A Mississippi Delta culinary road trip, combines southern cuisine with Mississippi history for a delicious boomer travel adventure. My Itchy Travel Feet featured contributor, Debi Lander from ByLanderSea, takes us there.
Tasting my way through the Mississippi Delta
Newspaper reporter David Cohn is credited with the saying, “the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (Memphis) 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.”
Whatever the official map, the region’s abundant natural resources support rich and diverse cultural traditions, like hunting, fishing, gospel singing 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, the Delta offers flavorful and distinctive cuisine worth a visit. Let’s see what’s found on a Mississippi Delta culinary road trip.
Exploring the Mississippi Delta: Catfish & Cotton, BBQ & Blues
I took a circuitous route, starting and ending with a flight to Memphis, Tennessee, home to Graceland. I then picked up a ride and drove to nearby DeSoto County, Mississippi.
My first stop brought me to the famous Memphis Barbecue Company. Melissa Cookston, a female pitmaster and 7-time world barbecue champion owns the so-named restaurant. You might know her as the author of the cookbook: Smokin’ in the Boys Room.
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.
Learning about rice in the Mississippi Delta
On the way to Greenwood, Cotton Capital of the World, I passed, as you might expect, many cotton fields. I stopped at rural Two Brooks Rice Farm; an operation now worked by the family’s tenth generation. The farm isn’t typically open for tourists (but you can call for an appointment), and it wasn’t growing or harvest time.
Still, I saw the fields and learned about how they ecologically grow rice in the Mississippi Delta. Each kernel is planted, cultivated, ripened, threshed and winnowed, milled, and packaged on the farm.
Boomer Travel Tip
Extend your journey with a Natchez Trace road trip.
Only when I got home did I realize the treasure of the rice samples I received. I simply must rave about their products. To me, rice is typically a mere side dish for saucy concoctions like Indian and Chinese food, or more traditional favorites like beef stroganoff.
But, Two Brooks rice tastes far better than any other I have ever had. Each kernel plumps up but doesn’t stick together, and packs a powerful bite. There really is a difference. Happy to discover, I can order my rice online.
Enjoying a boutique hotel in Greenwood
By late afternoon, I arrived at the Alluvian Hotel in downtown Greenwood. The boutique property owes its name to the Delta being an alluvial plain, a level land created by mineral-rich soil deposited over centuries by the Mississippi River.
An old four-story building was transformed into a classy modern place. The leading actors in the movie The Help stayed there while filming in Greenwood.
My hip, almost masculine style room felt inviting, but the bar in the lobby truly called my name. Mixologists, not just bartenders, create outstanding cocktails using fire, smoke, and lots of different bitters.
It’s fun to just sit and watch them while you enjoy your own drink. The lounge often presents live music, another plus that draws a crowd.
Cooking southern at Viking Cooking School
Later, I took a class at the Viking Cooking School directly across the street. The kitchen was to die for, naturally featuring those gorgeous Viking ovens and refrigerators that are (surprise!) manufactured in Greenwood.
The class became a joint cooking effort with groups of three or four students working together on an assigned dish. The instructor roamed about helping us with various techniques.
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When all the items were prepared, we came together to eat, trying each other’s creations. Rest assured, the Southern-style cornbread, greens, mac n’ cheese, and fried chicken featured on the class menu turned out great. Thankfully, Minny’s chocolate pie (prepared ahead of time by the teacher) did not contain any secret ingredients.
Going fishing in Yazoo City
I moved on to Yazoo City, one of the oddest looking cities I’ve ever seen. A local resident tried to spice up the downtown and painted the old brick buildings in hues of Caribbean pink, green, and turquoise.
Strange indeed, but that’s the Delta! Yazoo City is also known for a blend of Blues and Gospel music called the Bentonia sound.
Nearby sit the aquifer fed ponds of Simmons Catfish Farm, one of the area’s largest employers. I stopped in to learn about farm raising the species. Personally, I never choose to eat catfish because I consider them bottom feeders, but perhaps I should have listened to Mark Twain, “The catfish is a plenty good enough fish for anyone.”
At Simmons, the catfish are farm-raised and feed off special fish food sprinkled on top of the water. I saw a group of men hauling out fish in large nets.
Amazingly, the processing plant did not smell fishy. How? The machines are hosed down multiple times a day. Simmons processes the catfish on site and ships them all over the country.
So, instead of farm to table eating, I thought I’d try some pond to table dining. To taste Simmons Catfish, I went to a traditional local restaurant: Hines Grocery. It’s a popular way to dine in the Delta – eat at 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.
The grocery section was intriguing, featuring their own smoked sausage like hot and mild to pineapple and brown sugar with pepper Jack Cheese. Hines also makes and sells fresh fried pork skins, rind-on bacon and hoop cheese by the slice. Be on the lookout for Koolickles in these stores, pickles soaked in Kool-Aid, another Delta favorite.
Experiencing history and southern cuisine at Vicksburg
Vicksburg came next, home of the Vicksburg National Military Park, the most- visited tourist attraction in the state. By all means, hire a guide to drive your car around the many trails within the park.
