Anyone familiar with New Orleans is likely familiar with beignets- those little delightful squares of fried dough rolled in powdered sugar. They’re so simple, yet so delectable, and they make a perfect accompaniment to good strong New Orleans coffee with chicory, or cafe-au-lait. Most tourists who look for them end up at the Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter, as it is the world-famous place for beignets. But a nearly-as-old competitor, Morning Call has returned to New Orleans after being away since 1973, having opened in the old Casino at City Park. For those familiar with the Cafe du Monde, there are a number of differences, most of them positive. While the Morning Call is in a fairly dark, wooded area of the park and hard to find, it is almost never as crowded as the Cafe du Monde, and parking, on the street in front, is ample and free. The prices for the beignets are cheaper as well, and Morning Call does not put the powdered sugar on your beignets, letting you decide how much to put on them yourself. The cafe is cash only, but there is an ATM if you were unprepared, and like its competitor, Morning Call is open 24 hours a day. Rather than a lot of tourists, this place seems to attract more locals, other than the occasional group at the end of a voodoo or haunted New Orleans tour. Altogether, Morning Call is a great option for your beignet fix, without all the crowds and inconvenience.
Morning Call City Park
56 Dreyfous Dr
New Orleans, LA 70119
My friend and I had visited my cousin in the Handsboro neighborhood of Gulfport, and then we had headed on east into Biloxi. We noticed a festival going on at Point Cadet close to the bridge, but I had intended to go on to Ocean Springs, which has become a charming little artists’ colony since Hurricane Katrina, and to a waterfront bar and grill called Da Bayou Bar and Grill in Gulf Park Estates. Unfortunately, clouds were gathering and rain beginning to fall, so eating at a restaurant that primarily seemed outdoors was not an option, so we headed back to Ocean Springs, where rain was pouring. To our amazement, the heavy rains were continuing throughout Biloxi, where the outdoor festival we had seen was breaking up, and in Gulfport as well. Nevertheless, we had to eat somewhere, so we decided to park in downtown Gulfport and pick a spot for dinner.
Gulfport’s downtown had fallen on hard times long before Hurricane Katrina, emptying out rapidly in the 1970’s due to the opening of Edgewater Gulf Mall on the border between Gulfport and Biloxi. Despite occasional new openings and numerous plans, nothing really made a difference in downtown Gulfport through the early 1990’s, not even the building and opening of a massive Hancock Bank headquarters there. Even the casinos did more harm than good, as their buffets and restaurants brought hard times to other restaurants, including some that had been coastal icons for decades. But finally, during the 12 years since Katrina, downtown Gulfport shows signs of finally turning the corner. The opening of restaurants like the Half Shell Oyster House (where we ate dinner) and live music venues like the Thirteenth Street Jazz Bistro is beginning to make Gulfport’s downtown a destination for food and fun. We were also thrilled to discover an alley of brightly-colored painted murals called Fishbone Alley that runs between a number of the establishments. In fact, the difficulty for us was not finding a place to eat, but rather choosing from a number of downtown places that were available. Despite the rain, we left Gulfport full and contented.
Hewes Avenue, named for the first mayor of the modern city of Gulfport, Mississippi, was and is a major thoroughfare that leads from the East Beach neighborhood, where some of my relatives lived, to Bayou View, where other relatives of mine lived, so we were always heading up that street during my summers with my grandparents in Gulfport. But in between those two neighborhoods was another neighborhood that fascinated me as a boy. North of the railroad along Hewes Avenue was a Black neighborhood with some old juke joints on both sides of the street, with sandy, dirt parking lots and big, ancient oak trees shading the yards and the buildings. Old Barq’s Root Beer and Coca-Cola signs out in front announced the places, and in nice weather, groups of young men sat in chairs under the trees out in front, some of them occasionally shirtless. Looking inside one of the establishments, I could occasionally catch a glimpse of a pool table, or a man with a cue stick. My grandmother seemed to consider the place disreputable, but I was strangely attracted, although I never ventured up there, even once I was a teenager and could have.
