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.
Growing up, my family used to meet in October for family reunions in Jackson, Mississippi. It was the “big city” in Mississippi; it had a zoo, malls, a large football stadium, a downtown with reasonably tall buildings, and a number of hotels and restaurants. There was also a large reservoir out to the northeast of town that provided a fair amount of recreation opportunities. But if we thought of Jackson as the “big city,” one thing we never thought of it as was hip. But that began changing over the years, and recently the hipness has been growing ever more rapidly. I discovered that a few weeks ago when I decided to stop at a new coffee bar called Il Lupo while on my way from Monroe to Memphis. I could not even place the location of this new coffee bar, which seemed to be located about where the old School for the Deaf and School for the Blind campuses were. I found that the area had in fact been turned into a mixed-use development called The District, which looked like something straight out of Austin, Texas. A number of apartments, with retail shops on the ground floor sat across a park-like courtyard from an upscale burger restaurant called Fine and Dandy, and another retail building which included something called Cultivation Food Hall, inside of which was the coffee bar.
Cultivation Food Hall, a bright and attractive space, is owned by the same firm that redeveloped the St. Roch Market in New Orleans as a food hall, and features a broad array of different food options. Although I went inside looking for the coffee bar, I soon came upon a gelato stand at Whisk Creperie as well, so I ended up going there first. Then I walked next door to Il Lupo to get a pour-over coffee, which was quite good. There’s no better preparation method if you want to enjoy the full flavor profile of high-quality coffee beans and coffee roasts. Had I not already eaten, there were other attractive food stalls in the hall, including one that was selling authentic Italian-style pizzas, and another that seemed to specialize in breakfast.
The District is currently not easy to get to from I-55, but it is certainly worth paying a visit to.
Monroe once had a downtown coffee bar, but the unexpected demise of RoeLa and the relocation of its successor, Bayou Brew House, means that for someone seeking an after-lunch coffee, there aren’t many options. An exception is Butter A Louisiana Bakery, in the lobby of the historic Vantage Tower. While you have to check in with the building’s front desk to explain that you are headed to Butter, because the building is basically an office tower, the bakery is worth the effort. Cookies, brownies, cakes are all there, as well as quiches and light lunch options. And, because the owner’s husband has celiac disease, all of the options are gluten-free. I chose something called a double doozie, a sandwich of two freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies with cream cheese icing and chocolate chips in between them. It was shockingly rich, and quite delicious, and a cup of coffee went well with it. The surroundings, lovingly restored by the Vantage Health Plan organization, are redolent of the Roaring 1920s, complete with marble floors.
Nearby, a short two-block walk away, is something called Art Alley, a two-block stretch of local galleries along a dead-end of North Second Street created when the city took out the rail crossing on that street. A beautiful painted pelican caught my attention, and of course the walls of buildings nearby were full of colorful murals. One of them read “Life is Messy,” which is certainly a true statement. Unfortunately, none of the galleries were open on a Friday afternoon, but I will have to make a journey to Monroe for one of the Art Crawls, which happen periodically during the year.
It was kind of a rough day, actually. David Kimbrough Jr, son of the late Junior Kimbrough had died on July 4th, and was being buried on this particular Saturday morning, and in addition, a sudden hurricane, Barry, was headed straight for my friends in New Orleans, where massive flooding along the lines of Katrina was feared. R. L. Boyce was scheduled to perform in Merigold, Mississippi for the annual Monkey Day, an event held in honor of the late Willie “Po Monkey” Seaberry, a man who had owned the legendary Po Monkey’s Lounge juke joint in a remote cotton field west of Merigold, so after a breakfast at Moma’s Bar-B-Que in Bartlett, I drove down to Como to pick R. L. up.
Despite the weather warnings, the sun was out, and our drive from Como to the Delta was relatively uneventful. But upon our arrival in Merigold, we noticed that things were quite different from last year. Perhaps the larger Grassroots Blues Festival in Duck Hill, the David Kimbrough funeral, the outrageous heat at last year’s festival and the threat of a tropical storm all combined to keep down attendance, but there were few attendees when we first got to Merigold. There were no food trucks this year either, but Crawdad’s restaurant was open and people could get food and non-alcoholic drinks inside. Beer was available from a tent outside. I noticed for the first time this year that Crawdad’s had a crawfish weathervane on its eaved roof, which is pretty cool.
