Sunday, July 4, 2010

Independence Weekend in the Delta

We set out on our mini vacation to the Mississippi Delta with a few musts on our agenda. We had to eat at the Delta Bistro in Greenwood as it is the home of my 3rd favorite sandwich. We had reservations at the Alluvian, thanks to a gift from my MBA students, and we were returning for a second year to the B.B. King Homecoming concert in the park. This year Marty Stuart, a favorite of ours since his concert with chancellor Khayat at the Ford Center, was opening for B.B., making the allure to return to Indianola even stronger. What I didn't expect after living in Mississippi for two years, having grown accustomed to the friendly southern lifestyle, was to come away from our trip feeling a deep appreciation for Delta hospitality. People are not just nice, they bend over backwards to make sure you are having a good time and feel welcomed.

Our drive to Greenwood was lazy and pretty, a perfect summer afternoon for watching the hills of kudzu turn to flat farmland. The crops were incredibly green, creating a deep contrast with the blue sky. We called ahead and ensured that the Delta Bistro would be open late as we planned to arrive mid-afternoon in Greenwood. We nearly had the restaurant to ourselves and wasted no time in ordering the Fried Green Tomato BLT with a side of Sweet Potato Fries and the special of the day, a Blackened Soft Shelled Crab Po-boy with Hot Sauce Mayo, Lettuce and Tomato also with a side of Sweet Potato Fries. The interior of the restaurant is light and filled with local folk art, in a simple, industrial and classy way. I have heard rumor that the original building was used in the cotton sorting process and the enormous skylights functioned to bring in natural light for the workers to better see. Our food arrived and as the first sign of great hospitality, I was impressed to see that our waitress had the chef split the plates for us as she must have heard me mention we were planning to share.

I was a little worried as I have had the the Fried Green Tomato BLT twice before and feared that I may have built it up in my mind to the number 3 slot on my best-sandwiches-of-all-times list. Fortunately, it did not disappoint and if anything, it reinforced its strong standing. Delta Bistro, known for its use of local, fresh ingredients, showed off that skill in this dish. The tomatoes were piping hot, juicy and tangy on the inside, and cornmeal encrusted on the outside, bedded with fresh baby lettuce, salty, peppered bacon, and oozing with bright and cool mayonnaise. All of this goodness was served between slices of the most flavor-filled, crispy crusted, yet chewy, homemade sourdough bread. While the sweet potato fries were perfectly crispy and soft, their sweetness, which any other day might warrant lengthy praise, was a mere accompaniment to the Queen status of the sandwich.

Admittedly, the Blackened Soft Shelled Crab Po-boy was a hideous sandwich, not designed for the squeamish. It did, however, deliver a fantastic blackened spice flavor, and a nice hit of heat with the spicy mayo juxtaposed to the refreshing lettuce and tomato. My only regret is that the poy-boy bread was not as soft and memorable as the sourdough.

During the entire lunch, our unsweet teas never dipped below the half-way mark without being refilled. This service was impressive despite the fact that my Splenda balance in my tea was constantly thrown off (this is where my southern friends groan as they all would have ordered sweet tea). The kicker in the service however, was when the waitress showed up with our check at the end and brought along 2 more teas, lidded and ready in to-go cups, without us asking for them. Seriously? And did I mention that of course there is no charge for refills?

Full and geared up with that early vacation energy, we took off through the Delta for Indianola, the home of B.B. King. Our blanket and chairs set up in Fletcher Park, we sat back and relaxed to great local blues music from Grady Champion, a killer harmonica player and lead vocalist and the The Columbia College Blues Ensemble out of Chicago. They were followed by Mississippi native and country star, Marty Stuart. Marty and his incredibly talented band played a bit of country, bluegrass and even gospel music, all decked out in extravagant beaded blazers and leather pants. Even Mark, who is not a real country fan, sang praises for their talent. All of this lead up to the main act, of course B.B. King himself. While I won't say this show is one of his best musical performances, it might be one of the more entertaining. B.B. is passionate about keeping the blues alive and dedicates this show each year to the children of Indianola, despite the fact that he usually doesn't even start until after 10pm. He played a few songs, talked to his hometown crowd and introduced the band, including his nephew Walter Riley King, Mark's sister Jane's long-time friend, before announcing the dance-off. The dance-off consists of multiple rounds of dance contests starting with 3-5 year olds, on-stage. Where these kids learn their moves, I do not know, but they are hysterical. All the while B.B. is yelling things like "Mix 'em up. We don't need them all the same color. I want some white ones and some black ones." He wraps up the show by calling Marty Stuart back to the stage and playing
The Thrill is Gone and When the Saints Go Marching In. We called it a night and took off for our plush digs at the Alluvian, while many went onto Ebony, the local juke joint where B.B. would play into the early hours of the morning.

