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Pining for Clarksdale

When asked if I miss my former position with the eight-state Delta Regional Authority, I answer that I don’t miss the heavy travel schedule. In 2008, the last full year I worked for the DRA, I was away from home 110 nights. That’s too much for a father of two sons who are involved in sports and numerous other extracurricular activities.

So what do I not miss? The travel.

What do I miss? The travel.

Let me explain. The DRA’s 252 counties and parishes make up a colorful, culturally rich region that takes in southern Illinois, western Kentucky, western Tennessee, the Bootheel region of Missouri, the Black Belt of Alabama and large portions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. While the travel schedule was a bit too hectic at times, it did allow me to sample interesting, out-of-the-way restaurants in all of these states and become what might be considered “a regular” in Clarksdale, Miss., where the DRA’s main office is located.

I continued to live in Little Rock for the four years I worked for the DRA, but I spent a night or two most weeks in Clarksdale. On Saturday night at Little Rock’s Capital Hotel, I visited with Bill Luckett of Clarksdale during the Oxford American Best of the South awards gala. Bill is Morgan Freeman’s partner in the Ground Zero blues club and the upscale Madidi restaurant at Clarksdale. He was born in Fort Worth but moved to Clarksdale when he was just six weeks old. His father was a lawyer. Bill received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and his law degree from Ole Miss. He has practiced law in Clarksdale for many years and is running as a Democrat for governor of Mississippi.

“You need to come see us again in Clarksdale,” he said.

It was like a siren’s song. I plan to do just that next month.

It was mentioned in an earlier post that the fifth in the series of “Cornbread Nation” collections of Southern food writing has been released. Several of the articles in “Cornbread Nation 5” center on Clarksdale, an economically struggling but fascinating Delta town. Amy Evans of the Southern Foodways Alliance describes it as the Delta’s culinary crossroads.

“Chafik Chamoun serves fried catfish,” she writes. “Kim Wong sells pork rinds. Pat and Abe Davis make barbecue. All over the Mississippi Delta, immigrants are embracing and interpreting Southern food. These three examples happen to exist only a stone’s throw from the intersection of highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, the spot where, as the legend goes, bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar virtuosity.

“But at Chamoun’s Rest Haven, Chafik Chamoun also serves baklava. At Kim’s Pork Rinds, Kim Wong cooks the rinds in woks. At Abe’s Bar-B-Q, the Davis brothers have hot tamales on the menu. For generations the seasonal flooding of the Mississippi River has enriched the soil of the Delta. So, too, have the waves of immigrants that have put down roots in this part of the American South, bringing their homelands’ culinary traditions with them. The Davis family of Clarksdale is part of this legacy. Abraham “Abe” Davis arrived in Clarksdale from Lebanon in the early part of the 20th century, a time when tamales — a food with its origins in Latin America — were peddled on street corners. Perhaps Abe recognized the tamale’s similarity to a dish from his native land, stuffed grape leaves.”

I stopped at Abe’s for supper many nights. And, yes, I usually preferred the tamales to the barbecue. Abe’s was, in fact, a stop on the Great Delta Tamale Tour that Kane Webb, Bill Vickery and I took while being followed by AETN cameras. AETN is now airing the resulting documentary from time to time.

And though Rest Haven sounds like the name of a cemetery, it just might be my favorite restaurant in the Mississippi Delta. I would always have breakfast with Mr. Chamoun, who serves great country ham — the really salty kind that sticks with you and leaves no room for lunch. I often would return to Rest Haven in the evening (and Mr. Chamoun would still be there, sitting at the same table with the big TV tuned to Fox News) for kibbe, stuffed grape leaves and cabbage rolls.

Head down to Greenville and you can, of course, enjoy the steaks and tamales at the Signa family’s original Doe’s Eat Place. It began as a Sicilian grocery store.

Delta chef Martha Hall Foose discusses the Delta tamale in another article in the book, focusing on Doe’s and its origins in 1903 after Carmel Signa had sailed from Sicily and made his way to Greenville.

The book also includes Greenville journalist Anne Martin’s interview with 84-year-old Florence Signa of Doe’s. She’s known by the regulars simply as Aunt Florence.

“She says she doesn’t smoke, drink or gamble, doesn’t read much or watch a lot of TV,” Martin writes. “Meeting all of the people who come into Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville over the years is something she looks forward to every day. Her secret to a long, productive life, she says, is going to Mass every day at 5:30 in the morning.”

Head over to Greenwood, meanwhile, and they’ll pull the curtain on your private booth at either Lusco’s or Giardina’s. Meanwhile, the Crystal Grill there has a huge menu with dozens of selections at both lunch and dinner.

“The Lusco and Giardina families assimilated their Sicilian culinary heritage with that of the Delta, as marinara and meatballs gave way to prme steaks and pond-raised catfish,” Evans writes. “At the new Giardina’s Restaurant, though, Frank Leflore celebrates his Sicilian roots, offering an Italian sausage on the menu that is made from his grandmother’s receipe. At the Crystal Grill, the Ballas family incorporates a couple of nods to their Greek lineage on the expansive menu, but the restaurant’s reputation is built on the quality and variety of Southern favorites. A typical meal there can consist of a Greek salad, fried chicken livers and coconut pie.” 

Two favorites that were not mentioned were Lillo’s in Leland (great Italian food) and Ramon’s in Clarksdale (best shrimp in the Delta).

Uncle Henry’s and Kathryn’s have always been favorite late-week dinner spots along Moon Lake, which is just across the Helena bridge.

“So what is Southern food?” Evans asks. “More than ingredients and origins, it is about tradition and family. Many Delta families incorporate hot tamales into their Christmas holiday menu. Others insist that a coconut pie from Chamoun’s Rest Haven or the Crystal Grill grace the table at Thanksgiving. Greek or Sicilian, Asian or Lebanese, the Mississippi Delta is a wonderful illustration of how ethnicity has embraced Southern food and how Southern food has embraced ethnicity. Let us all gather at the crossroads.”

So where are your favorite spots in the Mississippi Delta — favorite spots to eat, favorite spots to spend the night, favorite spots to listen to the blues? I don’t want to miss a thing in this fascinating part of the American South.

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