I never really knew the name of that community in those days, but I have come to realize that it was called Shady Grove. Because there has never really been a good, definitive history of Gulfport, I have no idea how the community came to be, but I wonder if it was formed by African-Americans that had been employed by the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad as it was building its rails and the city of Gulfport. Sadly, the colorful, vibrant community I recall is largely a thing of the past, as I learned on a recent visit to the area. Old clubs like the Shady Corner Cafe, the Lullabye Inn and the King Edward Bar are gone without a trace. The musicians, players and hustlers that once populated the area have vanished, and no crowds hang out under the trees. But amazingly, one establishment still survives, Holder’s Nightlife, a rough and weatherbeaten juke that looks at if it could have never stood through Hurricane Katrina and yet somehow did. It’s not really a blues spot, more of a DJ club apparently, judging from their profile on social media. Yet it still has the classic image of what the whole neighborhood once looked like when I was young.
My lady friend had never been to the Mississippi Coast even though she is from Mississippi, so during our weekend in New Orleans, I made plans for us to drive over to the coast for the afternoon on Saturday, and we stopped first in Pass Christian, a town that had been almost completely destroyed in Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. Progress has been slow, but the community is springing back to life, and nowhere is that more evident than with the opening of a number of restaurants, shops and a hotel in the downtown and harbor areas. Of particular interest is a sleek, modernistic coffee bar called Cat Island Coffeehouse, which is actually attached to an independent bookstore called Pass Christian Books, sitting on the hill in Pass Christian’s downtown with an amazing view of the Gulf of Mexico and the marina and harbor. Coffee, books and waterfront views are three of my favorite things in life, so finding them all in one place is thrilling, to say the least. The mocha latte I ordered was terrific, and the selection of books, particularly those about Mississippi and the Civil Rights Movement, were excellent as well. The coffeehouse also offers wine and small food items, and with comfortable couches and chairs, large picture windows and a breezy, outdoor deck, makes an excellent place to look out over the Gulf or to enjoy an evening sunset. On this particular day, full of clear blues skies, and sunshine, we could see the vague outline of Cat Island on the horizon where the sea and sky met. I could have spent far too much money in Pass Christian Books/Cat Island Coffeehouse, but I limited myself to one book, and we headed on our way toward Gulfport. But this first visit will not be our last.
Cat Island Coffeehouse/Pass Christian Books
300 East Scenic Drive
Pass Christian, MS 39571
My friend and I decided on a weekend getaway to New Orleans, so we spent a Friday afternoon in September driving across the state of Mississippi and into Louisiana. I had decided that we would stop at the town of Mandeville, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, where we could eat dinner, and my iPhone showed two waterfront restaurants. We ultimately chose Rips on the Lake, a seafood restaurant which proved to be an elegant two-story house directly across the street from the lake. The weather was pleasant, and many people were sitting out on the upstairs balcony while the sun was setting, but my friend said she preferred to eat indoors, so we chose an indoor table near the bar. Rips’ menu proved to be impressive, and our initial difficulty was in deciding between the numerous seafood options, almost all of which sounded good. I ultimately opted for the trout almondine, while my friend chose the trout audrey. Almondine is one of my favorite choices when on the Gulf coast, and Rips’ did not disappoint. It came along with roasted potatoes that were equally delicious, and my friend said she enjoyed her trout as well. Prices were a little on the high side, but for the view and atmosphere, quality of food and excellent service, I am of the opinion that Rips is worth it.
Rips on the Lake
1917 Lakeshore Dr
Mandeville, LA 70448
Robert Kimbrough Sr. calls his style of music “cotton patch blues”, but he is the son of one of the biggest legends of what blues scholars often call Hill Country blues, Junior Kimbrough. The Hill Country is generally considered to be Marshall, DeSoto, Tate, Panola, Lafayette and Benton Counties, and perhaps the most important city in the region is Oxford, the home of the University of Mississippi. Music fans in Oxford love the cotton patch or Hill Country styles of blues, and they often go to Rooster’s Blues House when regional blues artists are booked, so there was a large, enthusiastic crowd on a Friday night in September when Robert Kimbrough performed with his band the Robert Kimbrough Sr Blues Connection. Kimbrough treated the crowd to a mix of original compositions and Junior Kimbrough standards like “All Night Long”, and the dance floor in front of the stage stayed full. It was a great way to kick off a big Oxford football weekend.
