Beat the Odds: How to Eat Well in the Delta
The Mississippi Delta is a colorful mix of characters and fascinating places. It has inspired writers, artists, and musicians. And, just as importantly, it inspired cooks. It's also the home of perhaps the most uniquely awesome and uniquely American drinking institutions: juke joints (of which I'll write a column about later). Eat a tamale or dine at a restaurant co-owned and frequented by Morgan Freeman. As Anthony Bourdain points out, "It [the Delta] changed the world like nothing else American." Simply, its the crossroads of culture and quirkiness with a heavy dose of the blues.
With that being said, there is no place on earth that offers more opportunities to make bad choices than this place. Even with food, people tend to go one of two routes when they get hungry here: the low-end buffet or the ridiculous robo-fried chicken restaurant. Both are rookie mistakes.
The right way to eat in the Delta? Skip the extremes and go straight to the glorious middle, where this region has always excelled. I'm talking about the kinds of bright, loud, fun restaurants where you can roll in just about anytime, easily get a table, and enjoy a dinner that's just a little bit better than it needs to be and typically can only be purchased with cash. I call it normcore dining, and the Delta is its holy mecca. Most of the Delta's true normcore gems are located off the beaten path, but not all. Ask six locals where the best joints are and you’ll get twelve different answers. There are a couple of seafood options. No one thinks any of them are any good, but they serve their purpose. They feed me, they satisfy me, and I go back to the tables.
During my time with Teach for America summer training in the Delta, I spent time winding down the back roads and uncovered a few culinary jewels featured in this review:
Probably the most frequented restaurant in Cleveland is Senator’s Place. You know it's good when it's packed full of church-going folks on a Sunday afternoon. Preachers who’ve been preaching for a few hours straight come directly from the pulpit to eat. Senator’s Place is pretty bland in interior, but full of hospitality. That's probably because the "Senator" of Senator's Place is a state senator. My first visit was with my roommate and his friend who was at the restaurant the night before dancing. Apparently, the restaurant transforms into a BYOL-slow jam-old school dancing type of Place on weekend after hours. If that’s your thing, go for it.
I'll try to post more Beat the Odds posts on eating in the Delta.