Sunday, February 5, 2023

Gambling on Success in the Mississippi Delta

 It is easy to be lulled to sleep when driving up Highway 61 across the Delta, its rows of cotton and soybeans stretching endlessly to the horizon.
Then, rising unexpectedly in the distance, a Goliath appears: garishly lit casinos towering over the flat, empty landscape.
Inside these smoky palaces, slot machines ding and time seems suspended as people gamble paychecks at poker, craps and blackjack tables.
There are two ways to measure time here, jokes Tunica Museum director Richard Taylor, “BC and everything after.” BC stands for before casinos, which started arriving in 1992. Everything after is The Boom.

Before The Boom, this was one of the poorest counties in the country, home to “Sugar Ditch,” an open sewage ditch along which lived people in leaky, rat- infested shacks. Jesse Jackson took one look and called it “an American Ethiopia.”
The only gambling was at Harold (Hard- Faced) Clanton’s juke house craps tables, which some say made him a rare thing indeed – a black millionaire in the Delta. Tunica residents are proud of their gambling history. Clanton was so popular that the best blues artists in the country played his place, he was known as “the black sheriff” and his huge funeral was held at a local high school gymnasium.

Today, over at Harrah’s, one of nine casinos in what has become the third largest gambling location in America, Paula Deen’s life-size image smiles big and invites gamblers to eat at her buffet and stay to play.
But many gamblers are drawn to two historic local restaurants that have stood the test of time. They have become beacons of authenticity, a constant for locals to hang on to.
For decades, locals and visitors alike have flocked to the Blue and White, a classic American diner that started out in 1924 as a gas station and bus stop on U.S. Highway 61, “the Blues Highway.” About 10 miles north in Robinsonville, now known as Tunica Resorts, the same mix of people frequent the Hollywood Cafe, where the famous piano referenced in the song “Walking In Memphis” still sits in a place that touts itself as the creator of the fried dill pickle, now a southern staple.

The Blue and White is a Classic American diner that started out as a gas station.
The Blue and White is a Classic American diner that started out as a gas station.

Walk in these two local landmarks and you’ll see tourists passing through from all over the world. But they are also gathering places full of local history. Both, like Tunica, have reaped a windfall from the influx of casinos. A big herd of earth movers rolled into the cotton fields north of town and when the dust cleared, 6,000 hotel rooms had sprouted. Along with the casinos, golf resorts, outlet mall and airport, more than 16,000 gaming jobs materialized. The money was a godsend. New businesses began to open and brought new energy to what had looked like one more little town slowly shriveling.
George McGaha and Ben Melton catching up at lunchtime in Tunica.
George McGaha and Ben Melton catching up at lunchtime in Tunica.

To step into the busy Blue and White at lunchtime is to step back in time. You can still see hints of the original Pure Oil gas station design – the canopy out front, the white-painted brick, the high-pitched roof. Gingham curtains hang in the windows. The floors are still blue and white tile, the table tops are Formica, customers perch on chrome swivel stools and chairs cushioned with blue leatherette, and the walls are plastered with faded news stories and black and white photographs, reminders of days long ago, when cotton really was king. You can’t settle into your chair good without the friendly waitresses greeting you with molasses-sweet drawls and offering coffee.

The menu hasn’t changed much either since it moved to its present location some 75 years ago. Fried chicken, fried catfish, pies topped with meringue, fried green tomatoes, chicken and dumplings and the like are still standard fare. Turnip greens, made fresh daily, are renowned as some of the region’s best.
“We have three generations working in our kitchen. We have a grandmother who works with her daughter-in-law and her grandson,” said manager Charlotte Ming.
“People have grown up with the Blue and White and it was always an icon as far as people who lived south of here” along U.S. 61, says Ming, who has commuted from Southaven for the last five years. “Anytime they had to go Memphis — that was the shopping mecca of the Delta — they always planned their trip around stopping for the Blue and White, whether it was for breakfast on their way in, or for dinner on their way out.”
Nowadays, the Blue and White draws gamblers looking for home cooking, along with cowboys and spectators who flock to the frequent events at the new 48,000-square-foot arena that hosts rodeos, horse shows and livestock exhibitions.
“We get a lot of traffic from the casinos and a lot of word of mouth,” says Ming.
The small town vibe, though, remains strong as ever. Ming doubts there’s a resident in town who doesn’t have some early memory of the Blue and White.
“I have customers that say it was the first place I ever ate a hamburger, and in our day and time it’s just baffling. They’ll say, ’Yeah I was 16 years old and I sat in here.’ And I’m thinking, ‘You didn’t have a hamburger ‘til you were 16!’ It was a totally different way of life and it’s all seen it right here.”
Dick Taylor, a long-time regular, likes the fact that the walls are covered with history, something revered in Tunica. In fact, over at the museum, he hosts what’s known as The Tuesday Morning Club, a collection of local elders who gather to drink coffee and chat about local history. “We don’t talk about politics or religion or current events,” Taylor grinned. “Remember a rule of the Delta: things can change as long it stays the same.”

