Many years ago, Memphis arguably had one of the country’s best Black coffee bars. Precious Cargo, in the Pinch District, was both a coffee bar and one of the best places in the city for Black spoken word, avant-garde jazz, reggae, neo-soul and fellowship. Unfortunately, a fire set it back, and though it reopened for another year or so, it eventually closed. The opening this summer, during a pandemic no less, of a new Black coffee bar called Muggin Coffee House in Whitehaven is an exciting new addition to the city of Memphis. Not only does Muggin fill a gap in the Black community of Memphis, but it is also the only coffee bar in Whitehaven that is not inside of the airport or the Graceland complex. Although the coffee bar is located in an ancient strip mall, the inside is bright and cheerful. Muggin features the usual array of hot espresso-based drinks, as well as a selection of baked goods including chocolate chip and brown butter cookies, and two frozen concoctions which are worthy of further discussion. The “Zippin Pippin” (named for a long-lost and beloved Memphis roller coaster) is a white chocolate and caramel frappe, while the “Flickin’ on Beale” is a delicious chocolate and espresso frappe. The latter, unlike the Starbucks equivalent, is not overwhelmingly sweet, with some of the sweetness cut by strong coffee, making for a perfectly refreshing summer treat. Roasted bags of whole bean coffees are available for purchase, and the different varieties have clever names, including the Miles Davis-inspired “Kinda Brew,” the Three-6 Mafia inspired “Hard Out Here For A Drip,” and the DJ Squeaky-inspired “Lookin’ For The Brewin’.” The name of the establishment cleverly combines the slang-term “muggin'” suggesting confidence and bravado, with the idea of coffee mugs. Currently, Muggin’ closes early, about 6 PM, and no live performances are currently planned, with COVID-19 concerns still in play. However, it seems likely that at some future point, Muggin’ may also be an evening spot for live performances, at least occasionally. One can certainly hope.
Shelby County, Tennessee is largely dominated by Memphis and its suburban satellites, but it was not always so. The county had a long past as an agricultural and rural region, and a few areas still retain that atmosphere, perhaps none so much as the twin communities of Rosemark and Barretville in Northeast Shelby County between Millington and Arlington.
Rosemark, originally called Richland but renamed when it became apparent that there was a Richland elsewhere in Tennessee, was a good-sized place with a telephone company, gin, school and several churches, but Barretville, just to the north, was something of a one-man town, or at least a one-family town. The Barret family dominated this area of Shelby County, opening the J. H. Barret Company store, the Barret cotton gin and the Barretville bank. The nearby Black high school was named Barret’s Chapel, probably after a church the Barret family had donated the land for, and the Barrets were deeply involved with the Bolton Agricultural High School located to the south and east of their community.
Of course, times change. The Barretville Bank became Patriot Bank, and the general store closed, and Millington placed both Rosemark and Barretville in its annexation reserves. Barret’s Chapel High School was closed and merged with Bolton High School. Most recently, the general store had been a cider brewery called Long Road Cider Company. Although the place also featured some light salads and sandwiches and live music, I never had occasion to visit it.
But here, during the summer of the pandemic, the cider company closed and was replaced by a new J. H. Barret & Company General Store, also known as the Barretville General Store. Although the building features some gourmet grocery items for take-home, and a few locally made arts, crafts and clothing items, the place is primarily a restaurant, and one with a number of different choices. Pizza is at the top of the menu, and the pizzas look absolutely delicious, but on my visit, I decided to try one of the burgers. There are two options, including one with bleu cheese called the “Bobby Blue” (Bobby “Blue” Bland was born in nearby Rosemark). I had that burger, plain except for bacon and bleu cheese, and found it delightful. The fries it came with were good as well. In addition to the two burger choices, there is a patty melt, and then two chicken sandwich options. Besides that, Barretville General Store offers barbecue, and a whole sandwich menu as well. At a time when many restaurants are suffering from the pandemic, I was amazed at how many people were enjoying the general store, and the atmosphere was fun and upbeat. Of course, masks are required everywhere in Shelby County.
As for the surroundings, the place has been restored to its former glory. Plenty of wooden chairs and benches have been placed on the front porch for sitting, which was, of course, the main feature of any rural country store back in the day. The primary color scheme is black and white, but the aquamarine benches offset that and add a dash of color. Despite progress in the area, Barretville has changed little, and the area still has the look of a small rural community. For fun and good food, the drive out from Memphis is worth it. Plan a weekend trip to Barretville General Store, eat a great meal, and buy some baked goods to take back home with you.
