RHETA JOHNSON: A New York yankee in King Arthur’s (food) court

RHETA JOHNSON

RHETA JOHNSON

They say that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends at Vicksburg’s Catfish Row.

For the three of us on this funky food tour, the Delta begins in a Memphis alley and ends at a KFC near the military park in Vicksburg.

My new husband’s old friend Peter is originally from New York, but has been teaching in Colorado for four decades. He’s never really been to Mississippi, if you don’t count purposely hurrying through when returning from a vacation in Mexico long ago. A nice Jewish boy from the Bronx, he just never entertained Mississippi aspirations.

There’s been a lot of water under the Tallahatchie Bridge since.

Peter, who dearly loves to cook and eat, lately has heard about the gastronomical treats in the Delta, much of it from me. While in Colorado homesick for Mississippi, I can wax poetic about a Doe’s tamale or a Rendezvous rib.

It doesn’t hurt that a famous television chef – also with New York roots – recently visited the Delta and publicly swooned. Anthony Bourdain went all over the world before finally he got serious about food and deigned to put his fancy loafers under a Mississippi table.

All that has been enough to overcome Peter’s initial reluctance. He bought his ticket.

We pick up Peter from the Memphis airport and don’t slow the car until we reach ribs at the Rendezvous downtown. If that experience won’t warm you to the idea of touring the Deep South, nothing will.

That night we’ll eat an elegant five-course dinner prepared by Memphis friends, the Branstons, who love a challenge. We sleep sated at the Peabody Hotel. So far, I’m hearing no complaints.

And so the week progresses. We travel Highway 61 all the way to New Orleans, hit the Mississippi Coast and head home to the hills through Jackson and Oxford. Against a backdrop of blues and history, we compare grits, ribs, fried chicken, catfish and shrimp at dozens of famous and not-so restaurants. Peter prefers the grits in Tunica (the Blue and White Restaurant, established 1924), the ribs in Natchez (the Pig Out Inn), the po’boys in Pass Christian (Pirate’s Cove) and for an overall meal, the weirdly named Munch Factory in New Orleans.

In Natchez we get confused and end up dining at the wrong antebellum mansion but have an amazing meal anyhow. In New Orleans we see what happens when you combine two of the world’s best treats: pralines and bacon (Elizabeth’s). In Oxford we go to Rowan Oak and work up a hunger for the gospel brunch at City Grocery.

On the way back to the Memphis airport, Peter has a big breakfast at Abe’s Diner in Corinth, which I assume tided him over till he reached Colorado with his new blues CD and, I hope, many positive stories.

Mississippi isn’t always an easy sell – which actually is what keeps it nice – but the way to an outlander’s heart is through his stomach. Works every time.

To find out more about syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852.