Archive for July, 2010

Eating your way through Clarksdale

Tuesday, July 6th, 2010

In the previous post, the upcoming Most Southern Weekend On Earth at Clarksdale, Miss., was discussed.

Whether you visit Clarksdale this weekend or at another time, it’s a great town in which to eat.

People from as far away as Memphis, Little Rock and Jackson drive to Clarksdale to have dinner at Morgan Freeman and Bill Luckett’s Madidi.

Madidi is in an old building on Delta Avenue, its interior walls covered with the work of Delta artists. Reservations are recommended, and there’s a high-dollar menu that has entrees ranging from fried quail to coq au vin to duck a l’orange.

Just down the street, Freeman and Luckett operate their far more casual Ground Zero Blues Club. The club opened in May 2001 and offers live music on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. The kitchen is open from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays, from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. each Wednesday and Thursday and from 11 a.m. until 10 p.m. each Friday and Saturday.

The plate lunch each Monday through Friday is a bargain. For $7, you get your entree, a choice of two vegetables, a drink and a dessert. At other times, there are burgers, fried catfish and the like.

Delta Avenue in downtown Clarksdale is beginning to achieve critical mass when it comes to serving the blues tourists who visit the Delta. In addition to being the home of Madidi and Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art (mentioned in the previous post), it has seen a couple of additional restaurants open in recent years.

Rust is open for dinner only from Wednesday through Saturday of each week at 218 Delta Ave. It describes its menu as “progressive Southern dishes with a New Orleans influence” and offers everything from gumbo to crawfish to seared tuna.

Last fall, Stone Pony Pizza (a gourmet pizza restaurant — think Za Za in Little Rock) opened in a building that was built in 1912. It’s a fun place to spend part of an evening.

I’ve mentioned before that I was in Clarksdale almost every week during the four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority. Getting away from Delta Avenue, here are the places I ate supper when spending nights in Clarksdale:

1. Abe’s — I happen to like the tamales even better than the barbecue, but both are good.

Here’s how noted food writer Michael Stern describes it at www.roadfood.com: “Abe’s barbecue is Boston butt that is first cooked over pecan wood, then allowed to cool overnight, then sliced, then heated again on the griddle when it is ordered. While it is getting heated, the pork gets hacked into a rugged hash. The process results in meat with lots of juicy buzz in its pale inside fibers and plenty of crusty parts where it has fried on the hot iron of the grill. You can have it on a platter or in a sandwich, which is available in two sizes — normal and Big Abe. We love the latter, which is twice the amount of pork heaped into a double-decker bun. …

“One of the things that makes these sandwiches so especially delicious is the sauce, which is dark red, tangy, with the resonance of pepper and spice, a sublime companion for the meat. Pat Davis told us that it is made from the original recipe his grandfather developed except for one top-secret ingredient, which he swears he doesn’t use anymore. ‘It is sort of addictive, isn’t it?’ Pat said. ‘We once had guys order a case shipped to Oklahoma. They called to tell me they were drinking it in shot glasses.”’

2. Hicks World Famous Hot Tamales — We told you about Eugene Hicks in a previous post titled “A day of Delta driving and dining.” Here’s how Rod Davis put it in an article for the Express-News in San Antonio: “Eugene Hicks not only sells hot tamales here in this fabled hometown of the blues, he sells a lot of them. Sometimes 500 dozen a week: over the counter, from the drive-through window, express delivery in containers holding five dozen each. … So many that this Henry Ford of tamale production, who got his start making bicycle deliveries as a teenager, counts among his diners former President Bill Clinton and an ongoing galaxy of politicians and celebrities.

“So here’s a liner note to the legions of German, British, Japanese, Canadian and American pilgrims who come to this steamy stripe of alluvial Mississippi to pay homage to the legends. You can stand at the crossroads where Robert Johnson allegedly bartered his soul. You can hear live music by new bands and old hands. You can catch up on history at the Delta Blues Museum and you can wander over to Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero Blues Club. But if you want to get the true taste of the Mississippi Delta, best also to genuflect at Hicks.”