With travel curtailed by the pandemic, many of us who love New Orleans have been unable to travel to our favorite city this summer, but Memphians who love the Big Easy got a little bit of consolation in June with the opening of the Parish Grocery in the former Atomic Tiki Bar location. (A transition from the South Pacific to South Rampart Street is quite a transition indeed!). Despite the name, Parish Grocery is not a grocery store, but a New Orleans-style deli, with po-boys and muffulettas. The sandwiches are made with Liedenheimer bread, which is considered the gold standard when it comes to po-boys. (Gambino’s is a beloved competitor in that regard as well). On a broiling day in June, I ventured in to try a shrimp po-boy after seeing a Facebook friend check in a few days before. The building on Overton Park Avenue in the Crosstown section of Memphis is old and historic, and has the sort of look I associate with New Orleans, including the door facing the corner rather than either street. As for the shrimp po-boy, it was the authentic article and quite good. Soft drinks come in cans, but were cold and refreshing, and for a treat after the meal, they advertise New Orleans-style snowballs, but I didn’t try one, so I cannot say how authentic they are. (For the uninitiated, a New Orleans snowball and a snow cone are vastly different.) The surroundings were pleasant, and included memorabilia from the TV show Treme, as well as various musician photos and concert posters.
Indeed, I had only one complaint, in that they do not offer french fries. They are of course not alone in that regard, and there are a number of New Orleans sandwich shops that do not have fries, including the venerable Domilise’s. But I am just not a fan of cajun slaw, or German potato salad, or any of the other various salads or vegetables that are offered. A shrimp po-boy, fries and a Barq’s was staple summer fare for me in my youth at Gulfport, Mississippi. All the same, Parish Grocery offers the most authentic New Orleans experience in a Memphis restaurant. They even have bread pudding, and Zapps potato chips. Pay them a visit.
Just a few short years ago, no coffees were being roasted in Memphis. All of sudden, there is seemingly an endless array of locally-based coffee brands, and most of them of very high quality. One can imagine my surprise when yet another new one appeared on my Facebook timeline recently, Ethnos Coffee. Ethnos specializes in roasts of beans from various parts of the world….they recently got acclaim for the cleverly-named Guji Mane Ethiopian coffee, and have coffees from Nicaragua, Brazil and many other parts of the world. Locally, they can be purchased at Cool Beans Coffee Shop, a new coffee bar inside the Cordova Farmer’s Market. Prices are reasonable, and the coffee is really good. For those who don’t live in the Memphis area, their coffees can be ordered from their website, and they ship.
The sudden closure of everything in mid-March due to Covid-19 had a devastating effect on all live music, including the blues. Nearly everything was closed down through April, but as weather warmed up in May, things began to slowly reopen, and I began to venture out more. Having acquired an iPhone 11, I decided to experiment with its photo capabilities, using some of my favorite photographic apps. I am especially partial to one called Filca, which lets you photograph with filters based on popular color and black-and-white films. The Agfa and Ilford filters really do resemble the old films they are based on, and the effects are really neat. Furthermore, the iPhone 11 boasts by far the best camera ever on an Apple phone.
Although live concerts did not resume in May, several artists performed live concerts intended for streaming. Duwayne Burnside did such a show outdoors at Red Banks in Marshall County, and the next day R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm did one at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale for the virtual Oxford Blues Fest.
Any day that I am leaving New Orleans tends to be depressing, and Ash Wednesday always seems doubly so. Perhaps it is supposed to be depressing, or at least sobering. It starts the penitential season of Lent, when we are supposed to focus on our own sinfulness, and the monumental nature of what Christ did for us. But knowing that the fun times of Mardi Gras are over for another year is just a little saddening.
Most years, a good breakfast helps cheer me up before I get on the road. This year, my friend Darren Towns of the TBC Brass Band and his four daughters joined me at Polly’s Bywater Cafe, one of my favorite breakfast places in New Orleans. The place is usually not all that busy, particularly on the average weekday, but this particular day was an exception. The place was packed, the kitchen and waitstaff way behind. We ultimately got our food, and it was as good as ever, but it took awhile.
I chose to leave the city on the Causeway, going across the lake to the north shore. I was in the mood for some coffee, so instead of going to a Starbucks or another chain, I ventured off the main road into the small town of Madisonville where there was a place called Abita Coffee Roasters.
As I have noted on a previous visit, Madisonville is one of the most beautiful towns in Louisiana. North of Lake Pontchartrain, its historic downtown along Water Street fronts on the Tchefuncte River, which is navigable down to the lake, by which boats can make their way to the Gulf of Mexico. There are a number of waterfront houses, and several marinas, as well as a handful of restaurants. But Abita Coffee Roasters is by far the most beautiful building in downtown Madisonville, with the look of an old creole home, surrounded by towering mossy oaks. Its front porch faces the river, and in back is a lovely patio/courtyard.