You’ll stop at monuments, and he’ll explain the lengthy campaign. Our guide was a walking encyclopedia on the battles, importance of topography, and what happened to the residents in town.
But I was searching out Delta food and let me say, I found it at lunch. Walnut Hills Restaurant serves a fabulous family-style meal, including some sublime fried chicken, the best I’ve ever tasted. Seriously.
The table was laden with bowl after bowl of Southern home-cooked specialties: green beans, turnip greens, macaroni & cheese, coleslaw, creamed corn, cheese broccoli, fried okra, cheese grits, black-eyed peas, rice and gravy, plus a basket of cornbread and biscuits. To top it all off, I had decadent creamy coconut cake for dessert. Shouldn’t have, but I left mighty full and happy!
For lodging, consider the Cedar Grove Mansion Inn, a bed & breakfast surrounded by manicured gardens. The grounds immediately put you under a spell, and I just wanted to sit outside and savor the moment. Indulge in the gracious charm of this antebellum estate, honestly an attraction on its own, including many original furnishings.
Another lodging choice, the Anchuca House includes Café Anchuca, a fine dining restaurant that attracts locals and tourists alike. You can still order catfish; it just comes on a fancy plate.
A street-side historical marker stands in front of the Greek Revival columned home. The sign explains that this landmark goes by the name Anchuca, a Choctaw Indian word meaning “happy home.”
Joseph Emory Davis, eldest brother to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, owned a nearby plantation but also lived at Anchuca until his death on September 18, 1870. Jefferson Davis was reunited with his brother (and father figure) at this home in January 1869.
Don’t leave Vicksburg without strolling the historic district. Visit the old courthouse, tour Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum, the first place Coca-Cola was ever bottled, and see the 32 riverfront murals relating the city’s history.
Riverboat stops and casinos bring many visitors, adding to the entertainment. Boomers may be surprised to learn there’s a Vicksburg Margaritaville Hotel.
Tasting Tamales in Greenville
Moving on, 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. Of course, you’ll find plenty of fun games and a variety of country musicians performing on the outdoor stage.
My final taste treat came from the original 1947 Doe’s Eat Place, renowned 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 Tamale Festival as well as the 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 walk right by it as you enter the restaurant through the kitchen!)
You can also order shrimp that comes swimming in butter topped with a homemade dry rub. Doe’s ranks as an unforgettable dining experience.
I spent my last day heading back toward Memphis, again passing through the land of cotton and making a few quick stops.
Listening to music in Cleveland
Cleveland is home to the most technologically-advanced music-themed museum in the South. The 28,000 square foot GRAMMY Museum Mississippi, opened in 2016, is dedicated to exploring the past, present, and future of music and the cultural context from which it emerges. I didn’t have time to tour it, but one could easily design a musical tour of this region.
I popped into the new Cotton House Hotel, where James Beard award-winning chef Cole Ellis opened the Delta Meat Market, a restaurant featuring locally-sourced ingredients. No time to eat, but Cleveland calls for a repeat visit.
Celebrating the blues in Clarksdale
I stopped next at little Clarksdale, considered the birthplace of the blues. The famous crossroads, featuring a trio of electric guitars on a pole, marks the spot where legend says musician Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil for the ability to play the blues.
Clarksdale is also home to the Delta Blues Museum and many blues clubs or juke joints, including Red’s Lounge and Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero.
For lunch, stop at Abe’s BBQ for a pulled pork sandwich with beans and coleslaw.
Consider a night in the Shack Up Inn, where renovated shotgun shacks became guest rooms. Their corrugated tin roofs and Mississippi cypress walls conjure visions of a bygone era. They’re restored only enough to accommodate 21st-century expectations (indoor bathrooms, heat, air conditioning, coffee maker with condiments).
Blues lovers can walk around the grounds surrounding the original cotton gin (now the bar/lobby), and find one of the first mechanized cotton pickers, manufactured by International Harvester. This looks like a fun place to stay.
Visiting a piano and gambling in Tunica County
Couldn’t return to the Memphis airport without seeing the Hollywood Café, you know the place where Muriel plays the piano – from the song Walking in Memphis. The building in Robinsonville, MS, about 40 minutes outside Memphis, was once the commissary of the vast Frank Herbert cotton plantation. I wish I could have gone in and had some of those fried pickles they are known for, not to mention snapping a picture of “that piano.”
Lastly, I drove through Tunica, a sleepy little town with big boy casinos. In 1995, in a nod to riverboat gambling and to comply with state law, casinos arose on floating platforms in the Mississippi River.
They became big business with nine major casinos resort, golf courses and meeting facilities. Currently, there are six casinos to choose from: Gold Strike, Horseshoe, 1st Jackpot, Hollywood, Sam’s Town, and Fitzgerald’s.
Thinking back over the unusual sites I’d seen, and amazing meals I’d eaten, my trip to Mississippi shouts one-hundred percent crazy, but as they say, “So Delta.”
Many thanks to the folks at DeSoto County Tourism, Visit Greenwood, Visit Yazoo, Visit Vicksburg, Visit Greenwood, and the Mississippi Delta Tourism Association for their help and support.