Mississippi: A Foodie Road Trip of Southern Portions
One of the best ways to get to know a place is through its food, so we sent New Orleans culinary influencer extraordinaire Brian Maurice, part of the team behind @eatingNOLA, on a road trip through Mississippi.
A Louisiana native, Brian had been to Mississippi's Gulf Coast before, but had never really explored farther into his neighboring state. Not only was he on a mission to explore the foodie scene, but this former teacher also wanted to learn the stories behind it.
"It surprised me how much good food and how much fun things there were to do in the middle of Mississippi, just being ignorant of what is so close," Brian said. "Everybody wants to go to these big cities or they have these magazine destinations in mind, but really these small towns have a lot to offer."
Importantly, in these COVID times, the places he visited were accommodating "the new normal" with masks and sanitizer. "Everywhere I went, you felt safe being there," he said. "They were taking the right precautions."
Follow his journey through this part of Mississippi and pair the dishes with a side of storytelling—but be forewarned, you'll be hungry when you finish this story.
The first stop on Brian’s itinerary was Natchez, a walkable city set right over the Louisiana border on the Mississippi River, where the flowers were in bloom for his inaugural meal.
First up, Fat Mama's Tamales, which has a family-oriented Mexican vibe. "I knew about Fat Mama's, but I didn't know what a cultural staple tamales were in Mississippi," he said, noting there's a Tamale Trail along the Mississippi Delta. He highly recommends the sweet-but-spicy fire and ice pickles here too, and did try the "knock-you-naked margaritas" but as he's a family man, he only took pictures of the food.
Within walking distance from Fat Mama's was The Camp, which has a great view of the river. Catfish is another staple of Mississippi cuisine, and at The Camp, Brian feasted on farm-raised catfish in the Southern Style Fish Tacos. They also make smoked fried wings—which are smoked first, then fried—something he had never tried before.
Lunch was followed by a stop at Rolling "N" the Dough, a bakery started by an 18-year-old woman, Hannah-Grace Hinkle, whose specialty is gourmet edible cookie dough (30 different flavors, to be exact). Her s'mores popcorn won a national contest so our intrepid influencer gave it a whirl. Of the popcorn, toffee, marshmallow, graham cracker and Hershey's chocolate concoction, he jokingly said, "You need to get it out of your house if you have it; it's like crack." Still, he bought a few bags for the road.
Next up on Brian’s journey was the historic town of Vicksburg. "You really get a sense of the history of the place," he said, referencing the pivotal Civil War battle for the city in 1863. "There are cannonballs in front of the government building."
At Main Street Market Cafe, where the menu is seasonal and made-from-scratch, Brian not only learned about but saw firsthand the "Old Lady Lunch", a group of local women who arrive en masse daily at 11 a.m.
"It kind of reminded me of home," he said of his meal, which consisted of gumbo and white beans with blackened shrimp, as well as yummy butter biscuits. "There are a lot of ties to New Orleans in these places." A local recommended he check out Solly's Tamales, a small but beloved joint that's been around since 1939, so Brian grabbed a traditional tamale there as well.
Downtown Vicksburg has an open-carry law in terms of alcoholic beverages, so it was only fair that Brian get a chance to wash down all this food with some adult beverages. Off he went to the Cottonwood Public House/Key City Brewing Company for some IPAs. (Abraham Lincoln once said that the Mississippi River and the Vicksburg region in particular was key to winning the Civil War, hence the Key City name.)
One of Brian's favorite stops on this tour came at The Tomato Place, which had its roots as a produce stand along Highway 61 South -- a main road between Vicksburg and Jackson (plus traffic down to New Orleans)—but today has expanded to an eclectic shop.
"It's like a flea market meets a produce stand meets a food truck," Brian describes it. Luke Hughes, the owner, made a tomato sandwich one day and someone asked if he could buy it from him. The customer kept coming back for a tomato sandwich and the menu grew from there. Brian had the fried-green-tomato BLT on rye bread with a fried egg on top and declared it "one of the best things I ate on my trip," adding "I would go out of my way to stop there again."
Dinner, drinks and a warm bed in Jackson, Mississippi’s capital city, rounded out Brian’s first night. His accommodation for the evening: Fairview Inn, a 1908 Colonial Revival mansion. "It was less of a hotel and more like you're staying at someone's home," he said. A home, one might add, that also has a "cool little bar" in the library.
The restaurant, Elvie's, was within walking distance from the hotel, which came in handy afterward as Brian said he "ate till he was about to burst." While not a formal place, the atmosphere was reminiscent of the 1920s in terms of decor and hospitality, and Brian advised that it was the kind of dining establishment where "you wanted to dress up and have a nice meal." Brian's favorite plate was eaten here, thanks to their version of oyster rockefeller in a casserole serving and escargot with collard greens in butter. "The food was incredible," he proclaimed, noting a variety of ingredients used, such as garlic, artichokes, pistachios, butternut squash and fingerling potatoes. "It was a home-cooked feel, but they had a way of elevating it to the next level." He may or may not have rolled back to the hotel that night.
The next morning, Brian decided on a different approach. "You need to pace yourself as you eat your way through Mississippi," he declared. With that in mind, he headed to Brent's Drugs—a diner/soda fountain dating back to 1946—for a buttermilk biscuit with fried chicken and a side of grits, washed down with a Ginger Finger, a milkshake consisting of Butterfinger, ginger syrup and vanilla ice cream. (Remember: this is what Brian does for a living, so his stomach can expand in superhuman ways.) Should you go there and it looks familiar to you, it was also featured in the movie "The Help."
One might wonder what's in Indianola, a city with a population of about 10,000 people, a place so small Brian said, "You can stand up on a stool and you can see the whole town." The Crown, an old English antique store and the only place that sells the winner of a 1990 culinary contest nationwide for a smoked catfish-based pate, that's what. It's an absolute must in these parts during Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cleveland turned out to be one of Brian's favorite cities on the journey. "It's a big long strip that looks like it's from the 1950s," he said about the booming small town. He came here for a carnivore's dream.
First up was Delta Meat Market, a combination butcher shop/restaurant/catering operation. Chef Cole Ellis had spent 13 years working in acclaimed kitchens in Charleston and Nashville before going back home to Cleveland to open his own place. During COVID, Ellis adapted and the dining area became a grocery store for locals, since he had the supply chain already. While here, Brian tried the "excellent" fried catfish and greens as well as brisket grilled cheese sandwich.
Right next door is Hey Joe's Burgers & Beer, a place that got its start because a band wanted their own place to play gigs and it morphed into a restaurant as well. True to its roots, it's still a place to hear live music while feasting on burgers with names like Kevin Bacon, Terminator and Nirvana. The tables are covered in newspapers of old shows and the walls have band posters. And yes, our insatiable influencer "paced" himself by eating a burger here as well.
The Viking Range of high-end appliances is based in Greenwood, a city located on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Delta, and they own a number of places in the area. Not only does the Viking Cooking School lure amateurs to work with professional chefs on different-themed meals, but the Viking connection also draws a lot of culinary heavyweights to the area.
Brian checked into the (Viking-owned) boutique Alluvian Hotel, whose name is a nod to the topography as the Mississippi Delta is considered an alluvial plain, meaning a level land created by centuries of extensive amounts of mineral-rich soil from the Mississippi River. As local lore goes, Tennessee Williams once referred to the people living here as Alluvians. Brian stopped for a quick appetizer of spanakopita and catfish cakes at hotel restaurant Giardina's, a traditional Old South dining experience that has 14 private booths as well as a large dining area.
For his dinner, he headed to Main Street and went to Fan and Johnny's, a restaurant named after Chef Taylor Bowen Ricketts' grandparents, who inspired her love of cooking. Ricketts had been a fine art major (the walls are adorned with her own paintings), but eventually became a chef—and not just any chef, but a James Beard Best Chef South semifinalist. "Everyone in town talked about this duck ravioli, so my expectations were through the roof," Brian said, adding that the food was extremely soulful. "It was one of the best things I've ever eaten in my life." Brian topped off dinner with some "amazing" bread pudding as well.
With a sweet tooth itching for a second dessert, Brian headed to The Crystal Grill for some of their famous homemade pies. There were only two left—lemon icebox and cheesecake—but his taste buds were happy with that selection. "I wouldn't have changed it," he said of the “must-have pies”. "You make room when you try that."
On his last day in Mississippi, Brian traveled about 3 1/2 hours southeast to Hattiesburg for breakfast at Birdhouse Café. While dining on avocado toast with spinach and fresh tomatoes, an açai bowl and zucchini chocolate chip muffins, he learned that Chef Katie Dixon had been a personal trainer first. She started cooking meals for her clients, and pretty soon was up to 200 a week. "Now she's part of a furniture store, which is kind of strange, but it works," Brian said, adding that it's an open kitchen, so you can watch and interact with her. "The place has a very personalized, family-oriented feel."
For his last bites in Mississippi, Brian went out on a high note at Cotton Blues Kitchen & Marketplace, where he got a taste of their high-end cheesecakes. The marketplace is known for its locally sourced, handcrafted desserts and it also sells things like local honeys, sauces, jams and jellies. "Their cheesecake is what they're known for; they ship it nationwide," he said, opting for the Salted Caramel one to take home. "It's rich and creamy, but still delicate with cinammon sugarlike crust."
Meeting the various chefs and learning their stories and how they made Mississippi their home was the highlight of Brian's trip.
"They're very resilient people who have found a way to make things work, and they ended up creating something to really be proud of," he said. "I plan on coming back. I was amazed by how much good food and culture was just a short drive away [from New Orleans]. A couple hours' drive, you're in these cool towns that have a lot to offer."