Feeding the Blues

The Mississippi Delta has inspired hundreds of musicians--and at least one chef. Blues enthusiast Michael Lomonaco goes south in search of fried catfish and juke joints.

From the street, Turner's Grill, set amid a bleak cluster of shuttered storefronts in downtown Clarksdale, Mississippi, looks a bit intimidating. It seems as though most of the other buildings on the block closed a while back; a few may even have burned. But inside Larry and Lucille Turner's tidy café, the yellow walls glow as if backlit. A 75-watt bulb dangles above the gleaming steam table, illuminating today's feast: fried chicken, stewed chitlins, creamed potatoes and collard greens full of ham hocks and hot peppers. "This is the kind of place you wake up in the morning dreaming about," Michael Lomonaco says between bites of a drumstick sheathed in a ruddy crust. "If the blues gave birth to rock and roll--and we know they did in large part--then honest local food like this gave birth to what we now know as American cooking."

Lomonaco, chef at Windows on the World and Wild Blue in New York City, has come to explore one of the nation's most culturally rich and economically destitute regions: the Mississippi Delta, a 200-mile-long sliver of bottomland that hugs the Mississippi River from Memphis, Tennessee, in the north to Vicksburg, Mississippi, in the south. Rather than trying to take in the whole stretch, Lomonaco hopes to see as much of the Mississippi triangle mapped out by Clarksdale, Greenwood and Greenville as one short weekend will allow.

For Lomonaco the trip is a pilgrimage to the source of two things he reveres: simple American food and the Delta blues. "Ever since I was a teenager and bought my first Lightnin' Hopkins album, I've been fascinated by blues music," Lomonaco says. "I even play a little guitar myself. And how could I not love the cooking? For me the Delta is the homeland of soulful food and music. It's one of the places I look to for inspiration when I'm in the kitchen at Wild Blue." When he gets back to that kitchen, perched on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, Lomonaco plans to apply what he learns on this weekend of down-home dining to a set of Delta-inspired recipes.

After we leave Turner's, our first stop is the Delta Blues Museum, set in an old redbrick freight depot. Clarksdale, a town just awakening to the possibilities of cultural tourism, can lay claim to a long and heady musical history. Bluesman Muddy Waters got his start nearby. Ditto John Lee Hooker, Son House, Ike Turner and a host of others. The museum, filled with vintage guitars, battered harmonicas and stunning black-and-white photographs of the local countryside, is worthy of an afternoon of study and reflection. It's also the unofficial welcome center for blues pilgrims, the place to stop when you need to know what juke joints are going to be hopping come Saturday night. On the way out the door, Lomonaco picks up a couple of tips: There should be some music in an old commissary near Bourbon tonight, and California bluesman Bilbo Walker is supposed to play a homecoming set at a place called the Bobo Store on Saturday night.

Highway 61 beckons. Just one last stop before we leave town: Oscar Orsby's tamale-mobile. Each Friday and Saturday for the past 15-plus years, this seventysomething-year-old has parked his converted pickup at the corner of Fourth and Yazoo and set to work selling the Delta's favorite snack food to anyone with a few quarters jangling in his pocket. Lomonaco orders a half dozen for the road. "Now, be careful you don't eat your fingers right off," Orsby teases, handing over the greasy bundles. "I don't have insurance to cover you."

Migrant Mexican cotton pickers introduced hot tamales to the Delta during the early years of the 20th century, but today few locals ponder matters of origin. Contrary to popular perception, the Delta is not just a land of West African and Anglo-Saxon cultures. In Clarksdale the best buttermilk biscuits are baked at Chamoun's Rest Haven, a Lebanese-owned roadside restaurant. And the tastiest pork rinds are fried by the Wongs, a second-generation Chinese American family originally from Guangdong province. After a few days in the Delta, you come to realize that hot tamales are as much a part of the culture as cotton and catfish.

At last we're headed south down Highway 61, the same road once traveled northward by legions of black Mississippians seeking better jobs in St. Louis and Chicago, Detroit and New York, and freedom from the constraints of the Jim Crow South. The Delta rolls by along a ribbon of asphalt. Crossroad towns pass in quick succession, smudges of color glimpsed against a backdrop of dusky green cotton plants, their white bolls yet to blossom. Less than 150 years ago, the Delta was a swampy forest studded with cypresses. But generations of farmworkers--first slaves, later sharecroppers and day laborers--wrung out the land like a dish towel and ironed it flat. Today, when the sun sinks low in the sky, even dirt clods cast shadows.