3. Rest Haven — As far as the number of visits during my years in Clarksdale, Rest Haven ranked first. I always enjoyed the greeting from Chafik Chamoun, the owner, and the service provided by his daughter. And the variety — Lebanese food, Italian food and Southern cooking. Rest Haven also has the best breakfast in the Delta. Try the country ham, biscuits and eggs.

Here’s how the desserts are described on the restaurant’s website: “One cannot mention Rest Haven without a word about those pies. Coconut and chocolate cream pies with mile-high meringue have been famous here for years. People have been known to travel from Vicksburg and Memphis just for a piece of that pie. An unsettled dispute continually breaks out over which is better — chocolate or coconut.”

I simply alternate between the two.

And here’s how the website tells the story of the restaurant: “Lebanese people began immigrating to Mississippi in the 1880s. Many of the early Lebanese residents sold dry goods door to door and eventually opened their own stores. Chafik and Louise Chamoun arrived in the United States in 1954. Chafik borrowed a suitcase and received $50 from a wholesaler of women’s apparel. He peddled women’s clothing door to door for years until opening his own grocery store in the 1960s in Clarksdale.

“Customers noticed Chafik eating a strange-looking sandwich that Louise made frequently for his lunch. After samping this oddity called kibbie, a steady increase of customers started asking Louise to make them similar sandwiches, and Chafik had to move tables and chairs into the store to accommodate what became a regular luncheon tradition in Clarksdale. In the words of Chafik: ‘Once everybody tasted, everybody wanted.’

“To a great extent, the Lebanese community has assimilated into the American culture. However, though clothing and language have changed, the Lebanese foods have persisted. Traditional foods made with cracked wheat, parsley and grape leaves are still very popular. Newcomers to the Mississippi Delta are surprised to discover a Middle Eastern cuisine sharing the same table with black-eyed peas and collard greens. … The Rest Haven is perhaps known best for its kibbie specialties. Kibbie is made with lean ground round, cracked wheat, olive oil, onions and special seasonings. You can indulge in kibbie sandwiches, kibbie patties, kibbie baked, kibbie fried, even kibbie raw. You can eat kibbie with pine nuts, cabbage rolls, stuffed grape leaves.”

4. The Ranchero — I had supper there with my family week before last. I ordered the seafood platter.

Nelms Mitchell started the restaurant in May 1959 in a one-room concrete block building. For years, it was known mostly as a hangout for teenagers. But it has long been a full-service restaurant serving everything from barbecue to seafood to steaks to one of the best bowls of gumbo in Mississippi.

Locals often refer to it simply as The Ranch. The walls are a museum of Clarksdale’s rich history. Mitchell played high school football in Clarksdale with the great Charlie Conerly, who quarterbacked the New York Giants from 1948-61. There’s plenty of Conerly memorabilia in the restaurant, including a number of his trophies.

Conerly led Ole Miss to the Southeastern Conference championship in 1947. He led the nation in pass completions with 133 that year, rushed for nine touchdowns and passed for 18 more. He was named the Player of the Year by the Helms Athletic Foundation. I believe that’s one of the trophies in the restaurant. He was fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting that year. In the NFL, Conerly was the 1948 Rookie of the Year and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1959 by the Newspaper Enterprise Association. He led the Giants to an NFL championship over the Chicago Bears in 1956 in a game played at Yankee Stadium. He also portrayed the Marlboro Man in commercials. After retiring from the NFL, Conerly and his wife, Perian, returned to Clarksdale. Conerly, who died in 1996, owned shoe stores.

5. Ramon’s — This is the home to the best fried shrimp anywhere. I can also recommend the fried chicken livers, the spaghetti and the oysters. Get good directions. It’s in a residential neighborhood.