At The Hollywood, local farmers eat lunch next to the gamblers, who like to sample the house specialty, which has appeared on the Travel Channel and in countless newspaper stories. The story goes that the dish was hatched on the spot late one night in 1970 when a drunk came in to sober up and the food was almost gone. Tait Selden sliced up some dill pickles, battered them up and threw them into a fryer. A legend was born. Now they go through a five-gallon tub of pickles a week.
The restaurant itself had a humble start. Originally in the tiny hamlet of Hollywood, the place started as a venue for a local band, the Turnrow Cowboys, to play. After a fire destroyed the original, it moved to its current location, a quaint 1922 farm commissary. Through the years, people operated a cafe there, but the big draw was the musicians who played on evenings and weekends. In 2007, John Almond and Michael Young bought the building after Almond watched a group of Illinois customers snap pictures of a mouse. They were feeding crackers to the rodent and it kept bravely returning through a hole in the baseboards. “It just wasn’t being run the way we thought it should be.”

The two men then renovated everything, including the kitchen. The outside still bears the unmistakable design of the blocky old commissary. Inside, you can still see the lines on the exposed brick wall where the old shelves used to be. After a wedding reception, they held onto the decorations: bare tree branches strung with twinkling lights. Belly up to the bar and you’ll see too many rings to count.

“We get a lot of traffic from the casinos and a lot of word of mouth.”– Charlotte Ming

It’s made from what Almond estimates is a three- or four hundred-year-old slab of lumber. Nearby, left over from yet another event, is a HOLLYWOOD sign like the one that sits prominently on the hillside above Los Angeles.
If you can’t bring yourself to try the pickles, there are plenty of other options: Fried catfish, shrimp or chicken; fried frog legs, burger, BLTs with fried green tomatoes. At night, they serve steaks, shrimp cocktails and wine.

Home cooking keeps customers coming back to the Blue and White. Photo By Thomas Graning
Home cooking keeps customers coming back to the Blue and White. Photo By Thomas Graning

Almond says the nearby casinos have been a big help, even though the restaurant has “a very varied” client base. “We are on the Travel Channel and Food Network. People will be in the casino and go up to their room with nothing to do and be watching television and they see us and call asking ‘are you really here’ and we’ll say, ‘yeah.’“ Almond says.
“There are some people from England who come and stay awhile in the casinos — older people. They’ll stay three weeks and they’ll eat in the fine dining and they’ll want to play card games and come here.”
“You can tell the casinos are important because the casinos are not busy in December, January, February and we’re not either,” says Almond.
By the bathrooms, at the back of the building, he points to a cork board with a U.S. map and a world map. He added the world map after tourists from overseas kept writing their hometowns on slips of paper and pinning them to the board.

“There are two ways to measure time here, BC and everything after. BC stands for before casinos, which started arriving in 1992. Everything after is The Boom.”
– Richard Taylor

Some come for the stops on the Blues Trail or because they have heard The Hollywood mentioned in “Walking in Memphis.”

“We are trying to get music people can count on for the weekends. We have two or three blues guys — Muleman Massey from Senatobia and Terry “Harmonica” Bean comes in here and of course we have the Turnrow Cowboys,” Almond says.
John Almond is grateful for all that casino traffic. So is Dick Taylor, who knows that this area has always been rich in gambling of one sort or another. The money that Hardface Clanton pumped into the local economy, of course, was nothing like what pours daily through the big casinos. And you were never sure just how long he would last.
“He had very nice cars and they were all very fast and when I asked him about it, he would say, ‘Well, there are times when I need to get away in a hurry.’”
– Erin Scott, Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss; Land of Plenty Magazine; Photos by Thomas Graning
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