Somewhere east of Leland, we leave the highway. Two wrong turns follow in quick succession: dirt-lane dead ends. Though he is a native of Brooklyn, more accustomed to navigating the subway tunnels of New York than the two-lane blacktops of the rural South, Lomonaco drives on, bound for the Bourbon Mall Restaurant, known to everybody around here as Sonny's. At last he finds it, a funky little joint in an old clapboard building deep in the cotton fields outside the tiny community of Bourbon. We arrive to see local blues musician Eddie Cusic onstage, strumming a six-string guitar. "Lord, I wish I was a catfish swimming in the deep blue sea," Cusic moans. "Lord, I'd have all these pretty women fishing after me."

The next morning, we chart a path along Highway 1, the Great River Road. On our left, groves of pecan trees. Come fall, the sweet brown nuts will blanket the ground and pecan pie will pop up on every cafe menu in the state, but for now clusters of small green husks hang heavy in the trees. On our right, the levee, and beyond, the churning brown waters of the mighty Mississippi River. Above, crop dusters trace colorful arcs through the sky, swooping low and slow over the cotton fields, trailing plumes of pesticide.

Along the way, we pass a fishmonger selling his catch from the back of a pickup truck. In one of the coolers, a monstrous chucklehead catfish lies in icy repose. Lomonaco leans in to have a look. "That's the sign of a truly fresh fish," he says, pointing toward the ruby red gills. We pick up catfish sandwiches for the road.

Late in the afternoon, we pull into Greenwood, home of Lusco's, the Delta's most venerable and idiosyncratic restaurant, open since 1933. But first an appetizer: At the corner of Johnson and Main, we lurch to the curb beside a two-barrel oil-drum grill, billowing pecan-wood smoke. Proprietor Leroy "Spooney" Kenter, tongs in hand, greets Lomonaco with a half slab of ribs napped in a bright vinegar-based sauce. The charred pork slips from the bone with the slightest tug, and three ribs later Lomonaco claps his newfound friend on the back. "Those were the best," he says. "And I love the sauce. It doesn't overwhelm the meat." Spooney accepts his compliments with aplomb. "They call me the rib doctor," he says with a shy smile.

Lusco's is about a mile down the street, but, oh, what a difference a mile makes. After a weekend of rough-and-tumble roadside dining, we feel supremely civilized sitting down at a linen-draped table in the rear of this onetime grocery. Long the haunt of wealthy Deltans who make their way to the wrong side of the tracks for a little dining, drinking and slumming, Lusco's exudes a kind of wizened gentility. "Sure, the paint is peeling and one of the bathrooms is out on the back porch, but we like it that way," a regular says. "At Lusco's it's good food that matters." So when the waitress pulls the curtain back on our private booth, bearing bowls of lettuce drizzled with vinaigrette and laced with anchovies, followed by platters of broiled shrimp and cups of delicate crabmeat cocktail--not to mention toothsome Black Angus rib eyes and whole pompano, scored, grilled and swabbed with a searing vinegar sauce--our party of six offers up a collective swoon and digs right in.

It's a long haul back up Highway 49, past the Parchman Prison Farm, through Swan Lake and Tutwiler, but with John Lee Hooker wailing on the stereo, time passes quickly. We slow to a crawl outside the town of Bobo. Lomonaco rolls his window down and cocks his head to the side in hopes of hearing the yelp of an electric guitar. He jerks the wheel and we turn onto a narrow lane. In no time, we're pulling into the parking lot of the Bobo Store, also known as Anderson Grocery.

The screen doors up front are locked, but the back end of the building is pulsing with sound and light. We enter through an unmarked side door, make our way to the bar and order tallboy beers. The windowless joint is in upheaval. Down front, bluesman Robert "Bilbo" Walker, attired in an electric blue suit, his wiry hair fixed into a pompadour, is belting out an old B. B. King number. "The thrill is gone," he cries. "Baby, it's gone away from me." Lomonaco looks around at the dancers writhing against a bleary neon backdrop, his face creased by a wide grin. "This is it, the real deal!" he shouts above the din. "The only thing that might make it better would be a couple of Oscar's hot tamales."

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