Of course people go to a coffee house for the coffee, and that is excellent too. Not only does Abita have espresso-based coffee drinks, but they also do their own coffee roasting, and have plenty of bags of different varieties of whole bean coffees for purchase. I was actually tempted to buy some, but I already had a lot of bean coffee at home waiting to be brewed. So I contented myself with a breve latte and a chocolate brownie, and then continued on my way toward Memphis. Although nothing could completely cure my sadness, the beauty of Madisonville was comforting.
By the end of the TBC Brass Band show at Kermit’s Mother in Law Lounge in Treme, I was at the end of my endurance, running on fumes. I had been awake for more than twelve hours, and on my feet for the bulk of them. I had, since Sunday night, taken more than five hundred photos and videos! In addition, I had not eaten anything since the early morning breakfast at Coffee & in Marrero.
When planning my trip to Mardi Gras, I had seen Tommy G’s Coal-Fired Pizza on my Yelp app. It was not a place I had noticed before, so I assumed it had opened rather recently. I had hoped to go there Monday night, but Jarday Towns, Darren’s wife, had warned me that we would not be able to get anywhere near it on Lundi Gras because it is located near the convention center, and the parades end there during Mardi Gras. She was undoubtedly right.
But fortunately, on Mardi Gras Day, by the evening, the parades are largely over, and it was very easy for us to get to the area. In addition, there was street parking, and it was free because the day was a holiday and the meters had been turned off. However, from the street, it seemed that Tommy G’s was closed, even though I had called them earlier and they said they would be open normal hours, from 11 AM to 4 in the morning. The interior looked fairly dark, and nobody was sitting in the chairs. However, when Darren and I tried the door, it opened. We soon found that the street address really reflects the back of the restaurant, and on the front side, there were a number of people at the bar and some of the tables. That number grew as we enjoyed our dinner.
While a number of restaurants offer coal-fired pizza, Tommy G’s was impressive. First of all, the pizzas were delicious, as good as any I have ever had (mine was made with capricola and pancetta), but it also needs to be pointed out that the menu includes many other options, including wings, roasted shrimp, Italian sandwiches and pasta specialties. Then Tommy G’s also has a full espresso bar and an exquisite selection of Italian pastry desserts and gelatos.
As Darren and I talked over the events of the day, we decided to order gelatos, and they were delicious as well. Suddenly, it was 2 AM, and we decided it was best to head to bed!
Not the least attraction of Tommy G’s is the hours. They are open from 11 AM to 4 AM, seven days a week. When other places are closed, they are a great option.
The approaching end of any holiday can be depressing, but there is no better way to close out a Mardi Gras Day than with what is arguably New Orleans’ best brass band, the TBC Brass Band, playing the patio at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge like they would normally do on a Sunday. If anything, the crowd was larger and more ebullient than it had been on the Sunday night before Lundi Gras, and everybody was in high spirits. By the end of the show, I had been on my feet for nearly twelve hours straight, and I was thoroughly exhausted. But it was a contented tiredness. New Orleans is the greatest city in the world.
The house where TBC was to play at 4 PM looked like a fairly ordinary Uptown home from the street, but it was abuzz with activity and people coming and going, including a number of Black Indians who had been down at Second and Dryades. The party was being held in the back yard of the house, and when Darren Towns and Bunny Adams arrived, we were all led into the backyard, and it became apparent that the house had been beautifully equipped to host parties. On the back, a roofed deck complete with a bar was full of partiers, and another free-standing bar was located in a corner of the backyard. At least fifty people were present as the TBC Brass Band struck up a brief set of their most popular tunes, and everyone had a remarkably good time. I was later told that the house in fact belonged to the Big Chief of one of the Black Indian gangs. Although it wasn’t even 5 PM when we left the party, and Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge was less than a mile away, due to Mardi Gras, it took us from 4:45 PM tp 6:15 PM to drive the mile from First Street to Treme.
The gangs of Black Indians (sometimes called Mardi Gras Indians) who appear in elaborate costumes on the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras, St. Joseph’s Night and the uptown and downtown Super Sundays are one of America’s most unusual and interesting cultural phenomenons. Although the term “Indian” would suggest a Native American frame of reference, the beautifully-decorated outfits have far more in common with African or Caribbean practices, as do the chants and percussion music used to accompany the gangs as they proceed down backstreets. Nobody is quite certain even how the tradition began; some accounts attribute it to a visit of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show to New Orleans in the 1880s. Certainly the first references to Black Indian gangs appear in the 1890s. But this theory fails to account for the similarity to Trinidadian practices, such as the Fancy Indian Mas (masque) and the stickfighting of the Canboulay (Cannes Brulee). Indeed early accounts of the Indians in New Orleans emphasized their penchant for violence. Confrontation between the gangs or tribes was not merely ritualized and danced as it is today, but was frequently bloody, and deaths were not unheard of, as in the Indian song “Corey Died on the Battlefield.” The use of drummed accompaniment certainly resembles the stickfighters’ practice in Trinidad, but the concept of chantwells, or singers who praised the various fighters does not seem to have made the journey to New Orleans. Instead, it is the gangs themselves and their Big Chiefs who praise their own bravery and their refusal to “bow down.” Whether New Orleans came by this tradition from Trinidad, or whether Trinidad came by it from New Orleans, or whether both spring from an African progenitor must remain conjecture at best.
