Subject: The Mississippi Delta
You can shut your eyes and countone, Mississippi, two, Mississippi, three, Mississippiand be reasonably sure that whenever you open your eyes, the Magnolia State will look about the same. But on a recent trip, I made a few new discoveries. My friend John T. Edge, a superb food writer and chicken fryer, picked me up at the Memphis airport, and we bombed south on Highway 61 to Clarksdale, holy city of the blues. Any Clarksdale pilgrimage should start where mine did, at the two-year-old Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art (252 Delta Ave.; 662-624-5992), a record shop, art gallery and welcome center for Delta travelers, who can scan the blackboard out front for reports on who's playing at which local juke. One such club is Ground Zero, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman, which offers music and great chili burgers (0 Blues Alley; 662-621-9009). Freeman and his partners peddle swankier dishes, like crab and basil hushpuppies, at their restaurant, Madidi (164 Delta Ave.; 662-627-7770).
After I spent two hours in Cat Head buying some very strange drawings by an Alabama artist named John Henry Toney, John T. ferried me back to his place in Oxford, about 70 miles east. Oxford is now something of a mecca itself because of the Southern Foodways Symposium (662-915-5993), which draws professional food scholars as well as amateur eaters each fall. The town also supports a new organic farmers' market (from May to September; at Midtown Shopping Center on North Lamar; 662-234-6447), where Ron Brandon sells the poultry and pork he raises on the pastures of Zion Farms in nearby Pontotoc. After just three years, Brandon has made himself the go-to farmer for Oxford's more thoughtful restaurants, like Yocona River Inn (842 Highway 334; 662-234-2464). Brandon is tending six Berkshire hogs earmarked for another Oxford newcomer, L&M's Kitchen & Salumeria (309C North Lamar; 662-832-2679). L&M is co-owned by Dan Latham, a Mississippi native who cured salamis and pancetta for New York City star chef Mario Batali before he decided to nail up his own ham-shaped shingle this February. The menu will be familiar to Batali followerssausage ragù, bucatini alla Amatricianabut currently lacks esoterica like cured-lard pizza. "We're keeping it simple until people get what we're doing," Latham explains. "We can't take it too fast." Under his breath, though, I believe I heard him counting: four, Mississippi, five, Mississippi, six, Mississippi...