By Michelle Hiskey
So much of the South is misunderstood by outsiders, and a trustworthy guide like Susan Puckett helps the rest of us understand where we live. Her new book, “Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler’s Journey through the Soul of the South” (University of Georgia Press), takes readers on a trip into the complicated culture and food of a strip of Mississippi often maligned for its poverty, obesity and backwardness.
Her ground-level stories of the people and crops, their traditions and dishes, bring to life the coexistence of different races and classes in one of America’s most fertile areas. The Delta is synonymous with blues, and Puckett, a Decatur author of six previous books who served as food editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 18 years, explored the connection between the hard stories and soulful food.
She looked through a current lens at the Delta’s struggle to preserve what is singular, and finding and telling these stories changed her.
“It is quite easy, when you move away from a place and become more educated and worldly, to feel self-righteous and superior, and become more judgmental without even realizing it,” she said.
“This experience humbled me and brought me back to reality. I got a taste for what it must be like to try to continue to thrive in the place where you were born and raised, the pain of watching it slowly die, and the uphill battle of trying to save your homeland and everything you have ever lived or worked for.
“I also saw the possibilities presented by the sharing of good food and drink, with friends and strangers alike – and how in these parts it is just one more way to tell a story. The Delta is a difficult place to live, no matter what. The more time I spent there, the more I could appreciate their determination to thrive in the face of adversity.”
Puckett will be signing her book locally Tuesday Jan. 8 at Manuel’s Tavern at 7 pm, and Jan. 27 will demonstrate and discuss dishes from the book former AJC dining critic Meridith Ford at Cook’s Warehouse Midtown. On a recent book tour in Mississippi, she took some questions from one of its famous residents – actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in Clarksdale.
“The Delta has always been sort of mysterious, you know,” Freeman said a quote that opens her book. “It’s different from just about any other place on the planet, and I revel in it.”
Puckett described other surprises in the journey to her book in the following interview.
How does food influence the Delta experience? How does geography influence Delta food and drink? How is that different than other places?
Deltans, black and white, are very social, gregarious people who love to tell stories and express their creativity in a variety of ways – from music to art to food. Their identity is very much tied to the land. Deltans think nothing of driving 40 or 50 miles to meet another Deltan for dinner, yet rarely venture over that ridgeline of hills for social purposes.
Being miles from any superhighway, there are fewer chain restaurants and more independent restaurants, with menu items often named for a friend or family member, and walls filled with local memorabilia and school and family photographs. Bordered by the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers, the Delta has an edgy river culture with ethnic influences contributed by the immigrants who settled there: Italians, Lebanese, and Chinese. They had access to many ingredients brought by steamboats from New Orleans and the Gulf, and to this day gumbo, po boys, jumbo butterfly shrimp and crawfish are popular – all prepared with loads of garlic and seasoning.
I was surprised that there were so many good and interesting dining options, even in the middle of nowhere. I discovered sophisticated fare like elk steaks and Diver scallops for dinner, while still offering traditional meat and three vegetable plates at lunchtime.
Deltans are fiercely independent and revel in their individuality, and that comes through in some of their quirky signature dishes like hot tamales and fried dill pickles. They also take great pride in preparing the standards with care – from barbecue to chicken salad to mile-high meringue pie.
How far did you live from the Delta when you were growing up and what were your early experiences there? Did those influence your career choice?
I grew up mostly in Jackson, the state capital – about an hour from the nearest Delta town. But I knew nothing of the Delta until I went to Ole Miss and my boyfriend at the time took me home with him to Greenwood. The terrain – endless miles of bed-sheet flat farmland punctuated by prehistoric-looking bayous — was unlike anything I had ever seen.
I found the social customs of the genteel class I found myself in the middle of equally alien to me. I have one especially mortifying memory of arriving in blue jeans and flip flops to a debutante party at a Tara-like plantation home in the middle of a cotton field. The invitation had described it as a “barbecue” and the dress as “casual,” but I did not realize this meant an al fresco pig roast with all the trimmings served on fine china. The definition of “Delta casual” meant designer sundresses and matching espadrilles for women and khaki pants and Izod shirts for men.
For the most part, though, my Delta memories are fond ones. Most memorable of all was dining at Lusco’s – a Greenwood institution renowned for its broiled pompano, hubcap-size steaks, and private curtained dining rooms equipped with buzzers for ringing a server.
After college, while working my hometown paper, the Clarion-Ledger, I always gravitated to stories about my Mississippi heritage. Quite often the best ones involved food. The paper published a collection of my stories and collected recipes in “A Cook’s Tour of Mississippi,” which had an introduction by famed writer and Yazoo City (“half hills, half delta”) native Willie Morris. That experience made me want to specialize in food writing.
Did living in Atlanta change or deepen your opinion of the Delta?
When I first spent time in the Delta, I knew little about its history. I was part of a tight circle of sorority girls and frat boys on the white side of town. I had the strong feeling that there were deeper, darker stories lurking under the surface. I did not hear of the blues until several years later.
