By Jay Reed
Eats One Ate
In days of old, the Mississippi Delta was known for King Cotton. These days, the crops have evolved and the Delta is recognized as being the birthplace of the blues. And if you follow the blues trail, you are likely to find barbecue and hot tamales. Remarkably enough, I spent an entire weekend in the Delta and ate neither. I know that’s hard to believe, but I have a witness. It just didn’t work out. In my defense, I did eat pretty much everything else in sight.
Wife and I arrived in Greenwood on a Friday in time for lunch at the Delta Bistro. I had heard that the chef, Taylor Bowen Ricketts, was once nominated for a James Beard award for Best Chef in the South, so it was a safe bet to start the weekend. It was one of those menus that made it difficult to choose I wanted a buffet where I could try a bite of everything. One of the daily specials was some rendition of Opah belly — Opah is a fish, by the way, not a former talk show host from Kosciusko. But a big dinner was ahead, so we stuck to lighter fare. Wife went for the Fried Chicken Sliders, which we later learned had made Delta Magazine’s list of the fifteen best places to stop for fried chicken between Memphis and New Orleans. I chose the Fried Green Tomato BLT. There’s nothing like taking a sandwich that starts with a two to one ratio of healthy fillings, then frying one of the healthy two. One day they’ll figure out how to fry lettuce and the cycle will be complete. And we’ll make it a Monte Cristo. Sandwich over.
After breakfast the next morning we made a run to TurnRow Books, where I bought books on burgers and fries, donuts, apple pie and fried chicken, then another one telling me why I probably shouldn’t eat any of those. Then it was off to Indianola to the B.B. King Museum. As soon as we left Greenwood, the gas light went on and I began looking for a service station. Wife saw an Exxon ahead, but my eyes had moved a few hundred yards beyond to a Double Quick. Normally that would mean nothing to me, but I had studied the fried chicken list — Double Quick had made the cut, and the Itta Bena store was one of the three specific stations mentioned. Yes, I had just finished a stupendous southern breakfast at the Alluvian hotel, and yes, I already knew where we were eating lunch. But this was research, and I am dedicated. The first thing I noticed was the flakiness of the crust — perhaps because it was flaking off into my lap as I drove. Inside that skin, the first bite was super-tender and seriously hot. A bit hard to manage while driving, but I made do. Perhaps I should have ordered the easier-to-manage-with one-hand drumstick, but I am a thigh man and nothing if not loyal.
After a little blues from Howlin’ Madd Perry at the museum, we went around the block to The Crown restaurant in Indianola. When it first moved to town the restaurant occupied a single storefront, eventually adding a gift shop next door as the space opened up. It was at that point, according to co-owner Tony Roughton, they decided to “Cracker Barrel” the place, making the only entrance to the restaurant through the gift shop. Clever. The meal started out with hot, fresh bread and ended with a trip to the dessert table loaded with pies, all of which were Taste of Gourmet creations available in the gift shop. The signature dish was called Catfish Allison — a catfish fillet poached in a butter, green onion and parmesan sauce. When the catfish disappeared, there was a significant pool of sauce leftover. What was a good southern boy to do? Not being one to waste, I asked for another piece of fresh bread, of course, and commenced sopping.
After spending a little more time in B.B.’s place, we raced back to Greenwood to make our dinner reservation at Lusco’s. Yes, it is possible I over-planned our meals a bit. Lusco’s has been around since the late ‘20s, when Mama Lusco began serving spaghetti plates out of the family grocery store. As the story goes, Papa Lusco built private, curtained seating areas during the prohibition era, and those private booths still exist today — for nostalgic reasons rather than prohibitive ones. Wife ordered iced shrimp, at which point I mocked her — but they were actually very tasty. I cracked under the pressure of ordering the perfect meal at a legendary restaurant, and left a tiny bit disappointed — I didn’t do the usual amount of pre-ordering homework. But I also left ready to try again, and the experience was well worth the trip.
We decided to skip breakfast the next morning. Surprise, surprise. Our Tallahatchie Flats shack didn’t offer a continental breakfast — a blessing undisguised. But before heading back to Stark-Vegas and reality, we went to the last place on this trip’s “to-eat” list: the Crystal Grill. Despite the extensive menu, Wife and I both ordered variations on a fried pork cutlet, hers parmigiana style, mine smothered in brown gravy. I also got a side of squash casserole unlike any I had ever had before, the squash discs coated in a rich cream sauce. Dessert was pie: chocolate chess and their famous lemon icebox. It was good that they didn’t have an endless dessert table like The Crown.
I never imagined that Greenwood would be such a culinary destination, but I’d be happy to go back to each place we visited and just order something different. Then stay another day and get some barbecue. Oh, and tamales. And take another Viking class. I think I need a sponsor.
Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist. The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff. He welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org .