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Dining along the MGRR

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Dining along Mississippi’s Great River Road:
Drinking in the views, savoring the flavors.

In the busy kitchen of a Mississippi Delta boardinghouse, a small boy sits surrounded by rich aromas, of breads baking in the oven, of chicken frying and greens simmering on the stovetop.  On a sideboard ruby tomatoes gleam, vine ripened and still warm from the sun.  Nearby, pecan pies sit cooling with lush sweet promise.  The boy’s name is Craig Claiborne, and he has found his first love.

During his nearly 30-year tenure as the famed New York Times food editor and critic, Craig Claiborne revolutionized American eating through his cosmopolitan outlook, and while that outlook was formed in part from his world travels, Claiborne’s mindset and philosophies also arose from his childhood in the Delta where his mother ran a boardinghouse.

Claiborne never lost his appreciation of what it is traditionally thought of as Southern home cooking.  When it came to a trip home for a fried chicken dinner with fresh sliced tomatoes, topped off by a slice of pecan pie, he said, “Nothing rekindles my spirits, gives comfort to my heart and mind more.”

Yet here along Mississippi’s Great River Road, stretching from Woodville to Walls, Mississippi, Claiborne grew up in a region that was also permeated in international cultures.  During the early part of the twentieth century, the booming cotton business brought an influx of nationalities.  Chinese and Italian immigrants arrived to set up businesses, Mexican migrant workers came to pick cotton, and then there were always the Cajun and Creole influences migrating from New Orleans and southern Louisiana.

 

A true “melting pot” of cultures and flavors.

 

All those influences mean that today on Mississippi’s Great River Road, the term “melting pot” has a truly delicious definition, in a delectably diverse feast of dining choices spanning the 300-some miles of this scenic byway, and ranging from Southern home style and soul food cookery to the authentic ethnic delights of Chinese, Italian and Mexican, from fine cuisine at upscale eateries to blue plate specials at classically quaint cafés.

The tamale, for example, is a beloved staple here, so popular that travelers can follow a “Tamale Trail,” where each stop dishes up its own savory version of this simmered treat, with pork or beef filling, in a corn shuck or in parchment paper.

Another tempting ingredient in the dining mix is the wide variety of settings:  Historic mansions converted to inns and restaurants offer romantic and elegant ambience, while historic downtowns make inviting backdrops for memorable meals.  And on this River-hugging road, the traveler hungering for a majestic Mississippi River view with his meal will discover an experience to relish.  Casino restaurants are often especially generous with panoramas as well as portions.

However, the real beauty of dining on this scenic byway is that beauty of setting is not required—or rather, your definition of “beautiful setting” may change when you enjoy some of the best fare you’ve ever tasted at a weathered country store, or behind a faded storefront or even, as travelers have been shocked to discover, at a gas station.

“Our diversity surprises people,” notes Bill Seratt, president of the community coalition of Mississippi’s Great River Road.  “But the quality that so thoroughly infuses this region’s cuisine, from high to low, from casual to upscale, that’s what visitors find really appealing.”

Seratt believes the region’s deep-rooted traditions of hospitality are key to this perfect dining recipe.  “People here are naturally social, and good food has always played a central role in that sociability.  Meals here are an occasion, to savor the company, as well as the flavors.”

Hospitality is another reason travelers find themselves drawn back again and again to Mississippi’s Great River Road.  Whether it’s iced tea and fried chicken, a hot tamale and a cold beer, or a filet mignon and a fine vintage burgundy, your meal will always be seasoned with a warm smile and genuine friendliness.

While boardinghouses like the Claibornes’ are long gone, there are hundreds of other savory stops along Mississippi’s Great River Road, even some food history:  Joseph Biedenharn formulated and bottled the world’s very first Coca-Cola® here, a milestone you can explore at Vicksburg’s Biedenharn Museum.  And here are a few more highlights:

 

Woodville:  Good taste is always on the menu at Town Square Café, a favorite local gathering place where offerings include turkey Quesadillas and red beans and rice, as well as painting parties, art shows, and live music.

Natchez:  Back in frontier days, Natchez Under the Hill was a hangout for robbers and raffish gamblers, but today the disreputable has become the delicious in a shopping and dining hub, home of fine eateries like the Natchez Landing.  The city also offers a host of historic mansions turned restaurants, such as 1818 at Monmouth Historic Inn and the Carriage House Restaurant on the grounds of historic Stanton Hall.  Ethnic choices range from Planet Thailand to Fat Mamma’s Tamales and El Potro, with a generous serving of Creole at Breaud’s.  You can’t miss the roadside phenomenon, Mammy’s Cupboard, the restaurant nestled in the skirt of a towering, two-story-sized antebellum cook, and you won’t want to miss Mammy’s delectable sandwiches and pies.

Jefferson County:  Once upon a time, back in the late 19th century, the Old Country Store was just that, an old country store.  Fortunately for food lovers, the story didn’t end there.  The new chapter, begun by proprietor Arthur Davis (otherwise known as “Mr. D”), features the appropriately named “heavenly fried chicken,” plus a lavish selection of sides, like field peas, corn on the cob and turnip greens in “pot likker.”  All this for a song—and often with a song, as Mr. D. may well serenade you with a song about his grandmamma’s cornbread.

