Tuesday, September 27, 2022

The Best Music in Indianola is the Sound of Cash Registers

You can’t miss B.B. King’s influence here.
His name is on the $16 million Smithsonian quality B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. His image is plastered on billboards. His bust, in bronze, sits in a local park bearing his name. He pumped money into Club Ebony, the old blues club that helped launch his career, to keep it going.

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Trish Berry opened the Blue Biscuit across the street from the B.B. King Museum.

And just in case you missed all of that, he returns to his hometown for annual benefit concerts.
Like with actor Morgan Freeman in Clarksdale, it is impossible to understate how much the legendary bluesman has helped prop up this town’s economy over the years.
The museum, which opened in 2008, traces King’s luminous career along with the civil rights movement. The reviews were so spectacular that tour buses loaded with European blues fans began to show up, creating more business for those already here and encouraging others, like Blue Biscuit owner Trish Berry, to create new ones.
It all started when, desperate for ways to revive the town, local restaurateur Evelyn Roughton and others came up with the idea for a museum in King’s name.
“We needed a museum. We needed to honor him,” Roughton said. After four years of deliberation, serious talks began and the town raised enough money to lure a federal grant and to get it built. It was an immediate success, though the recession has slowed down the influx of tourists.
Now, on most days, Roughton can look around downtown and see the effects of that investment by counting the strangers on the street.
Roughton is the owner of The Crown, a lunch spot in the center of the business district that serves Delta foods with a French influence. It’s renowned throughout the Delta as a gathering place for both ladies who lunch and “hunters in their camouflage. They always wipe their feet so we are perfectly happy with a little mud on their clothes,” Roughton said.
Empty plates are common after eating at The Crown.
Empty plates are common after eating at The Crown.

Her smoked catfish pate won the Best Hors D’Oeuvre Award in the 1990 International Fancy Food Show in New York, and samples are always on display on an antique table in the gift shop that adjoins the café.
“We tied Delta cuisine, specifically catfish, with French cuisine,” Roughton said. She is a huge supporter of using the ugliest fish in the world, even at a more upscale restaurant such as hers. “You can use catfish!” Roughton said.
Roughton has always been exposed to a Delta culture with a taste for the finer things in life, and for flavors more sophisticated than fried foods and field peas.
Indianola is, after all, also home to another national icon besides B.B. King: Craig Claiborne, food editor at The New York Times for 29 years and widely regarded as the father of restaurant criticism. His mother, Kathleen, ran a boarding house in town for years, where she earned a reputation for European-inspired fare as well as Southern classics. Throughout his globe-trotting career, her son wrote about the cuisines of his childhood with no less enthusiasm than his more worldly discoveries.
The Crown serves Delta food with a French influence.
The Crown serves Delta food with a French influence.

That appreciation for good food, both humble and high-class, is evident all over town. Besides the Crown, there is Nola, a hot night spot serving steak and seafood dishes as well as fancy burgers and such in a restored old movie theater, and Gin Mill Galleries, a combination gift store, restaurant and music venue in a restored cotton gin next to the museum. Lost Pizza – a wildly successful small chain specializing in Delta-inspired pies like “The Lucille” in honor of King’s most famous guitar – took root here next to the co-founder’s parents’ popular dairy bar/café, Pea Soup’s Lott-A-Freeze, a nostalgic favorite. Right along U.S. Highway 82 is the Indianola Pecan House, specializing in pecan treats of every variety.
For several years, Trish Berry ran the kitchen there until she opened her own place, the Blue Biscuit, across the street from the museum. “After they put this $16 million museum literally in my backyard,” Berry said, she knew she had to open a restaurant. She put it in a building that over the years had served as a butcher shop, car dealership, glass company and church.
Berry, who worked several years at Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale, is co- owner and cook at the Blue Biscuit, a totally renovated and redecorated “fun, funky little place” that serves mouth-watering barbecue, big burgers, and imaginative sandwiches.
Screen Shot 2014-05-16 at 2.02.38 PMIt also has live music on the weekends. A jukebox that once graced the dance floor of Club Ebony has a place of honor, blaring out Bobby Rush and a whole array of blues songs. Berry also offers a couple of tin-roofed bungalows that serve as a sort of B & B (bed-and-beer) for travelers.
Despite two completely different atmospheres, both Berry and Roughton go out of their way to make people feel welcome. “That’s part of the Delta theme,” Berry said. “Nobody is going hungry on my watch.”
Such is the spirit of cooperation that gives hope to a place rife with unemployment, poverty and other ills.
“Ladies who lunch have been coming to Evelyn’s place from all over for a long time,” said Berry. “And I think the Biscuit and the museum are two things that are bringing more people to the Delta.”
One thing Roughton and Berry have in common: their reverence for what B.B. King has done for the music world as a whole, and for their tiny corner of it in particular.
“He means a lot,” Roughton said of King, whose likeness appears in several paintings around her restaurant. “To come back to his hometown, that’s been a real good thing for us all of these years.”
Trish Berry agrees. “It gives me goose bumps to know he’s from my town.”
– Story by Bowen Thigpen. Photos by Thomas Graning. Story and photos originally published in Deeper South: Land of Plenty, an award-winning magazine published by the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi. The magazine was named Best Student Magazine in the nation by the Society of Professional Journalists.

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