Braden, Tennessee is a small village in northwestern Fayette County, roughly halfway between Gallaway and Mason. Unlike those towns, Braden never really developed, basically consisting of some houses, a church, a cemetery an elementary school and the C. T. McGraw General Store. When that store closed in the early 2000’s, it soon became home to a catfish and seafood buffet restaurant called Braden Station, yet in all the years it had been open, I had never taken the opportunity to try it. So on a beautiful September evening, a Thursday, I decided to check it out before heading to Somerville for another installment of Music on the Square. Braden Station is a bright and cheerful space on the ground floor of the historic general store building, whose walls are covered with historic signs and photos, many of them related to the area. The old, wooden shelves on the northern wall that once held all kinds of general merchandise now hold old board games, toys, books, photos and other knickknacks. On a Thursday night, the restaurant was fairly busy, with most of the patrons enjoying the large all-you-can-eat seafood buffet, which costs $18.99. Not believing that I could eat enough to justify the price, I chose instead to order a catfish dinner with french fries and hushpuppies. This is a meal that I have ordered frequently from a number of restaurants over the last year, and Braden Station’s stacks up fairly well. With lots of catfish choices in the Mid-South, the field is fairly competitive, so restaurants that offer catfish have to put their best foot forward. Unfortunately, where Braden Station fails is in affordability. They are just very expensive. A three-piece catfish dinner is $14.99. The full buffet, as mentioned above, is four dollars more. Of course, seafood costs a little more, but the prices sadly make Braden Station more of a special occasion restaurant than a regular go-to. That being said, it is certainly a place that everyone should take the time to experience at least once. The friendly service, great food, and cheerful atmosphere are worth the splurge, at least every now and then.
189 Highway 59
Braden, TN 38049
Due north of Marshall County, the quintessential county of the Mississippi Hill Country is Fayette County, Tennessee, which perhaps could be considered Tennessee’s only Hill Country county as such. Geographically and demographically similar to the county in Mississippi below it, Fayette should have been a hotbed of blues, and apparently was, but was much less studied than its Mississippi counterpart. Otherwise, the two counties are remarkably similar, right down to their charming county seat towns with courthouse squares that could be the setting for some epic movie of the American South. Holly Springs in Marshall County is known for its Blues in the Alley events each Thursday night in July and August, so when Fayette County began announcing Music on the Square events on Thursdays in September, I decided to drive out to Somerville and see what was going on. The weather was beautiful and perfect for such an event, and a crowd of about a hundred people had gathered on the northwest corner of the courthouse square along Market Street, where a stage had been set up. There were cookies and lemonade provided by local business sponsors, and some custom cars and trucks had been parked closer to Fayette Street on the west side of the square. Unfortunately, the band that had been chosen to play on this particular Thursday was a country band, and country music is not my cup of tea, but at least this particular country band was from Fayette County, and had a certain rock edge to their style. Somewhat disappointed in the music, I spent the rest of the evening walking around the tiny downtown in Somerville, snapping pictures of a number of landmarks before heading back to Memphis. Even so, the court square makes an excellent background for live music performance, and those who attended had a great time.
Driving through Somerville on Labor Day weekend, I had noticed a sign on the courthouse square announcing live music on the square every Thursday night in September, and since it was a beautiful day, and I had discovered online that there was a new restaurant in Somerville called Market Company , I decided to drive into Fayette County and see what was what.
Although Somerville’s Market Street leads to Market Company, the restaurant is actually located on Midland Street, in a warehouse located northwest of the square in an old industrial area near Somerville’s former railroad depot. The building was pleasantly decorated, and perhaps due to the nice weather, the front door near the bar was wide open. There was a $5 cover charge for the live music, a guitar and singing duo that seemed more like background music for dinner than a featured act, but the front door was open due to the pleasant weather, and the overall atmosphere was bright and upbeat. Although reviews on the internet had discussed Market Company’s great steaks, I was disappointed to learn that the restaurant has different menus on different days, and that the steaks are only available on Fridays and Saturdays. Thursdays, the menu is largely limited to boiled seafood, wings, tacos and burgers. As such, I opted for a bacon cheeseburger, and I was not disappointed. The food was quite good. However, when the cover charge and tip were added, my burger and fries dinner cost $25…really expensive, even by Memphis standards. That being said, Market Company is certainly the nicest restaurant in Somerville, really the only one of its type. And I will be looking forward to trying it again on a Friday or Saturday night when I can have a steak.