Port Gibson:  U.S. Grant captured this city during the Civil War but declared it too beautiful to burn, so that many architectural treasures survive today.  Port Gibson’s dining gems include Georgia’s Old Depot and the Restoration Café, housed in a structure built in 1839.  You’ll also want to feast your eyes on the Porch restaurant which is, in fact, the porch of the Isabella Bed and Breakfast, an elegant Queen Anne ornamented with stained glass—then simply feast, at lunch or dinner by reservations.

Vicksburg:  In the city where the world’s first Coca-Cola® was formulated and bottled, the dining options are refreshingly varied.  The Tomato Place, for example, is a charming interpretation of an old timey fruit stand delighting customers with a deli and a thriving trade in items like jams and pepper sauce.  Vicksburg has plenty of upscale destinations, like Café Anchuca, Jacque’s Café, or Cedar Grove Mansion Inn and Restaurant, and a wealth of down home delights, like Southern Sisters or Bovina Café, which specializes in soul food.  Ethnic flavors also abound, from the true Cajun cooking at Main Street Market to the savory Lebanese selections of Monsour’s at the Biscuit Company.

Onward:  Teddy Roosevelt’s trek to Onward to hunt bear in 1902 was a bust (although we have that failure to thank for the ever popular teddy bear).  On the other hand, your hunt for a fabulous meal in Onward will be short and sweet.  Just come to the newly renovated Onward Country Store, where outside the historical marker gives you the skinny on Teddy’s un-bearable decision, and where inside necessities (including teddy bears, of course) are sold along with burgers and tamales that have won national acclaim.  (Renovations complete September, 2012)

Rolling Fork:  Expect some interesting dining companions in the city that hosts the Great Bear Affair celebrating Teddy Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt and where life-sized carved bears share the landscape with picturesque restaurants and shops.  As for those growls, those aren’t bear.  That’s your stomach begging to be satiated with the delicious pies at Flat Land Pizza, or the southern comfort and soul food spreads at Chuck’s Dairy Bar, Pat’s Place or Farmers’Grocery.

Greenville:  A multi-generational business, Doe’s Eat Place has been serving customers in the same worn building since 1940.  But really there’s no need for fancy accoutrements when your steaks are as sensational as Doe’s, written up and raved over by the national press and recently the recipient of the James Beard American Classic Award.  And Doe’s is only one of Greenville’s long list of  local stalwarts, which include Buck’s Restaurant with its home style, home smiles buffet, Connie’s Kitchen, a Mennonite bakery, fine dining destinations like Cicero’s and Kepler’s Grill, and of course, loads of luscious barbecue around every bend.

Cleveland:  Home of Delta State University, Cleveland offers a tempting college-town eclecticism.  Enjoy deli fare at The Warehouse, southern home cooking at The Southern Grill, or live music with the buffets and barbecues at The Senator’s Place.  While the hours may be limited, the flavors are not at The Gallery tearoom, the lunch-only A La Carte Alley, and the dinner-only Bellazar with a menu that touts both Lebanese and Cajun.  And the chow call is irresistible at Fat Baby’s Catfish House and Crustaceans Crawfish, where you can “suck heads” in season or enjoy boiled shrimp and lobster tail.

Clarksdale:  There’s good blues to be had with the good eating at Ground Zero, the blues club co-owned and operated by actor and Delta native Morgan Freeman. Clarksdale is the kind of town that can exert the call of home on a Hollywood star, and where a Teach for America volunteer could wind up finding a home and opening a gourmet pizza place called the Stone Pony.  And then there are local institutions like Abe’s Barbecue, opened in 1924, and Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales, where owner Eugene Hicks has been not so much cooking as conjuring tamales since 1970.   Go gourmet at Rust, or at Uncle Henry’s on Moon Lake—the same Moon Lake made famous by playwright Tennessee Williams who lived here as a child—or dive into the city’s ethnic treats at places like Atzimba and Fortune Cookie.

Tunica:   In the Casino Capital of the South, it’s a sure bet you’ll find a winning meal in any of Tunica’s many casino restaurants, with choices ranging from upscale bistros to down home favorites like the Paula Deen Buffet inside Harrah’s. And Deen isn’t the only celebrity name here in Tunica:  Once a plantation commissary, the Hollywood Café has played a starring role in John Grisham’s fiction and in Marc Cohn’s hit song “Walking in Memphis,” while the equally historic Blue and White Café has been feeding happy customers since 1924 when it opened as part of a gas station and bus terminal.  Happy trails!

 

DeSoto County:  With 250 dining choices ready to serve you, you may just want to feast your way through this county.  The barbecue here puts Memphis to shame—beef, pork, pulled or even “competition” style at places like 10 Bones.  Naturally, there are national favorites here, but the local establishments, steeped in charm and atmosphere, offer everything from Mexican to Asian to home style buffets.  At first, you may be surprised to find a European bakery or an authentic Irish pub (that was shipped part and parcel from the “old country”), but just remember, DeSoto contains multitudes, so give yourself plenty of time to sample and savor all of it.

For more information about attractions, accommodations, dining and more, see Mississippi’s Great River Road on the web at  www.msgreatriverroad.com

 

 

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