Lightnin Malcolm had already arrived when we got there, and the day started off being really hot, like it had been last year, but this year, the organizers had provided fans and misting machines under the big audience tent, which was a good idea. And there was a considerable amount of wind this year, which helped with the heat. As time passed, people began to trickle in, and by noon or so, the first act of the day, Terry “Harmonica” Bean, had come on stage. Lightnin soon came and warned us that Jimmy Duck Holmes from Bentonia was not going to make it to Merigold. He said Holmes’ wife would not let him come, and presumably it was the threat of bad weather that was frightening him. At any rate, Bean performed for nearly an hour, and then R. L. Boyce and Lightnin Malcolm came on stage to perform. By that point, there was enough of a crowd that some people began dancing in front of the stage, and some members of the Seaberry family had arrived.
Garry Burnside, a son of the late R. L. Burnside, was next up, with Lightnin Malcolm playing drums for him. Some friends of Lightnin had come up from New Orleans due to the storm, and were in the crowd. They were staying at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale and had driven down at his recommendation.
Garry was followed by Lightnin Malcolm’s own set, which was briefly interrupted by a speech from the mayor of Merigold, and the sheriff of Bolivar County. Malcolm performed a mix of his original tunes and some Hill Country standards, before closing with a rousing tune called “Clap Your Hands, Stomp Your Feet.” The outdoor stage ended an hour early, but music was also going on inside Crawdad’s, where I had reserved a table for dinner.
The move inside came just in time, as the clouds began to gather, and the winds began to pick up to the extent that guitar cases began blowing across the outdoor stage. As Crawdad’s specializes in steaks and seafood, I decided to order the filet mignon with french fries, and it was a good decision. The filet was extremely tender, wrapped in bacon, and with a good charcoal flavor, which is rare in restaurants today. It had been marinated with a slightly sweet marinade that clearly had worcestershire sauce in it. The fries were excellent as well, and although I was tempted to try something called Black Bottom Pie, I decided against it. Although the restaurant is truly massive, with rooms upon rooms, it was nearly all filled on this particular night.
Afterwards, Lightnin Malcolm was headed with his friends back to Hopson Plantation at Clarksdale, and R. L. and I were headed back out to Como, but we stopped at Clarksdale for coffee at Yazoo Pass before heading on to Panola County. Although we were concerned about the weather, we managed to stay ahead of it all the way back, and my friends in New Orleans were posting on social media that Barry had been something of a dud.
During this day, I had largely been experimenting too with the Reica Film Camera and Nizo movie-making apps on my iPhone 7, with a goal of seeing if I could cover a typical live music event with just my phone. For the most part, the experiment worked well. I love the Reica app, as its filters are based on historic varieties of camera film, including my beloved Agfa 400, with its brilliant reds and blues. Unlike a traditional film camera of course, one can switch film with each shot, changing from Kodak, to Fuji, to Agfa, to Ilford black-and-white, shot by shot. Of course, the iPhone 7’s camera has some limitations, and when zooming out, there is some loss of detail. But under festival conditions it worked well.
I was even more impressed with the Nizo movie-making app, which makes cinemtographic-quality footage. However, it can automatically string clips together if you forget to export them to your camera roll, and it has to be focused when shifting to different light levels. All the same, I was impressed with its performance, which in some ways surpasses my Nikon D3200. I probably won’t ever have to cover an event with only my iPhone, and its battery wasn’t up to the challenge, having to be recharged for an hour mid-festival. But it’s nice to know that I could if I had to.
On a couple of rare instances when my jazz group played in Tupelo some years ago, my old bass player Monte Butts had recommended a dessert cafe downtown called Crave. I fell in love the first time I tried it. The place had delicious cakes and pies, as well as great coffees.
So, after rain caused an early end to my day at the North Mississippi Hill Country Picnic at Waterford, I made my way to Oxford and grabbed a burger at the Oxford Burger Company, and afterwards, I wanted something sweet. Checking my Yelp app on my phone, I soon saw a reference to a place called Crave in Oxford that specializes in desserts. I found myself wondering if it was a branch of the place I remembered in Tupelo.