Indian gangs exist in all working class Black neighborhoods of New Orleans, downtown, uptown, the Ninth Ward and the West Bank. However, it would seem that uptown has the largest numbers of gangs, and the corner of Second and Dryades in the Third Ward is a sort of ground zero for the Indian culture. On that corner is the Sportsman’s Lounge, headquarters for the Wild Magnolias, the first Black Indian group to make a record, and in the same block of Dryades is a place called Handa Wanda’s, where Indian practices are held in the months leading up to Mardi Gras. For anyone looking for Black Indians on Mardi Gras Day, this street corner is a good place to start.
But getting there from the St. Charles Avenue area poses a bit of a logistical nightmare on Mardi Gras Day. Parades result in road closures all over the city, and the only sure way to get through is on the interstates and freeways, and even they can become gridlocked as people try to go from parades uptown to things like Juvenile concerts downtown under the I-10 bridge. But I was fortunate enough to be able to get on the Pontchartrain Expressway with little problem, and by exiting on South Claiborne, work my way toward the area of uptown where I expected to find the gangs.
I wasn’t expecting to run into them as soon as I did however; Heading down First Street (as Second is one-way heading north) I ran into a traffic jam at Simon Bolivar, and I soon figured out why. Tribes of beautifully-dressed Indians were in the street with their drummers, and crowds had gathered. The gangs do not get the police escorts of the official parades, nor do they need them. They effectively block the streets on their own as they proceed, with drummers behind them, and crowds behind the drummers. The typical gang is accompanied by one or two bass drums, generally played in a horizontal position like snares, along with tenor drums, a cowbell, and occasionally a snare drum. Most tribes use a remarkably similar drum groove, which is sometimes called the “Indian beat.” This year, however, one of the gangs, the Black Hawk Hunters, had a brass-band-style snare and bass drummer. The effect was unusual, but the young men playing the drums were incredibly gifted. “I’m a fool on that snare drum,” the snare drummer said at a break in the action, and he could back it up with his sticks.
Finding a place to park along Simon Bolivar, I soon got behind one of the gangs, and followed them down into the Third Ward. Endlessly, different tribes appeared, signified by different brilliant color schemes coming down the street; one of these, the Comanche Hunters, had come all the way from the Lower Ninth Ward to uptown for the holiday. Eventually the center of attention shifted from Simon Bolivar to the Second and Dryades area around the Sportsman’s Lounge and Handa Wanda, which had opened for the occasion, selling food and beverage and restroom access, the latter of which was free for those who had purchased food or drink. In that area, I ran into the Golden Eagles, led by Big Chief Lawrence Boudreaux, undoubtedly a relative of the late Monk Boudreaux. The Golden Eagles had also made recordings, and this was the gang for which Joe Maize and Edward Jackson of the TBC Brass Band were playing drums.
When gangs approach each other, there is a ritual protocol by which they confront each other. Gangs send out ahead of themselves men called “spy boys” whose job is to report to the chief when they see another gang approaching. In the old days, the approaching confrontation could mean war, but nowadays, the chiefs will brag and boast at each other, and then they will dance-battle. Dance, boast and beautiful suits are today the way that Indians win or lose in battle. “I run through water and swim through mud,” bragged one big chief as he was confronting another on Dryades. Another said, “You’re beautiful, that I can’t deny, but everybody behind you gonna die.” In the old days, that might not have been an idle threat; today it is just part of the tradition. All the same, there are a lot of Black New Orleanians who do not like the Indians; some recall hearing of violent confrontations and deaths, or even witnessing them. Even today, they are not to be taken lightly; if they tell you to get out of the way, you should. This year, a big chief explained to a tourist “We don’t want you to get hit accidentally as we go into the hole,” the “hole” being a clearing amongst the crowd of onlookers.
I could have stayed out there all day until evening, and most years I would have. But my friends in the TBC Brass Band had a show at a house remarkably close to where I had parked on Simon Bolivar, and as the time approached for their show, I began to walk back up to the location. I was thoroughly tired, but in a pleasant sort of way.