401 Midland St
Somerville, TN 38068
On Labor Day, after breakfast at Huddle House in Senatobia, I decided to head out into Benton County on a search for the possibility of more blues or fife-and-drum picnics. After driving to Holly Springs, I headed out Highway 7 until I came to the town of Lamar, Mississippi in Benton County. There wasn’t much at Lamar other than an abandoned store and a post office, but the next town up the road, Michigan City, was more interesting, to say the least.
I have never determined why a town in Mississippi was named Michigan City, but the years have not been kind to the place. The few business buildings on Main Street have been abandoned, as have the railroad tracks that once ran through the center of town. However, on the opposite side of the tracks are some historic homes and church buildings, most in good shape, but a few abandoned. The streets are narrow, and local residents traverse them with golf carts, as the whole community is fairly compact and easy to get around in. Unfortunately, like all of Benton County, Michigan City seems like a community that has been largely abandoned. Yet, with available historic homes and buildings, it seems as if it could be redeveloped by people committed to a vision for the community.
I soon crossed into the town of Grand Junction, Tennessee, in Hardeman County, a place where the blues musician Little Joe Ayers recalled fife-and-drum picnics in 1969 or 1970. But there was no sign of any festive activities in the small town, and the downtown area had lost some buildings just in the year or so since I had been there last.
I had driven extensively in parts of Fayette County in the fall of 2015, so I decided to focus on the southwestern quadrant of the county, an area I had not spent much time in back then. Starting at LaGrange, I drove the LaGrange Road into Somerville, and then Jernigan Drive back out to the southwest and ultimately into Hardeman County. Although I didn’t find any picnics or fife-and-drum bands, I did find some old abandoned stores, juke joints and schools along the route, and I stopped to photograph them all before ultimately ending up in Whiteville.
I recalled that Whiteville had been the site of a very important and early high school for African-Americans in West Tennessee, the Hardeman County Training School, which had eventually become Allen-White High School. In the earliest years, the high school had been something like a college, with dormitories, because Bolivar, the county seat, had no schools for Black children, and high school education for Blacks in West Tennessee was severely limited. Some children traveled far from their homes and stayed in dormitories on campuses like Allen-White in Bolivar, Gailor in Mason, or Shelby County Training School at Woodstock, and others arranged to stay with families who resided near the schools. So Allen-White, which had been built with funds donated by Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Sears & Roebuck, was extremely important as an opportunity for secondary education for Black students. Indeed, its long-time principal, J. H. White, went on to be the first president of Mississippi Vocational College at Itta Bena, now Mississippi Valley State University.
Given the school’s historical importance, I was curious what I would find when I arrived at the location of the old campus, but nothing prepared me for what I found. Although an old “Allen-White High School, Class of 1951” sign remained at the front of the campus, the buildings were largely ruins, having been burnt in an arson fire in 2012. The portions of the campus that were not burnt in the fire were abandoned and overgrown with high grass, weeds and bushes. I was thoroughly depressed with what I found, and all the more so when I read online that the community had been hoping to use the building for community purposes prior to the arson. The extent to which Black school campuses are abandoned in Southern towns is an annoyance to me, perhaps an unintended consequence of school integration. Given the thousands of dollars invested in these campuses by the taxpayers, it’s hard for me to understand why the local governments could not find a suitable public use for these campuses before simply abandoning them to ruin. Arguably, had the Allen-White campus not been vacant and abandoned, there might have been no arson.
From Whiteville, I ended up riding across the northwest corner of Fayette County, then through Dancyville and across to Stanton and Mason before I decided to head back to the house. While I had documented a lot of historic sites in the area, I found no trace of the fife-and-drum music culture I had hoped to find in or around Fayette County. I have come to the sad conclusion that it probably no longer exists.