When blues tourists hit the Delta, they never go hungry.
Across the stained, Sharpie-scribbled tablecloth, bluesman Bill “Howl N’ Madd” Perry pours a steady stream of sugar into a steaming cup of strong, black coffee. He recounts, with an ever-ready laugh, a question that caught him off guard recently.
“I showed up here one night and someone goes, ‘Hey, Howl N’ Madd, have you tried your sandwich yet?’ Me, I didn’t even know about it.”
Indeed, here at Ground Zero Blues Club there is a sandwich – a Philly cheesesteak “sammich” — named in honor of this
blues guitarist and fixture of Clarksdale ‘s world-famous music scene. James “Super Chikan” Johnson and Josh “Razorblade” Stewart, two other frequent Ground Zero headliners, also have tasty tributes, as does Highway 61, the foremost artery of the blues. This tourist mecca knows how to market the music with the food.
Like a bluesman mid-show after a hard pull of whiskey, the Mississippi Delta’s blues scene has been remarkably rejuvenated in the past few years. Roots music entices fans from Liverpool to New York to Tokyo to come down to the Mississippi Delta for a pure blues experience. But the local restaurant fare, both venerable establishments and new endeavors, has many tourists staying longer and exploring further afield. The
same culture that gave blues its vitality, its verve, also shaped a finger-licking good food culture. The duet of blues and food endows hard-pressed towns with a fresh spark.
All you have to do is listen to the accents in the lunchtime crowds that pack Abe’s Bar-B-Q and Rest Haven to get a sense of how the blues has helped the local economy.
The region offers what Roger Stolle, owner of Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art Inc., terms the “no frills” blues culture.
Take a look at Ground Zero, which receives the brunt of the Hertz rental cars and tour buses. The father of Clarksdale’s blues revival, though appealing to masses, clings stubbornly to the battered sofa on its sagging front porch and allows drunken scribbling on the rough wooden walls, encourages dancing on the bar and avoids frills like a bluesman would run from Bieber.
The blues club kitchen did not have to reinvent the deep fryer to please the crowd. Its carefully designed menu features classic $9 southern plate lunches, the avowed best burgers in town, and as owner Bill Luckett boasts, “the most southern food on earth” — fried grits.
All in all, Ground Zero dishes out a great, greasy repast that satisfies tourists eager for their first taste of Southern food. The wait staff recommends accordingly. If you want a modern twist of Southern-fried excess, split a dozen of the fried Texas tamales. For a true taste of the local blues heat, order a half-dozen of Mr. Turner’s hot tamales.
Restaurants and blues musicians alike know that blues fans want it both real and raw. The Delta’s candid manner serves the region well for, as Stolle contends, blues tourists will spot tacky “in a heartbeat.” The Clarksdale businessman Kinchen ‘Bubba’ O’Keefe is confident the town can give visitors the true blues ethos.
“Clarksdale’s unique. We’re one foot in this century, one foot in the past century. We’re edgy, refined,” he says.
Indeed, blues and food have long been associates. The music and Southern specialties such as Delta-style tamales came from a combination of hardship, time, and ingenuity. Playing blues for tips and selling food and drink out of the house created a thriving side economy: the juke-joint.
The director for the Delta Studies program at Delta State University, Dr. Luther Brown, acknowledges that the joints “certainly used
to serve food. Juke joints often served fried fish, or ‘chitlins,’ or pork chops, or something like that. Southern country soul food cooking. Hot tamales, too.”
The juke’s kitchen was never far from the stage. On Friday and Saturday night, many members of the black community would go to the jukes to eat, drink, and be carefree until the sunlight crested the cotton horizon.
Near Merigold, Po’ Monkey’s Lounge, the last bulwark of the country juke joint, shows the change of scene in the Delta. People from all over come to pay tribute to the many-wigged proprietor, William “Po’ Monkey” Seaberry. Only the anticipated arrival of Hot Tamale Man ruffles the pulsing vibe of the juke. Around 10 p.m. the crowd starts to rumble, asking whether he’s arrived with his $10-a-dozen tamales. Every Thursday night out of his truck bed, Daryl More — you can call him “Homeboy” — fills up to-go boxes with his homemade tamales for the hungry ride home.
All about sex
Many dedicated tourists seek out the Robert Johnson guide Sylvester Hoover in Greenwood. Hoover lives and works in
the Baptist Town neighborhood, the last place Robert Johnson played. So named because of the adjacent creek’s
consistent 4-foot depth, easily enough for immersion, the neighborhood is in an abject state. Even the most naive tourist can’t fail to see the blues in those shabby shotgun shacks.
Hoover acknowledges this element’s impact on tourists. “Those people want organic. They don’t pay $5,000 for a lie. They want to see where Robert Johnson came from. They don’t want painted-over.”
Often, blues artists invoked southern dishes in the heart of their music. Blues lyrics are full of innuendo, often aimed against the boss man or toward their lovers. Food references allowed songs to be radio-appropriate. “No matter what food you make,” says Brown, “there’s a blues song about it. It’s usually signifying sex. It’s not talking about food. Food is definitely used for a metaphor.”