Wonder no more. Oxford Crave is in fact a branch of Tupelo Crave. And it is located next to Lost Pizza Company, away from the hustle and bustle of the square, along College Hill Road. The atmosphere is upscale and welcoming, and the coffee and desserts are delicious. I enjoyed a slice of peanut butter-chocolate cake, which was absolutely amazing. Despite an error on Yelp with regards to hours, Crave is open most nights until at least 9 PM.
While driving from our hotel room in Yazoo City toward the Bentonia Blues Festival, we came into downtown Yazoo City on Main Street, looking for ice cream, as it was such a hot day. We didn’t find any frozen desserts, but we did find that the historic downtown buildings had been painted in an array of tropical colors. The scene almost resembled a Caribbean shopping district, such as Aruba or Curacao. Like other Mississippi cities, Yazoo City has had a hard time redeveloping its downtown, but there is starting to be some progress. We saw an antique mall, a restaurant and a small hotel. For my part, I was surprised by the massive size of Yazoo City’s downtown area. Although the city is only 40 miles from Jackson, it must have been a place of major importance at one time. We ended up having to backtrack to Sonic out on the bypass for ice cream, but I was glad we had stumbled onto the beautiful buildings downtown.
After a hot afternoon of interviewing people for my masters’ thesis, I had driven down into Marshall County to a spot where my iPhone indicated that Coldwater Church Cemetery would be located. Coldwater Church had played a role in an incident in the 1870’s, in which a Black benevolent society, led by a fife and drum band, marched toward Collierville to protest the shooting death of the society’s president. But in the area indicated by my phone, I found no sign of a church nor of a cemetery. It is entirely possible that the cemetery is in someone’s backyard on private land, so I gave up looking for it and ventured into Collierville looking for something cold and sweet.
I ended up at Levee Creamery, a welcoming and inviting spot at the corner of Houston Levee and Wolf River Parkway, which, as it turns out, is owned by the folks behind Pyro’s Fire-Fresh Pizzas and the Wolf River Brisket Company. The place was sleek, colorful and comfortable, with a full espresso menu as well as ice cream, and soft serve. I opted for the latter, a chocolate soft-serve with Oreo toppings. The lack of Reese’s peanut-butter cups as an available topping was a minor quibble, but not a big deal, and I found the soft-serve absolutely amazing, even more delicious than Dairy Queen, and I am a DQ fan.
The Creamery also has an interesting jukebox, which people can control from an app on their phone, to which they can upload money in order to play songs. They are open at 6:30 AM weekdays, so that people can get their caffeine fix before heading to nearby Houston or Collierville High Schools, and have recently opened a second location on Highland near the University of Memphis. They are a good, reliable option for your coffee or ice cream needs.
Long before the expensive, luxury burger chain Shake Shack appeared in New York and other large cities, Marion, Arkansas resident John Tacker opened a restaurant alternately called Big John’s or Tacker’s Shake Shack. I had driven past it many a time, but rarely ever found it open, as I was usually on that end on Sundays, when they were closed. As far as I knew, it was just a local fast food place.
But after having their delicious fried pies at the Art on the Levee event at Waverly Plantation a week before, I realized there was far more to the Shake Shack than fast food fare, and sure enough, I found the place charming, filled with all kinds of rock and roll memorabilia. The menu was loaded with many different burgers, and so I chose a bacon and cheese burger which was absolutely delicious. Then, even though I had originally intended to have another fried pie, I noticed a chocolate chip pie and decided to have that instead. Both my burger and the pie were quite delicious, and I saw that the Shake Shack also serves breakfast and catfish. The signature item is a burger called the Sultana, named for a famous shipwreck in the Mississippi River, which consists of an egg, bacon, chili, hashbrowns, two pounds of beef, and lots of cheeses. Those who win the challenge get their pictures on the wall of fame.
Unfortunately, I learned that this was the next to last night for the historic Shake Shack. Although they were not closing for good, they were constructing a new building, and Friday would be their last night in the old building. They would be closed for about a month as they transitioned into the new building. (They have since reopened in the new building).