The only thing that could have gotten me out of that amazing bed the next morning was promise of a breakfast in the Terrace Room on the 4th floor of the Alluvian. I have yet to explain to the non-locals, how amazing the Alluvian is, particularly in a little town in the heart of the Delta. Fred Carl of Viking Range decided to build his luxury cooking line in his local town, and in the process has revitalized beautiful buildings, has brought jobs to a town that needed them and has developed a culinary mecca replete with a spa, cooking school and a 5 star hotel to house those making the pilgrimage. Following a well appointed breakfast we hit the downtown farmer's market, where we bought black russian heirloom tomatoes, local, fat blueberries, and cherry tomatoes. I loved that one of the locals was smoking up ribs directly next to a rather new-age, gourmet smoothie booth. I am a sucker for a delta accent and could have stayed all day at one table listening to a guy tell stories about life farming in the delta, his grandmother who is still feisty in her 90s and all of his other kin folk.

Determined to get back to Indianola for more food, I tore myself away and we hit the road, not stopping until we arrived at the Indianola Pecan House. If I lived in this town, they would certainly have a restraining order on me by now, as they have a free pecan tasting bar with over 20 different flavors, both sweet and savory! We opted for the Cajun Roasted, Rosemary Herb, Jalepeno and Sugar-Free Cinnamon.

At Miss Lila's and Paige Duke's suggestion, we decided upon lunch at The Crown. Visitors to town who don't know about Crown would easily miss it, as it appears to be just another southern gift store selling cheese straws and sorority looking t-shirts that tout the virtues of living in the south. However, upon entering the store, you are first greeted by more free food; there are tables set up with dips and crackers and their famous smoked catfish pate. Not truly a pate, but nonetheless fantastic, this dip made with local catfish became a new favorite and a tub of it came home with us. (Mark whipped up a tasty red onion, caper and smoked catfish pate omlette upon our return.)

The restaurant abuts the gift shop and we are warmly whisked to a table near the kitchen and directly next to the pie table, which I will explain shortly. Family owned and run, we were not even to our table before mother and daughter team, Evelyn and Jennifer greeted us like it was their living room. They seemed genuinely excited that it was our first visit. Jennifer recommended that we try the Catfish Allison a new addition to the menu since the 80's and a crowd favorite. After reading the description, we decided we would both get the Allison and sat back to wait. Seconds later, one of the waitresses arrived with a round wooden cutting board filled with homemade cornbread and tomato bread fresh out of the oven. At first, the tomato bread appeared to be focaccia like, but upon biting into it, it was entirely different. Soft and moist with a little chew, it was almost sweet and purely decadent. We were still gushing over the bread when the salads arrived. Unusually, apple and melon topped the romaine greens with a sweet dressing and a salty crumb like topping, that I am unable to identify. Then came the main course. I will preface this by saying that I have tried over and over again to like catfish, particularly as I try to embrace all things local, but it is simply not a favorite of mine until now. Poached and served in a baking crock, it is smothered in a green onion butter sauce and topped with fresh Parmesan cheese. The menu described it perfectly when it touted it as having a "lovely nutty butter flavor." And as Jennifer suggested, there might be nothing better than dredging the final bite of bread in that salty, buttery goodness. You will notice in the photos that there is nothing fancy about these dishes. They are not served nouveau with streaks of paprika on a huge white plate. In fact the crock has probably not changed since the 80's, but when the food is this good, you really don't need the splash.

At this point, for $10.95, I could have left and been ridiculously happy, but there is more. And by more I mean an
entire table of pies from which you are encouraged to help yourself and which comes with your meal. In fact Evelyn herself even suggests you try a few different slivers of chess pie, lemon pie, a coconut and chocolate chip pie and even a trifle, which satisfied Mark as the lowest in sugar. I opted for the praline pecan pie, which reminded me of my mom's homemade chocolate chip pecan pie, one that she has not made me in years, but might if I hint enough. I was struck throughout our dining experience again at the hospitality. Evelyn and Jennifer stopped by a few times to make sure we liked our various courses, but not inquiring like a typical waiter or waitress might, expecting you to say "fine," more like how your mom would ask you after having made your favorite meal. And when they hollered "y'all come back" I truly believe they meant it.

The drive home was slow and scenic, giving us a chance to take in the many varied landscapes in Mississippi from bayous to delta farmland. We only stopped once, when I spied the cutest pig in the world, alongside the road in a muddy stream bed and added that to my list of things you just don't see everyday.