What follows are two entries about Mississippi. Of the whole road trip we spent the most time in Mississippi, driving down through the delta for three days. Mississippi, as a state, has managed to, let’s say, manage expectations. So maybe as a result I was quite impressed with it in a low key “what a pleasant surprise” kind of way.
The country, and the river itself were often beautiful, and so fecund you could smell it. The people were unfailingly gracious, and the towns, sleepy and welcoming, especially Oxford which was bookish and effortlessly bohemian in a slower more southern mode—I think I could be quite happy there.
I knew absolutely nothing about food in Mississippi before arriving and I was taken aback at the delta's fascinating food culture. More than any place I have ever been, Mississippi’s history plays out on its dinner plates.
The first meal I had in the state was also the best: a quick lunch at City Grocery, Chef John Currence's beloved restaurant in Oxford.
Sadly I took all of my notes on the back of a takeout menu which I somehowmanaged to throw away before I even got out of the restaurant.
Looking back over the pictures I took, I think I had the baked Sea Island red peas with green tomato chow chow, and buttermilk whipped cream to start and the shrimp and grits as my main course; the menu describes the shrimp and grits as spicy Original Grits Girls grits, sautéed shrimp, garlic mushrooms, scallions, white wine, lemon juice, and Big Bad bacon. I do remember that I liked both dishes very much, and my mom claims I said the grits was one of the best things I had ever eaten—may I have my James Beard Award now please?
The meal I was most excited for in Mississippi was at Doe’s Eat Place. This down home steak place has been featured on pretty much every food and travel show there is, and often appears on “best steak” lists.
I’m not so sure how to write about a place like Doe’s.
The meal was fine, but not great, oddly expensive, and all around gut-busting. There was a steak the size of a small merry go round, a pile of stodgy fried jumbo shrimp, a towering stack of thick cut fries, two delicious little tamales* slippery with oil, and an iceberg lettuce salad so over-dressed you could have lit it on fire.
That said, the experience was superlative and worth any expense.
Doe’s boasts an extraordinary history: it opened in 1941 in Greenville as a blacks only honky tonk that also served hot meals. Word of the food, and especially the steaks, spread and soon the town’s whites wanted a taste. In what must have been a satisfying reversal of segregation’s mores, whites were served out the backdoor.
Though now obviously integrated, it is hard to imagine anything else about the place has changed in the last 70 years. The restaurant is literally on the other side of the tracks—an informal security guard keeps an eye on the customer’s cars parked out front. Doe's is actually a low clapboard house; the walls sag and the sun peeks through.
The walls are covered with memorabilia and assorted steaky mementos. A small front room serves as an entryway and is full of standing fridges and a massive, ancient broiler where they cook the steaks. In the main room the tables are gathered around what I suppose these days would be called an open kitchen, a range piled with cast iron pots full of frying oil. The food is made right in among the diners, like some sort of conceptual dinner theatre. I can honestly say there is no place like it—except maybe the eight other franchise locations scattered across the United States that I just discovered on their website.
Oh! And Doe's serves a condiment I had never seen before, Heinz 57, like a ketchupy steak sauce and so good I’m going to order a case.
*A word about the Mississippi-tamale connection. I think a lot of people are surprised that Mississippi considers tamales an integral part of their cuisine. Tamales are everywhere in the Delta, at roadside stalls, fast food restaurants, and on pretty much every menu. There is some debate about how this came to be: either Mexican migrant workers brought them over in the early 1900’s, or they arrived in the century before with returning soldiers from the U.S. Mexican war. Either way they are everywhere, dirt cheap, filling and tasty. You can still find tamales in the cities Mississippians settled in during the great migration. Apparently in Chicago you can get tamales on a bun alongside a hot dog. God bless America.