Historic Waverly Plantation in Crittenden County, Arkansas has suffered from the fact that it shares its name with a much better-known plantation home near Columbus, Mississippi, which was built in the 1850’s. By contrast, we are not sure of the age of the elaborate Greek Revival mansion at Waverly, Arkansas, as the dates of 1908 and 1913 are encountered in articles. A Memphian named Fontaine Martin Sr. leased the land from a deputy sheriff in Crittenden County in 1913, and decided to live on the property full-time in 1915, but by his recollection, the house was already there, although in what form or to what extent is unclear. Adding more confusion to the mix is the rumor that an older Waverly Plantation existed on the opposite side of the levee from the current home. I have been told at least once that the house was disassembled at its old location and reassembled in its current location, which could make the house, in theory, much older still.
What is clear is that the Arkansas Waverly, on the National Register of Historic Places, is a treasure, and for the last several years it has been the site of the annual Art on the Levee, a fundraiser for DeltaARTS, the local arts non-profit in West Memphis.
While I had not been able to attend the event last year, I wasthis year, and I am thrilled to have been there, as the house has been sold, and it is unclear whether Art on the Levee will be able to be held there going forward.
At least half of the charm of the event was the beautiful house itself, which really consists of three stories if one counts the basement. Every room was beautifully furnished and decorated, with art works prominently displayed. Lemonade was being served on the front porch as a guitar player played and sang. Most of the art works were displayed in the basement, where there was of course a considerable crowd.
In back, tables and chairs had been set around a large swimming pool, and a stage had been set for the musicians, a string band from Memphis. I was really surprised that a blues band had not been chosen, as the scenery greatly suggested blues, but at any rate, the musicians never played during the hour and a half I was there. The main food was provided by the Soul Fish Cafe, and consisted of catfish, which was actually quite delicious. But what really stood out to me were the freshly-made fried pies from Tacker’s Shake Shack in Marion, a place I had driven past many times but never eaten at. I’m used to the fried pies from Yoder’s in Whiteville that are sold at Bozo’s in Mason, and they are good, but these were even better, with a flakier crust, perhaps because they were being served the same day they were made. After getting thoroughly full, I wandered the environs, snapping photos.
Although I am saddened by the prospect of the Art on the Levee having to move to another location in 2020, I am at least glad that I got this final chance to see the grand and historic old home before the new owners take it over. A check of the Fletcher Creek Quadrangle map from 1966 shows that at one time Waverly had a church, a cemetery and an airstrip. I saw no trace of any of them on my visit, but it might be worth a trip back to see if I can find the cemetery, as long as I can do so without infringing on private property.
After two performances in Belzoni, I was thoroughly hungry and somewhat tired. Belzoni had only one sit-down restaurant as far as I could see, but it was closed, either due to the gridlock caused by the Catfish Festival, or perhaps closed for good. So I knew I would have to go elsewhere for dinner, and I had considered heading to Greenville, Indianola or Greenwood. Greenville was a little bit too far, and Indianola I had been to frequently, so I decided to head to Greenwood in order to try a place I had never eaten before.
Ultimately, I chose a 75-year-old restaurant called the Crystal Grill, located across from the main Amtrak railroad station in downtown Greenwood. The rain was coming down, and I almost feared that the place might be closing for the night. But fortunately, they were still open, and inside, there was a still a good-sized crowd of diners in the back dining rooms.
The atmosphere was bright and cheerful, and when I saw the menu, I was amazed at the various choices, and the relatively low prices. Ultimately, I chose a grilled redfish, with lump crab meat on top, and a baked potato with butter, bacon and cheese. Redfish is one of my favorite types of fish, and this one was so large, it nearly filled my plate. It was flaky, and delicious- the best I have had since I visited The Goode Company Texas Seafood in Houston many years ago. I had expected a normal baked potato with cheese, bacon and butter, but what I got was something quite different- the potato had been baked, then scooped out, and the butter, cheese and bacon had been mixed, then put back into the potato shells and baked again. It was quite delicious and I ate all of it.
Now thoroughly happy, I opted for the perfect finish- a slice of homemade cheesecake in a delicious graham cracker crust. When I left to go to my car, the doorman asked me how it was. I told him truthfully that I had just had one of the best meals of my life.