By Debi Lander
Newspaper reporter David Cohn is credited with the saying, “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” Other sources say the Delta reaches from southern Illinois to the southeastern tip of Louisiana, covering more than three million acres. Yet, native son and author Willie Morris describes the region as “half hills, half Delta and all crazy.”
Like the region’s abundant natural resources, the Delta supports rich and diverse cultural traditions, like hunting, fishing and the Blues. Over the centuries, American Indians, African Americans, and immigrants intermingled to form a new culture, one found only in the Delta. While the expanse might be hard to define, it offers distinctive cuisine. I decided to take a tasting tour.
I flew to Memphis and made my first stop in nearby DeSoto County, Mississippi, at Memphis BBQ. Melissa Cookston, a female pitmaster and seven-time world barbecue champion, owns the so-named restaurant. No surprise, her succulent ribs and tangy dry-rubbed wings put me in finger-licking heaven. If you’re a BBQ fan, this restaurant is a must.
I then drove on to Greenwood to take a class at the Viking Cooking School based on the hit movie, ”The Help.” Many scenes from that movie were filmed in Greenwood and those gorgeous Viking appliances are manufactured there. Rest assured, the Southern-style cornbread, greens, and chicken featured on the class menu turned out great. Thankfully, Minny’s chocolate pie did not contain any secret ingredients.
I toured Simmons Catfish Farm to learn about farm raising the species. Personally, I never choose catfish because I consider them bottom feeders; however, farm-raised catfish feed off food sprinkled on top of the water. To taste some, I tried a traditional local restaurant: Hines Grocery. It’s the Delta way to dine in a “grocery store restaurant” and pick up local specialties on the way out. Mmm. I was converted. One bite of the delicate, fried catfish brought juicy moistness to my mouth, yet tasted not at all fishy.
Vicksburg came next, home of the National Park Vicksburg Battlefield, the most-visited tourist attraction in the state. But I was searching out food and let me say, I wish I could return. The fried chicken at Walnut Hills Restaurant was sublime, the best I’ve ever tasted. Seriously. Plus, the array of southern sides pushed the meal over the top.
Lastly, I ventured to the heart of the Delta, Greenville, home of the Delta Hot Tamale Festival. Tamales are traditional Delta fare made from inexpensive ingredients combined with hot sauce to stretch the budget and please the heat-loving palate. I’m not a tamale fan, but the crowds said otherwise. This festival makes an ideal place to compare various restaurants and recipes.
My final taste treat came from the 1947 original Doe’s Eat Place, famous for outstanding steaks (and tamales, too), but also for its ramshackle location and unpretentious service. I can’t compare it to any other restaurant. Humble Doe’s attracted the state dignitaries who came for the festival as well as movie star Jessica Lange. They all sat at cramped tables eating off mix-matched china. Guests are served house salad from a gigantic mixing bowl. Steaks measure about seven inches thick, and I’m not exaggerating. They’re cooked under a broiler hovering around 600 degrees. You can also choose shrimp that’s swims in butter topped with a homemade dry rub. Doe’s ranks as an unforgettable dining experience.
Indeed, my trip to Mississippi became one-hundred percent crazy, but as they say, “So Delta.”
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander