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Destination: Mississippi : Deep-Fried South : Forget light food: Dishes from the Delta nurture the soul if not your figure

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The Mississippi Delta, according to Southern definition, begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., and stretches south to Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Miss.

I see this as the distance between the king-size slabs of barbecued ribs at the Rendezvous restaurant, up the alley from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, to the dainty tomato sandwiches at the Harrison House Antiques & Tea Room, just a few blocks uphill from the Vicksburg riverfront, where slaves lived not so long ago.

Catfish Row, as the riverfront area is referred to locally, has disappeared and been replaced during the past two years by five riverboat gambling casinos that are anchored along the waterfront. But local gentry prefer to direct visitors to Civil War attractions such as the Old Court House Museum, where Union soldiers lowered the Confederate flag and raised the Union flag on July 4, 1863; the Vicksburg National Military Park, one of the major battlegrounds of what folks here call the War Between the States, and the Vicksburg Corner Drugstore, where the owner’s collection of Civil War guns, tattered Rebel flags and bullets bearing teeth marks testifying to battlefield surgery without anesthesia are displayed alongside Moon Pies--a chocolate marshmallow sandwich that is popular in the South and definitely an acquired taste.

Sandwiched between modern Memphis and historic Vicksburg is the Delta, a long stretch of low, flat, agricultural land protected from the flooding of the moody Mississippi River by high, grass-covered levees. Many of these Delta fields that once yielded cotton now grow farm-raised catfish--Mississippi produces 75% of the world’s supply. And in Humphreys County, self-proclaimed catfish capital of the world, northeast of Vicksburg, there’s an early April Catfish Festival that draws more than 20,000 visitors to tiny Belzoni (population 2,500) to sample the local harvest and, if they’ve a mind, to drink a little beer.

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But the Delta has all kinds of good eating, as I discovered last year: catfish a dozen different ways, including an interesting catfish pate; those Vicksburg tomato sandwiches, fried dill pickles, boiled mustard greens doused with pungent chili pepper vinegar, okra guaranteed to convert people who don’t like okra, blackberry cobbler, sweet potato pecan pie. . . . Abandon calorie counts, ye who pass this way.

Yet the biggest surprise for me was what appears to be the emergence of low-fat cooking in deep-fried territory. It starts at Memphis International Airport, where murals promote the merits of cooking with canola oil, which is less saturated than the animal fat traditionally used. It continues southward to the Walnut Hills restaurant in the oldest part of Vicksburg, where the daily blue-plate special offers one meat, three fresh vegetables, iced tea and dessert for $5.75.

“I do all my vegetables the same way,” Walnut Hills cook Herdicine Williams told me. “I boil ‘em and then season them with canola oil, salt and black pepper and sometimes a little sugar. I use a lot of red pepper--more red pepper than black.” The canola oil may not be traditional, but the resulting combination is delicious. You have to taste Williams’ veggies to understand how good that can be. Her steamed okra, for example, is cooked with pepper, a little bit of thyme and a little butter.

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A t Walnut Hills, the smart visitor will catch a seat at one of two big tables topped with a rotating Lazy Susan filled with house specialties. Walnut Hills is a local hot spot for lunch, when anyone can take a seat at the table’s rim--first come, first served--and enjoy the food along with conversation brimming with insight into what’s going on in Vicksburg.

Harrison House Antiques & Tea Room, where owner Betty Bullard is in command in the kitchen, is another Vicksburg treasure. The menu and ambience are as genteel Southern as it gets, both at lunch and at teatime. And should the visitor admire something on the table, the wall or out in the hallway--everything’s for sale.

But food is the real buy here. The owner, who was dressed in a starched, white, lace-trimmed pinafore on the day I was there, knows that if her stewed chicken and zephyr-light dumplings don’t get you, her dessert trolley will. I was witness to four killer desserts, including a chunky chocolate pie with pecans (almost worth the calories), English trifle, Pavlova (fresh fruit in a meringue shell topped with whipped cream), cheesecake, lemon chess pie and German chocolate cake. Lunch--entree, salad, dessert and beverage--runs $10, if you refrain from antique purchases. Afternoon tea is less, about $6-$8. The high tea menu might include tomato sandwiches, a Vicksburg tradition that is, at its most basic, sliced tomato on white bread rounds with mayonnaise.

Top O’ the River is the place to go in Vicksburg for a family-style feast. I dined on a platter of deep-fried catfish (half a pound per serving) with hush puppies, coleslaw from a Mason jar, a crock of bitter mustard greens and a mini-skillet of corn bread ($7.95).

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Locals usually request a side order of fried dill pickles ($1.50 or $2.25) and I did too. I found the pungent puffy pickles to be the ideal accompaniment to another Mason jar of foamy, cold beer. Owner-manager Ed Jones shared his recipe: “They’re just plain hamburger dill pickles, dredged in seasoned flour and deep fried,” he said of the Vicksburg favorite.

Also in Vicksburg, Goldie’s Trail Bar-B-Que is one of the few places that still features pork, traditionally the most popular meat in the South. Even so, I recommend the sliced beef plate (moist and marvelous) or the chicken. The pork ribs can be either undercooked or disappointingly dry. The beaming waitress, Cheryl Lane, said chicken was the best thing on the menu.

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Two of the most distinctive restaurants in Mississippi, one a Southern cooking delight in a plain brown wrapper and the other a down-home fried fish place, are both worth a short detour out of the Delta.

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Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, Miss.--north of Vicksburg--is known for its family-style dinners served in a rustic bare-bones setting adjacent to the kitchen. The feast begins with long, thin, spicy tamales, moves on to a big green salad with a heavy-duty garlic dressing, then tops out with a platter of sizzling prime steak the size of half a cow--fat still attached--accompanied by mountains of steaming French fries. Doe’s started as a grocery store on the African American side of town in 1941. The neighborhood hasn’t changed much, but clientele now includes the rich and famous. (It’s a former haunt of President Clinton.) Average tab for two: about $50.

East of Greenville is the town of Greenwood’s answer to Doe’s: It’s Lusco’s restaurant, a Delta institution known as much for its funky decor as for its superb fresh fish. Curtained booths at the back of the former grocery store once ensured privacy for a gentleman who might drop by to sip his sour mash and entertain whoever he liked, no matter what local law or gossips had to say about it.

Now the emphasis is on fresh fish, although the manager swears his restaurant’s steaks “are every bit as good as Doe’s.” Among the options: broiled pompano, red snapper or catfish, all of these either napped with the house special sauce, stuffed with crab meat or served plain and simple. Just as fine as the fish are battered onion rings the size of a man’s fist. Average check for two: $40 to $50.

The Crystal Grill in a modest Greenwood neighborhood, across from the railroad tracks that run through town, is undiscovered gold. The exterior of this 94-year-old building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is not impressive but inside is some of the best--and least-touted--food in the Delta. The restaurant is known for Southern cooking with no gimmicks, prompt and friendly service and comfortable seating in a series of small, pleasant dining rooms. The Crystal Grill’s seafood gumbo is sensational, and the soup cup ($2.35) is bigger than many a restaurant’s bowl. Dinner entrees are under $12 and include a choice of soup or salad, baked potato or French fries, with entree options running from broiled fresh Gulf shrimp (and lots of it) to fried frog legs to fresh broiled red snapper with crab meat stuffing. Save room for dessert, made fresh daily. There’s sweet potato or pecan pie or blackberry cobbler, of course, and a thick, rich and creamy lemon ice box pie.

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Those who like their food seasoned with local color should not miss Taylor’s Grocery & Restaurant, between Greenwood and Memphis, even though it means detouring out of the Delta. The sagging wood building, in a curve of the road 10 miles south of Oxford, has a sign on the front porch: “Eat or we both starve.” The hamlet of Taylor was the setting for Mississippi novelist William Faulkner’s novel “Sanctuary,” but the big draw for travelers is the funky little restaurant’s fried catfish and hush puppies, a jukebox with a high decibel “Stand By Your Man,” literary graffiti on the walls and the possibility of running into regular customers, including writers John Grisham and Willie Morris.

Old hands warn first timers at Taylor’s to wear old clothes. “You’ll never be able to get that smell of catfish out of anything you have to dry clean,” they caution. Word to the wise: Even a souvenir menu from Taylor’s can scent your luggage. But it’s worth it.

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GUIDEBOOK: Delta Dining

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Where to eat: Crystal Grill, 423 Carrollton Ave., Greenwood; telephone (601) 453-6530.

Doe’s Eat Place, 502 Nelson St., Greenville; tel. (601) 334-3315.

Goldie’s Trail Bar-B-Que, 4127 S. Washington St., Vicksburg; tel. (601) 636-9839.

Harrison House Antiques & Tea Room, 1443 Harrison St., Vicksburg; tel. (601) 638-2178.

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Lusco’s, 722 Carrollton Ave., Greenwood; tel. (601) 453-5365.

Top O’ the River, 1425 Lum Drive, Vicksburg; tel. (601) 634-0450.

Walnut Hills, 1214 Adams St., Vicksburg; tel. (601) 638-4910.

Taylor’s Grocery & Restaurant, Old Taylor Road, 10 miles south of Oxford; tel. (601) 236-1716.

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For more information: Vicksburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 110, Vicksburg, MS 39181; tel. (800) 221-3536.

For more on the Delta, contact Mississippi Department of Economic and Community Development, P.O. Box 849, Jackson, MS 39205; tel. (601) 359-3297.

P.H.K.


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