The next stop on my road trip around the Deep South was Vicksburg; a town right on the Mississippi river, some four hours drive south of Memphis through the Mississippi Delta.
The Delta is like nothing else in the United Kingdom. It is possible to drive on the narrow highway 61 for hours and hours, without turning once, and without seeing anything much except for endless cotton fields, the odd advertisement for a casino (several of which have sprung up in Tunica county) and a few massive trucks making the lengthy journey South.
The Delta is vast; miles and miles of flat, open farmland rich in cotton, although many of its residents are amongst the poorest people in the United States. This area of Mississippi, in particular, was dominated by plantations, slaves and cotton picking back in the 1800’s. However, in modern days the Delta truly is rural America and rural life no longer has the same appeal due to dwindling populations, a once promising local economy rapidly in decline and unemployment twice the national average.
That being said, the Delta still has a lot to offer, especially to the hardened traveller who likes to journey ‘off the beaten track’. The Delta’s people are friendly, the food comforting and the history, endless! Not only is this area of the state known for its music, it has also inspired many literary works including those by, most recently, John Grisham and Willie Morris, and historically, Mark Twain.
Like Memphis, this area of North West Mississippi has a deep-routed music history, which is particularly associated with the Blues; many famous Blues artists were born in this sweltering, rustic area of the Deep South, including BB King, who went on to be a world renowned artist and the owner of a famous blues club in Memphis. The unique sound of the blues is said to originate from slaves singing whilst working the many cotton fields in the Delta. There is so much music related history in this area of the state that Highway 61 is otherwise known as ‘the blues highway’; this is alluded to at the junction of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Mississippi by the iconic crossed guitars. In fact, Clarksdale is also home to Ground Zero, owned by the actor Morgan Freeman, who lives in the area, and the Delta Blues Museum which is next door to the club. The Mississippi Blues Trail has many markers in this area of the state; leaflets are available from Mississippi tourist centres and are a good starting point to understand the history of the Blues in the Delta.
For lunch, we stopped at The Onward Store in Rolling Fork Mississippi, situated on Highway 61. Onward is an old-fashioned, picturesque grocery store with vintage gas pumps at the front and several rocking chairs on the porch – an ideal place to sit, relax and watch the world go by after a long drive.
Inside, the store has a wide range of refreshments for sale, perfect to revive the weary traveller, as well as local goods and gifts. The interior really is a wonder to behold with old tins, grocery items and food advertisements adorning many of the shelves. Entering the shop is like stepping back in time, especially upon spying the ancient cash register taking pride of place on the front counter.
The store also serves lunch and breakfast on weekdays, and dinner Thursday – Saturday, in one of two small atmospheric dining rooms, both of which are adorned with memorbillia, photographs and animal skins.
Lunch offerings are in the form of sandwiches, such as burgers or Po’boys, or ‘baskets’, which consist of fried chicken, shrimp or catfish accompanied by fries in a plastic basket. Simple, yet hearty and typically Southern. Do not go to the Deep South if you want an abundance of fresh vegetables as you will be sorely disappointed!
and I opted for the ‘daily plate’, a pulled pork sandwich with fries and, rather bizzarely, some buttered sweet peas! For $8, this was a rather terrific lunch. The bun was so soft and slightly sweetened which offered a nice contrast to the tender, smokey and slightly acidic pulled pork. My lunch certainly did not touch the sides; I even enjoyed the strange choice of side dish! Watch this space for pulled pork recipes…
My Dad opted for the basket of shrimp and chips whilst my Mom had a friend shrimp Po’Boy, both of which were delicious, very reasonable, fresh and filling.
I am told by friends that evening meals at Onward Store are also superb. The menu boasts a good range of typical Southern fare, from blackened catfish to chicken and biscuits, with side dishes including fried okra, turnip greens and grits.
Onward store isn’t just a quaint restaurant and shop, it also has a famous history as the birthplace of the ‘teddy bear’. President Theodore Roosevelt went on a bear hunt in the Onward area in 1902 and, rumour has it, a huge bear was caught and tethered to a tree for him to shoot as he had failed to kill one by himself. Upon being invited to shoot the bear, the president refused stating it would not be ‘sportsman’ like. The Washington Post caught wind of this story and later published a cartoon of ‘Teddy’s bear’. Soon after, a New York manufacturer made the first ‘teddy bear’ in honour of the President’s hunt and so, a legend was born!
Onward Store certainly made a fantastic pit stop on the long road South but after a filling and delicious lunch, it was time for us to get back on the road and drive the remaining hour to Vicksburg for the next part of our trip.
The Mississippi delta is much overlooked as a tourist destination however, I would thoroughly recommend a visit and would personally love to explore the area a little further. Visiting the North-West part of the state really allows visitors to get a glimpse at the ‘real’ Mississippi, one that is full of musical, literary and social history that has helped shape modern day America.