Carrollton Ave., Greenwood, Miss., 662-453-5365), which has occupied the same spot since FDR’s inauguration. I ordered the pompano because I’d never heard of it. Served whole in a pool of vinegar-laced butter sauce, its sweet-tasting white flesh bearing a crispy skin slashed with a cross-hatch was one of the most sublime tastes that had ever crossed my unworldly lips.
I couldn’t forget the setting either: a dumpy old grocery store on the wrong side of the tracks with a Coca-Cola sign above the door. The memorabilia-filled lobby functioned like a home living room, where guests could hobnob and sip wine brought in paper bags, before being escorted to small curtained dining rooms, each with a buzzer on the wall for summoning the server.
More than 30 years later, I returned to Lusco’s – and started asking questions. This is what I learned: Charles “Papa” Lusco and his wife Marie were Sicilian immigrants who came to Greenwood during Prohibition. Besides groceries, wealthy cotton planters came to the store for Papa Lusco’s homemade hooch. Often they would bring back fresh seafood from trips to New Orleans, and the Lusco women would prepare and serve it in private curtained rooms in the back. Now all customers can dine on pompano – or any of their other seafood or steak specialties – in their own private space.
Pompano also appears on the menu at Giardina’s (314 Howard St., Greenwood, Miss. 662-455-4227, www.giardinas.com ), another Greenwood institution with deep Sicilian roots. It began as a Depression-era sandwich shop, and today it’s the swankiest restaurant in town, occupying the ground floor of the Alluvian, a luxurious boutique hotel owned by the Viking Range Corporation. Viking founder Fred Carl Jr. is a native son, and his fortunes are responsible for the flagship Viking cooking school and other popular tourist draws that have revitalized the once-dying business district. Along with steak and seafood, the menu boasts Italian specialties from the Giardina family files, served in the public dining room, courtyard, or in private curtained booths.
— Hot tamales
These cigar-shaped cornmeal dumplings filled with spicy meat are Delta icons, beloved throughout the region. They are sold in take-out stands, mom-and-pop cafes and even steak houses and bistros as appetizers.
Moist throughout and dripping with oily, spicy juices, they are typically served with saltines and hot sauce on the side. The origins are fuzzy, but one plausible story has Mexican migrant workers introducing tamales to African-American sharecroppers in the cotton fields in the early 1900s. They in turn adapted those techniques and passed them down to offspring.
Doe’s Eat Place (502 Nelson St., Greenville, Miss. 662-334-3315, 662-254-8081. www.doeseatplace.com ), a famed steak house in a dilapidated old grocery store in Greenville, is where many travelers get their tamale initiation. There they are served as an appetizer before the Porterhouses and T-bones arrive, using a recipe Dominick “Big Doe” Signa, the son of Italian immigrants, acquired in the1930s.
Even Ground Zero Blues Club (0 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, Miss. 662-621-9009. www.groundzerobluesclub.com), the former cotton-grading warehouse in Clarksdale that Delta native Morgan Freeman and business partner Bill Luckett converted into a juke joint for the masses, serves locally made tamales for lunch, either rolled in husks or cut in hunks, battered and deep-fried.
Head toward the Mississippi River levee town of Rosedale to find the holy grail of hot tamales, the White Front Cafe, aka Joe’s Hot Tamale Place (902 S. Main St., Rosedale, Miss. 662-759-3842). The late Joe Pope made and sold them for decades out of that white clapboard building and taught his method to other Delta vendors. Today, his sister, Barbara Pope, carries on his legacy. In 2011, the first culinary historic marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail was erected there to honor the tamale’s significance in blues music (Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot” is the best known tamale-inspired song.) At Delta Fast Food (701 S. Davis Ave., Cleveland, Miss. 662-846-8800) along U.S. 61, Gentle Lee Rainey serves the tamales he learned to make from his grandfather, who chopped cotton with Howlin’ Wolf and other blues greats on the nearby Dockery Plantation. Rainey also sells that other Delta oddity, Kool-Aid pickles: giant dills poked with holes and soaked in fruit-flavored powdered drink mix.
The Southern Foodways Alliance at the University of Mississippi has been collecting oral histories of these tamale vendors since 2005, and their Tamale Trail map (( www.tamaletrail.com ) is an excellent resource.
The Delta is a leading producer of farm-raised catfish, which are harvested in raised ponds atop soil where cotton once grew. Reliably fresh, deep-fried, cornmeal-coated fillets appear on both upscale and down-home menus. All-you-can-eat family-style catfish houses such as Larry’s Fish House (4238 MS 7 South, Itta Bena, Miss. 662-254-6001. www.larrysfishhouse.com ) are common, often run by farmers who own their own ponds. Each April, about 10,000 people descend upon the tiny town of Belzoni for the World Catfish Festival, where festivities include a catfish-eating contest, the crowning of the Catfish Queen, and a giant community catfish fry.
Hush puppies, those crunchy, onion-flecked orbs of fried cornmeal batter, are the requisite accompaniment. Most places these days rely on a pre-mixed product to accommodate the high demand. Senator’s Place (1028 S. Davis Ave. Cleveland, Miss. 662-846-7434. www.senatorsplace.com ), a cafeteria-style soul food restaurant in Cleveland, serves catfish on Fridays only, with outstanding hush puppies that owner Willie Simmons, a state senator, typically fries himself, with a batter mixed by hand.
While most Deltans like their catfish fried, there are alternatives. At The Crown/Taste of Gourmet (112 Front St., Indianola, Miss. 662-887-4522, 800-833-7731. www.tasteofgourmet.com ), a charming tea room near the B.B. King Blues Museum and Interpretive Center, the proprietors cater heavily to genteel ladies with catfish gratins, salads and just about every other preparation that does not involve a deep-fryer. The Crown also sells an addictive smoked catfish pate that once took top honors in the International Fancy Food Show in New York. It’s sold in the adjoining antique-decorated gift shop and by mail-order.