Clarksdale is known for being black and white. But don’t forget the Lebanese. And their food. Especially their food.
Forks and knives clattered against china from the old country on the night Dad’s soul went to The Underworld (or maybe great-grandma Mamie was just being dramatic).
A mere month into my parents’ courtship, my mother invited my twenty-something father to family dinner. His first Lebanese feast. Mom’s faint olive skin began to explain itself in the overtly ethnic picnic that Mamie Abraham Meena had strewn across the dining table. The entire family, plus guest, reverently lowered themselves into their chairs. Dinner was served.
Murmurs and gathers of comfortable chatter filled the space above their heads.
“Mamie,” my father asked. “You got any ketchup?”
As silent as the many darting eyes that shot across the table, the room turned to ice. He knew he had misspoken. From the bounty of unfamiliar Mediterranean food, Dad—a descendant of the first white family to settle in Coahoma County—had piled his plate with a dish that seemed recognizable enough. These discs of fried meat, like chestnut-colored hockey pucks, auspiciously sat in the middle of the table. Wasn’t this fried patty akin to the many burgers he’d gobbled beneath the mosquitoed white light of Spruce Street baseball park? Was natural law not on his side? How sinful his assumptions were.
Mamie fetched the Heinz from the back of the cabinet and, stoic, she slammed it next to him not unlike a judge banging her gavel. His face was as red as the errant bottle.
Yes, it was meat. Yes, it was fried. But this was kibbie, and you do not put ketchup on kibbie.
My dad has two story-telling voices: one for normal recollections and an extra syrupy drawl for the stories he loves. Stories like this one. Jesting at his oblivion to the sin he committed, Fincher Gist “Jack” Bobo uses this savory Delta accent to hammer out his KETCH-up punch-line as if hammering the very bottleneck with his wrist.
Twenty-five years have passed since that night, yet nothing makes him bend a deep laugh like this tale. A favorite detail is how Mamie referred to him as what’s his name until her dying day — of course, by then it had evolved into a term of endearment of sorts.
Like this story, Lebanese food has been a part of my upbringing since my knee-high years. But much more than recipes were passed down from Mamie to Bebe to Mom to my dinner table. To this day, the contents of that table remain a tradition. On those special Sundays, it would be unnatural for the assortment of Middle Eastern fare— tabouleh, rolled grape leaves, lahben, and kibbie—to be served without Bebe’s very Southern buttermilk fried chicken. Ketchup, of course, was available for the chicken.
What is true about my dinner table is true about Clarksdale and perhaps the Delta as a whole. It is a conglomeration of cultures—as diverse and rich as our soil.
The Kibbie Expert
Barbara McKay – Serving You Since 1995 , declares the fresh navy font of her name tag. Beneath the text, a promise: Kroger: Customer 1st. The plastic rectangle jiggles as she pulls the lapel of her butcher’s coat across her chest in vain effort to unite the white fabric.
‘Kibbie must be one of their soul foods,” she says about her Lebanese clientele. “Like we call fried chicken soul food.”
Among the people of Little Lebanon, an old Delta nickname for Clarksdale, this woman is the go-to for kibbie meat. They’ve gone to her for the past 18 years because she does it right.
“Kibbie is the most expensive ground meat there is because we have to run it through the grinder three, maybe four, times,” she says. “It has to be 100 percent fat-free. I go in there to cut that top round and I make sure I have a sharp edge and I take all the marbling out. They want nothing but that red lean meat. The grinder has to be completely sanitized beforehand. As a meat clerk, you know what kibbe is supposed to be like if you care about it.”
There’s no doubting how much she cares. Her procedure is meticulous because she knows the needs of the people she serves.
“It has to be perfect,” McKay says in reference to Georgia Wilson, one of her faithful customers. “Because I don’t know if she was eating it raw. She didn’t say and I didn’t ask.”
As if slipping me the secret handshake, McKay’s mention of raw kibbie proved that this African-American woman was family. According to Lebanese tradition— once the raw meat is mixed with cracked bulgar wheat, onion, black pepper, salt, and sometimes cinnamon—it is likely that some, if not a lot, of the raw mixture will be eaten prior to being fried or baked. Raw is my preferred form.
McKay is a bit of a celebrity. Known to all as Barbara, she is nothing less than family to the more than 20 Lebanese customers that request her by name several times a month.
Her glossed violet lips are pursed as she remembers her late friend, Evelyn Nosef.
“Mrs. Nosef was one of my favorite customers.”
Having strictly a phone relationship for over a decade, Nosef would call in her order exclusively to McKay and have someone pick it up. They had never met. Until the day the meat department phone rang.