Michael Stern writes: “It takes a diehard Roadfood devotee to drive along Oakhurst Street in Clarksdale, spy Ramon’s and think: ‘My, what an excellent looking place to eat.’ It is, to understate the point, a less-than-handsome restaurant far off the beaten path in a residential neighborhood. The savvy tipster who took us there, Roger Stolle, described going to Ramon’s as ‘like eating in a small Florida restaurant from the 1970s … but with serious roof problems.’ Roger told us that local lore says Thomas and Barbara Ely, the couple who run it, rent the building for a dollar a month so there’s no real incentive for them (or the owner) to repair or renovate.

“Tables are bare, chairs are mismatched. Still, there is some serious effort to make the dump charming: empty fifths of Jack Daniel’s and three-liter jugs of Taylor chablis have been made into decorative lamps all around the two dining rooms.”

6. Uncle Henry’s — If you want to drive out toward Helena and the banks of Moon Lake, you owe it to yourself to have dinner at Uncle Henry’s. Dinner is served each Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday night. George Wright likes you to call for reservations at (662) 337-2757. Uncle Henry’s is the site of the old Moon Lake Club, a noted gambling establishment mentioned by Tennessee Williams in some of his dramas.

Hungry yet?

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A Mississippi Delta weekend

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

The Oxford American is billing it as The Most Southern Weekend On Earth.

On July 9-10, lovers of Southern culture will gather in Clarksdale, Miss., to listen to music, attend interviews, eat, drink, dance and generally have a good time. You can register for the weekend by going to www.oxfordamerican.org.

If you don’t stop along the way, you can make it from west Little Rock to downtown Clarksdale in two and a half hours. Believe me, I know. I made the trip every week during the almost four years I worked for the Delta Regional Authority.

The name of the weekend is based on James C. Cobb’s excellent book “The Most Southern Place On Earth: The Mississippi Delta And The Roots Of Regional Identity.”

Here’s how Amazon describes Cobb’s book: “‘Cotton obsessed, Negro obsessed,’ Rupert Vance called it in 1935. ‘Nowhere but in the Mississippi Delta,’ he said, ‘are antebellum conditions so nearly preserved.’ This crescent of bottomlands between Memphis and Vicksburg, lined by the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers, remains in some ways what it was in 1860: a land of rich soil, wealthy planters and desperate poverty — the blackest and poorest counties in all the South.

“And yet it is a cultural treasure house as well — the home of Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Charley Pride, Walker Percy, Elizabeth Spencer and Shelby Foote. Painting a fascinating portrait of the development and survival of the Mississippi Delta, a society and economy that is often seen as the most extreme in all the South, James C. Cobb offers a comprehensive history of the Delta, from its first white settlement in the 1820s to the present.”

For those who are intrigued with Delta culture, as I am, I can highly recommend Cobb’s book.

And for those who want a true Mississippi Delta experience, I can highly recommend a couple of days in Clarksdale.

The Most Southern Weekend On Earth will begin on a Friday night at Morgan Freeman’s Ground Zero with performances by Robert Belfour, Jimbo Mathus and Kevin Gordon. Tickets for Friday night are $20.

Saturday events include:

— An 11 a.m. Mississippi Delta hot tamale talk and tasting moderated by my friend Amy Evans Streeter of the Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss. When you have a chance, go to www.southernfoodways.com and check out some of the oral histories Amy has done. The 11 a.m. event will be at Delta Amusement Cafe at 348 Delta Ave.

Delta Amusement owner Bobby Tarzi is a true Southern character.

In an article last October in the Hattiesburg American, Jamie O’Quinn wrote: “Our group met early for breakfast the next morning at the Delta Amusement Cafe. Here owner Bobby Tarzi not only took our order, cooked and served, he also showed us how to play Tonk, the card game the locals play at his diner on their lunch break. As we made our way out to attend the workshop session at the Cutrer Mansion, I was met outside the diner door by local icon Puttin Hatchett, who showed me a few quick dice tricks while stopping periodically to return greetings from passersby on the street.”