Baptist Town’s own Robert Johnson adheres to this signifying tradition in his 1936 recording They’re Red Hot. In the song, he croons about a favorite girl:
Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ‘em for sale / Hot tamales and they’re red hot, yes she got ‘em for sale / She got two for a nickel, got four for a dime / Would sell you more, but they ain’t none of mine.
It’s real simple
Stretching parallel to the Mississippi River, Highway 1 merges into Joe Pope Boulevard by the Eagles football stadium at Rosedale. At the modest wood-framed White Front Cafe, Barbara Pope has her family’s famous tamales for sale by the trio. On a classic red tablecloth, she serves up an order of three tawny tamales speckled with crimson drops of her piquant spice. Blanch Turnage, a retired high school history teacher, quips knowingly: “You’re really going to want more than three. I promise.”
Without so much as a nod to the complement, Pope tells her story in a gentle voice. The strongest pull of the South, family, brought her home from Chicagoto care for her now 105-year-old mother. Back in Rosedale, she became her brother Joe’s tamale apprentice. While working at Dattel’s Department Store, Joe learned the tamale craft from his childhood friend’s father in order to earn some extra money on weekends. Just as Joe personalized the recipe, Barbara gave it her own riff. Yet at the heart of these tamales is simplicity: beef brisket and cornmeal.
Her tamales are for savoring, like a favorite vinyl record. True to the code of great cooks, Barbara guards her recipe. But she does not mind if her neighbor Turnage helps her out with the hard, monotonous part of tamale making: rolling.
Southern food was a family affair for Turnage as well. She remembers that her mother operated a cafe on the north side of town. But the traveling bluesmen stopped on the south side, the “end of town.” Gay Ruth’s cafe fed musicians such as Tyrone Davis, Willie Cox, and Bobby Rush as they headed north for Memphis and beyond. These days, Rush still comes by the White Front for an occasional taste of tamale.
Tamales and the blues are no longer found solely in hidden dives off the highways. As towns develop their blues legacy, restaurants follow. Twenty miles east of Rosedale in Cleveland, state Sen. William “Willie” Simmons, the proprietor of The Senator’s Place, and harmonica- playing bluesman Rush, close friends, keep the blues and soul food partnership alive.
To the right of an engraved mirror portrait of Simmons, a rainbow sherbet-colored poster proudly hangs, commemorating the opening night blues show which gave the restaurant an electric start. The two hosted a fundraiser for army veterans at the state Capitol in March. Rush plays sweet blues. Simmons cooks fine soul food. People give generous tips to charity.
Working in the blues hub of Clarksdale when the B.B. King Blues Museum opened virtually in her Indianola backyard in 2008, Trish Berry had an epiphany. “I learned when I worked in Clarksdale that blues tourists are coming. I just kind of thought I could cut my commute from 63 miles to 63 steps,” she said. A building of many pasts — juke house, butcher shop, glass house, church — stood empty right by the pristine blues shrine. With co-owner Harlan Malone, Berry renovated it into a fine barbecue place. After 72 hours in the smoker, the tender barbecued pork easily matches the Smithsonian-worthy museum in customer satisfaction.
The Blue Biscuit is no fabled last juke joint standing. Instead, Berry has created an enthusiastic, quirky aesthetic that pulses with a modern blues ambiance. A fluorescent blue jukebox is at the center of a back room next to the couches of the mini-library. An old piano keeps the blues rhythm going. From a rearview mirror in the men’s stall to a Betty Ford Clinic styrofoam cup, the decor exudes a bluesy funk. And of course, a photo of the patron saint of Indianola, B. B. King, is never far from view.
For Berry, the Delta formula for success is still the same. “Real simple food that’s really good. Real simple music that’s really good. Real simple people who are really good.”
As the locals in blues hubs have realized the fascination with their home as is, they have instinctively lavished the renowned Delta hospitality on tourists. The townies “don’t want you to miss a thing,” Stolle said. Hayden Hall, operator of Oxbow Market in Clarksdale, agrees. “Everybody in this town is an unofficial tour guide… A win for one is a win for all.”
Yet all the blues hospitality would come up short without the nourishing experience of Delta restaurants. The eateries share a spirit of camaraderie, knowing that one bad experience is all it takes to drive visitors away. The restaurants have grasped the natural bond between blues and food. So too do most of the musicians.
“I don’t know if there is” a connection between blues and food, Howl N’ Madd Perry admits. “But after a long night of playing, I sure get hungry.” He gestures across the table like a man tossing tips into a tin bucket.
“Well, do you want to get something else? Well, I mean, get what you want. Get you a sammich.” He pauses for an eighth note, and then drawls, “I would suggest the Howl N’ Madd.”
-Written by Neal McMillin, Design by Virginia England
Feeding the Blues
When blues tourists hit the Delta, they never go hungry.