Smokes and Ears: Dining in the Delta Pt. 2

A quick post about my last meal in Mississippi. The Big Apple Inn in Jackson was actually one of my most-anticipated stops on the whole trip. It’s appeared on lots of TV shows, including No Reservations which my shrewder readers will have realized this blog follows pretty much entirely. It’s also been on Bizarre Foods.

God I hate Bizarre Foods.

I’ve hated it ever since I watched the perpetually wet Andrew Zimmern struggling to swallow some raw meat on a trip to Ethiopia. He was all exaggerated gagging, grossed out googly-eyed over-acting while the place’s embarrassed proprietor stood by and a group of very hungry Ethiopian children stared, waiting until Zimmerman waddled off, so that they could enjoy his “bizarre” leftovers. I’ve heard that the host has gotten much more sensitive, but I don’t care. I find the whole premise of the show—that some food is objectively weird—offensive. I did hear that back in the day Andrew Zimmern was a crackhead living in New York and stealing purses at Grand Central Station for drug money, so that’s tight.

Anyway. The reason The Big Apple Inn was even on bizarre foods is because it’s known for pig ear sandwiches. The reason it was on No Reservations is because it is a rare example of a kind of cooking that has been the lifeblood of poorer, almost always African American, communities in the south for generations, and because the sandwiches—both the pig ear and a ground sausage sandwich—are supposed to be delicious.

Firstly, I love pig ears. I feel like that’s not even a very racy thing to say anymore. Pigs’ ears, and tails, and snouts are on bar menus all over the place—at least in New York, San Francisco, and London where I’ve seen them over and over again since moving back from Asia. My favorite ears are the ones I had in Hong Kong, done in a chiu chow style, marinated in master stock, boiled, then simmered until they get that slick-sticky-crunchy-bouncy thing that pretty much only great ears have. Ugly, wobbly, and brown those pigs’ ears are right up there in the running with boiled peanuts for the best beer snack of all time.

Which is all just another way for me to say that it wasn’t because they had ears in them that I didn’t like the sandwiches at the Big Apple Inn, it was in spite of the ears. They just didn’t do it for me: the ears were boiled to the point of jelly, the buns fell apart before I could even get them to my mouth, and the mustard really didn’t go nearly far enough to cut the cloying grease and glop of the ears. (In my after the fact google research I see the sandwiches also have hot sauce and slaw on them but either I ordered wrong or I smoked too much pot in high school because I don’t remember that at all.)

 A pig ear sandwich.

A pig ear sandwich.

They also specialize in sausage sandwiches called smokes. They were better than the ears, as smoky as you’d expect and spicy. I had two, nothing too memorable but fine.

It really pains me to say all this because I loved the Big Apple Inn; I want it to still be there in a hundred years and I will still go out of my way to pay a visit whenever I’m in town because it is just such an awesome, totally one of a kind place.

People always describe little hole-in-the-wall spots as neighborhood joints, well the Big Apple Inn is basically the whole neighborhood. The lone store in a long stretch of boarded up windows, abandoned businesses, and shuttered shop fronts. Whatever happened to this part of town was no good, but it was thorough. Still the area is not without its charm. People wave from their car windows as they drive by and the architecture is all languid southern allure. You need only squint to imagine the whole place as a coffee shop engorged hipster enclave—I like to think that the residents thought it was better just to shut it down and move out than become that.

Abandoned as it may have been out on the street, inside the inn the neighborhood is alive and well. I had the great pleasure to visit on the day a huge regional Baptist church conference was meeting in town and the place was full of customers in their very best Sunday best—I highly recommend anyone who can try and plan their visit to Jackson to coincide with a Baptist conference. It was a great mixed up crowd of old-timers returning to the area with kids in tow—in stiff lace, and corduroy bow ties—to show them where grandma used to eat, alongside young men with grease down their shirts—workers from the nearby tow yard I think—on their lunch breaks.

 Your hero. Between Meals.

Your hero. Between Meals.

The space itself is simple veering towards makeshift: a counter, a few chairs, a woman spreading yellow mustard on buns, pulling big flapping ears out of a bubbling pressure cooker, and, on the day I was there, a small tv-vcr-combo on the counter playing a documentary (https://vimeo.com/68061989) about the restaurant on repeat.  Other people have described the Inn as ramshackle, or shabby but I found it perfectly used. Warn down profoundly, in that way love can wear you down.

If you’d like to read more about the Big Apple Inn, and you should, check out their entry on http://www.southernfoodways.org. Southern Food Ways is an absolutely invaluable resource on Southern food. I would like them to offer me a job.