“She wanted to see who I was. When she got there she said ‘I’m Evelyn Nosef and you’ve been cutting my steaks and kibbie for 14 years.’”
The freckles on McKay’s cheeks dance when she laughs, remembering a time Nosef “got so mad.” McKay had been on vacation and someone was filling in for her. But Nosef knew the difference between a novice and a professional.
“The manager had to calm her down. She came in exclaiming ‘Barbara didn’t do this! I know she didn’t do this!’”
This kind of passion is the reason Kroger still has a meat grinder at all. According to McKay, the national grocery chain has all but entirely moved to pre-packaged meat.
“They send in the ground bison ready packaged, ground lamb, ground beef, ground chuck, ground sirloin—even the chili meat is already packaged and ready to sell.”
Everything but the kibbie. The Lebanese folk have made sure of that.
“They buy enough kibbie to keep us grindin’,” McKay says. “We sell enough to keep that grinder and that’s the only reason.”
The Good Old Days
Louise Wilson—known by all acquaintances as “Weezy”—is one of McKay’s “faithfuls,” responsible for keeping Kroger’s grinder churning. Also, Weezy is Mamie’s sister, making her my aunt with a pair of anteceding “greats.” How very great she is indeed.
In her kitchen, a forest of monkeys plays on the jade wallpaper. Red flowers bloom between the troublesome primates, completing the pattern. Across the breakfast table, she faces me, sitting in front of the verdant chaos. She is the master of this space. This is her kitchen.
“Growing up was fun because we had a lot to eat. At Thanksgiving we’d have turkey and dressing and kibbie,” Weezy says. “Lebanese people, they’ve gotta have a full table or they don’t feel like they’re doing you good.”
Weezy’s father (my great-great grandfather), Sam Abraham, immigrated to the United States in 1893. He was one of the thousands of Lebanese to leave Lebanon between 1878 and 1924, marking the First Wave of Arab immigration. Most of these newcomers were peasant farmers fleeing persecution by the Turkish ruling class. My great-great grandfather, like many other immigrants, got involved in the mercantile business, peddling door to door—at least at first. They found this a stable alternative compared to other minorities largely involved in the difficult peonage of sharecropping. Many Lebanese found the moderate climate of the Delta to be agreeable with this line of work. My great-great grandfather finally settled in Clarksdale in 1916.
Cakes in the Bathtub
Her flip-phone rings, breaking the stream of oration. It’s her son, Bill—who lives 3 doors down—calling to check in.
“He told me to stop sendin’ him text messages,” Weezy laughs after folding the phone carefully with both of her hands. “He said he can never decipher them and it makes him worry.”
We get a good laugh out of this.
“Now where were we?” she asks.
“The Lebanese socials.”
“Oh! Yes.” Her eyes squint. Her face glows. I can tell it’s a fond memory. “We used to pile up in the car at Christmastime and drive all the way to Vicksburg for a dance. All the Lebanese families. It was several groups of us.”
To this day, Lebanese folk flock to Vicksburg on special occasions. The statewide Annual Lebanese Dinner is held in Vicksburg each February, now in its 52nd year.
She tells me about all the meals she cooked for Bill and his friends growing up. Cars would spill out of her driveway on certain nights during his high school years.
“Joel would call me,” Weezy says, recalling one of Bill’s closest friends. “He’d call me in the afternoon and ask me what I was cookin’ that night. I said ‘What difference is it?’ and he told me he wanted to be thinkin’ about it during football practice.”
“It got so bad that I had to start hiding my cakes in the bathtub.”
So every week, cars would line Anderson Boulevard, the door would burst open, and chairs would crowd around the table. Hands, a variety of colors from white to shades of brown, reached for their portion of that exotic Lebanese cuisine. This is Weezy’s kitchen.
My mom, Mary Martha Meena Bobo, used to take me on drives. We’d loop through the flat, sinuous roads of Clarksdale in the bright moments after my release from Presbyterian Day School. Allowing me enough time to finish whatever gas-station fare or Sno-Cone I was munching, she would drive through the old neighborhoods of her childhood. Oblivious to either her repetition or my attention, she would always point and comment at the same houses.
“Every time grandma Mamie would come in town she’d grab me and we’d go to that house and I’d drink Cokes and eat lemonheads,” Mom says at the white brick house on Cherry Street.
“Me and Mamie used to visit some lady in that house, I don’t remember who she was,” at the dwarf house on Elm with blue shutters.
Now on my drives, 57-minute ones from Ole Miss to Clarksdale, I’m reminiscing. The ruler-straight trajectory, an anesthetizing path from Lafayette to Coahoma County, does a number on your imagination. Recently I haven’t been able to drive this endless pastoral landscape without thinking of Lebanese food. Everything about a field reminds me of kibbie – baked kibbie, to be precise.