Reading about Tonk and dice tricks, I’m reminded of this February 2008 story in the Press Register at Clarksdale: “On Friday night, the public integrity division of the Mississippi attorney general’s office conducted a raid on the Delta Amusement Cafe. … The raid was conducted in conjunction with the Mississippi Gaming Commission.”

Like I said, it’s a colorful place.

— A 1 p.m. interview conducted by OA editor Marc Smirnoff with writer Peter Guralnick, who’s considered on the top music writers in American history. Guralnick’s books include “Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm And Blues And The Southern Dream of Freedom” and “Last Train To Memphis: The Rise Of Elvis Presley.” The interview will take place at the Delta Blues Museum (www.deltabluesmuseum.org).

— At 4:30 p.m., the first OA Independent Beer Tasting and Contest at Rust, a fine restaurant along Delta Avenue.

The weekend concludes with performances at Ground Zero on Saturday night by Mose Allison and True Soul Revue. Tickets are $30 for Saturday night.

While on Delta Avenue, be sure and visit Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art Inc., which I’ve mentioned in previous posts.

Here’s how owner Roger Stolle describes the place on his website at www.cathead.biz: “Cat Head is a six-day-a-week store that features a full selection of blues CDS, DVDs, books, magazines, T-shirts, artwork and collectibles. It’s kind of like shopping in a juke joint, I like to say. It’s the kind of store I always dreamed of finding but never did. It has become a base of operations for other blues projects and a clearinghouse of information about area musicians, juke joints and festivals.

“The cool thing is that Clarksdale has a lot to offer. Great blues music four or five nights a week, every week — plus killer festivals a few times a year. Wonderful musicians, artists and characters live and work here. Since I moved here, I’m sure at least a dozen others have as well — from the Netherlands and all over the United States. … Because we’re part of the ‘roots music corridor’ that runs for Memphis to Chicago, we get tourists from all over the United States, Europe and Asia every single week. They come in search of the land where blues began, and when they finally reach the blues mecca of Clarksdale for the first time, and they drop by Cat Head, I know they’re hooked.”

Ground Zero is a great music venue, created to look like a juke joint, complete with old couches and chairs on the front porch of the former cotton sorting facility. But if you want a real juke joint experience, you also need to head to Red’s Lounge a block over on Sunflower Avenue.

Stolle writes: “Sure it looks closed and/or scary, but it’s actually just a big ol’ wonderful house party. It’s open some weekday nights and all weekends with live blues some weekends and special events during festival time. If you come to Clarksdale, you simply must visit Big Red at his killer juke. Regulars include T-Model Ford, Robert Belfour, Big T., Lightnin’ Malcolm, Wesley Jefferson and Big Jack Johnson.”

I earlier mentioned the Cutrer Mansion. It was the home of Blanche Cutrer, on whom Tennessee Williams based the character Blanche DuBois in “A Street Named Desire” and Carol Cutrere in “Orpheus Descending.” For years, the home was owned by the Catholic Church and used as a school. It’s now the Cutrer Cultural Arts Center, operated in association with Coahoma Community College, and is available for workshps and conferences

Williams is also thought to have used the house as a model for Belle Reve in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and as a model for Big Daddy’s house in “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.” Drop by and look at the house when in Clarksdale.

You should also find some time to hang out in the Delta Blues Museum either before or after the 1 p.m. Saturday interview. The museum includes the remains of the cabin from Stovall Farms where Muddy Waters lived during his days as a sharecropper and tractor driver. You can also find a guitar made from a plank of wood from Waters’ cabin and used on tour by ZZ Top.

Many of its people are poor, but the culture is incredibly rich. Just don’t expect the South as told by Disney. This time of year, it’s hot, dusty and gritty in Clarksdale. There are rundown buildings and burned-out homes. It’s real, which is why I enjoy it far more than an amusement park. This is not “Blues Land” complete with rides and a water park. It’s a struggling town where people live, die and try to hold onto the good parts of their past while battling to overcome racial divisions that remain deep and wide.

Yes, Clarksdale just might be the most Southern place on earth.

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