Working at a newspaper, and around people who were not from the South, I really started having conflicted emotions about my own Southernness — part pride, part shame.
These feelings persisted when I moved north, first to go to school in Iowa and later to write for newspapers in the Midwest and South Florida. At times I felt embarrassed for where I came from, and other times angry for being typecast based on outsiders’ stereotypes of Southerners as rednecks and racists.
During those years the Delta rarely came up; all Southerners were lumped into the same category. I rarely gave it much thought – except to re-tell the story of dining in that strange restaurant with the curtained booths called Lusco’s.
The Delta has long been a poster child for all that is wrong about the region, and the media published many stories related to its long history of racial injustice and economic struggles.
In the early 2000s, I read stories about efforts to revitalize the region, some written by my newspaper colleagues. Actor and Delta native Morgan Freeman and a local business partner opened a high-end restaurant and a juke join for the masses called Ground Zero Blues Club in Clarksdale. Fred Carl Jr., a Greenwood native, invented the Viking Range and pumped much of his fortunes into a luxury hotel and a cooking school. Legalized gambling brought casinos and Las Vegas-style steakhouses and entertainment to Tunica, a town once called America’s Ethiopia.
And somewhere along the way I learned that Lusco’s, that strange restaurant with the mysterious curtained booths, was still in business. These stories made me curious to go back to see the place for myself, from both sides of the tracks.
When I returned the Delta, having lived in Atlanta for nearly 20 years, I was struck by how people there so carefully guard their traditions…and how here in Atlanta we are so eager to tear them down to make way for the new. I really came to appreciate the power of food and hospitality in holding communities together, and preserving heritage and a sense of identity. In many ways, these restaurants are like living history museums — with menus reflecting beloved food customs and memorabilia all over the walls that convey a rich sense of place that I often find lacking here in Atlanta, and in other more modern cities.
What misperceptions exist of the Delta?
The Mississippi Delta has been called The South’s South, Mississippi’s Mississippi, and The Most Southern Place on Earth. And with those labels come all the Southern stereotypes – only magnified. The stories that tend to make the headlines from the Delta paint a gloomy picture of poverty, race-based crime, social injustice and soaring obesity statistics.
Most of these stories have truth to them, but they paint a skewed picture. What does not get reported so much is the tremendous headway Deltans have made – only reminders of the problems that continue to persist and how very far they still have to go.
While racism remains an issue, and probably always will given its history, there is a strong alliance of black and white community leaders and citizens working together to keep their region alive. Some younger generations are returning in hopes of making a difference. Outsiders, drawn by the authenticity and rawness of the landscape, are pitching in as well.
With its agriculture fortunes continuing to dwindle and little other industry coming in, the challenges are huge. Yet the hope and determination to save these communities is incredibly inspiring. And the best places to feel this for yourself is very often in the places where they meet to eat, drink and party.
People often tell me they would be afraid to go the Delta, and that fear is not entirely unjustified. You do need to be cautious, as you would in any urban area with poverty. But you do not need to stay away. Restaurant owners especially tend to bend over backwards for visitors and will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable.
How did you go about writing your book?
William Faulkner said that “to understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.” I tried to put a finer point on that by suggesting that people go to the Mississippi Delta, and pull up a chair to eat, drink and listen.
I mapped my journey according to one oft-repeated quote there by a well-known Greenville writer named David Cohn, who in the 1940s wrote that “the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” He was referring not only to the two bluff cities along the Mississippi River, but also to the culture of “haves” and “have-nots,” as the white planter class and mostly black field hands were often called. I wanted to begin in that elegant hotel lobby with a fancy cocktail, and end in a soul food café (LD’s Restaurant) on Catfish Row where the proprietor grew up in one of the shacks that used to line the riverbanks there.
As my journeys proceeded, I found much more than I imagined, and also found myself falling in one rabbit-hole after another trying to learn the context and back-story. I struggled to wrap my brain around the material and figure out the best way to tell such a complex story in a way that both locals and outsiders could relate to.
Had the Delta changed since your early memories?
The Delta still looks much the same. The landscape is still stark as ever and much as it is bisected by bumpy two-lane highways and country roads. The old buildings are still there, though many are boarded up now.
Public places are becoming increasingly more integrated, especially restaurants. Many more tourists come from all over, mostly thanks to blues tourism and legalized gambling. While blues music was once virtually unheard of in the white community, it is now everywhere.
Did anything else surprise you?
I was also surprised how strong an urge I had to go back even when my research was done. It inspired me and uplifted me in ways I could not have imagined.
In January, I’ll be living in Mississippi part-time, teaching an in-depth reporting class in the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at Ole Miss.
What should Atlantans learn from the Delta?
Independent neighborhood restaurants are an endangered species, and they need your support. They are often the glue that holds a community together, especially in the Delta. For the outsider, they can provide a window into a culture we do not understand, to have a better understanding of their own. They also help us keep our stories alive.
Michelle Hiskey is a freelance writer and writing coach based in Decatur. She can be reached at [email protected]