The expansive vista of plowed earth like a casserole dish. The sepia of dirt like cooked kibbie mixed with the gravelly grain of bulgar wheat. The perfect linear furrows of crop that flicker beyond my driver-side window are like the rows of the baked dish. The kibbie is lightly scored into perfect square plots, indicating appropriate portion sizes. (But no cook worth her tabouleh would consider merely one square an adequate serving size.)
Nothing brings me home like kibbie. Along with the foods paired with it, kibbie was identifiably essential to my unassimilated family of the past. Therefore it is exponentially more important to me. Even the unforgivably bad kind is redeemable (don’t eat kibbie from the hookah bar in Hattiesburg; I’ve tried it and I’m sure grandma Mamie is still doing barrel rolls in her grave).
But it is redeemable because of what it represents. It’s always an experience to meet someone with a Lebanese-sounding last name and rejoice after an affirmative response to, “Do you eat kibbie?”
It may be a stretch to use my ethnic dishes, my “soul foods” as McKay calls them, to make wider claims about ethnic connectedness. My food and I are only one strand in this complicated web. But is it really that much of a stretch? From my very early days as a student at Ole Miss, I became aware that many people viewed the Mississippi Delta with a condescending frown.
I had no idea so many people thought of my homeland as a third-world country, topping all sorts of ugly lists: teen pregnancy, heart disease, obesity, struggling schools, poverty. Those are statistics that cannot be disputed. But what has bothered me for some time is the undeserved stigma that usually accompanies these unpleasant rankings. It is the blind presumption of unknowing outsiders that my home is a culturally shallow land of racial prejudice and societal polarity. As if it’s only whites and blacks, and they’re each standing in their respective corners unsure of what move to make.
There’s so much more going on here than that. It’s not just whites and blacks. And the corners are nearly vacated.
Yeah, we’ve had our issues, and scars from those issues—I graduated from one of the many private high schools that had its beginnings during an era of white flight from public school integration. But the thing about a scar is that there’s usually a story with it. And we learn from our stories. The Delta has emerged from the past as one of the most culturally rich areas in the entire country.
What’s indisputable is that the Delta is a mixture: Italians, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Mennonites, African Americans and WASPs.
If you want proof of the influence Lebanese culture has had in the Delta, go to the back of Kroger and ask McKay to show you the meat grinder. My people are one small part in this conglomeration.
And what is a conglomeration if not the synergistic mesh of differences? The many things that are brought to the table borrow from each other, thriving because of the interaction, growing from the other’s presence. It’s a dinner table of sorts. Don’t just assume that fried chicken, turkey, and dressing, won’t work with kibbie and grape leaves. I’ve seen it work at my table. It just does.
My friend Jimmy Thomas, whose indepth research of Delta Lebanese I have almost entirely gleaned, tells a story about one of the first Lebanese immigrants in Mississippi. Like many others, this particular man arrived through the port of New Orleans. He knew other Syrians were living in New Orleans but didn’t speak English.
So he did the only thing he knew to do.
Standing on the dock he began a desperate scream: “Kibbie! Kibbie! Kibbie!” Pausing only to catch a breath. Finally, a Syrian merchant recognized those familiar words. He approached the shouting man and offered to help him out, giving him some goods that allowed him to begin his career as a merchant.
Just like my parents, myself, just like Weezy, just like Barbara McKay and Evelyn Nosef kibbie is a way we have managed to find each other, amongst each other, as we reverently lower ourselves into our chairs.
Mary Martha Bobo’s Kibbie (makes 10-12 servings)
2 pounds lean ground beef
2 ó cups fine cracked wheat
2 tablespoons salt
1 tablespoon pepper
2 medium onions, grated fine in a food processor (almost to liquid)
1 cup of ice water
Remove all fat from meat and cut in cubes. Triple-grind the meat. Keep meat cold before, during, and after preparation if serving raw.
Wash cracked wheat and let it soak in cold water for 10 minutes while grating onions.
Drain water from wheat by cupping hands and squeezing out all moisture and knead with meat, salt and pepper. (Add onions last to help keep the meat pink if you are serving it raw.)
While kneading the mixture, add water little by little until you get the kibbie soft and smooth.
Form kibbie dough into patties and deep-fry in hot oil for 5 to 10 minutes or until golden brown.
Serve raw kibbie with saltine crackers.
–Story by John Bobo, originally appeared in Land of Plenty: Will Food Save The Delta Or Be Its Death, a depth report by the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at The University of Mississippi.