I don’t know what it is.
It could be the food cooked with soul in an old cast iron skillet. It could be the warm weather that embraces your body like an old friend or loving matriarch figure. It could be the bright rows of endless farmland along the road that twinkles from rain that poured the night before. It could very well be that the South just has it all.
On Thursday, April 28 we made it into Cape Girardeau, Missouri and stopped to
explore eat along the Mississippi River at a delightfully weathered brick building that houses Port Cape Girardeau Cafe, a restaurant near where Ulysses S. Grant was headquartered during the Civil War.
The inside was eclectic with relaxing vintage tones: tall windows, simple decor with historic posters framed that lined the brick walls. Our group staked out a long table and shared several appetizers. I’m so grateful to be on a trip with professors who are encouraging of us to try new things. Trout risotto, salmon bruschetta, calamari were among the shared plates that were ordered and each were spectacular in flavor.
It was my first encounter with risotto, though I have watched several tries and fails of its preparation on Food Network. This was artfully seasoned and the rice was tender; the mouthfeel was creamy with pops of briney-ness from the flaky trout.
I ordered the chicken flatbread sandwich for the main entree. It was nothing too out of the ordinary, but what made this sandwich a-typical from others in the same flatbread family was the addition of fresh salsa as a condiment. Usually, flatbreads are overstuffed and messy, so I was pleasantly surprised to have mine prepared and served already housed in an aluminum foil handling for easier noshing.
The chicken was grilled nicely and paired well against the buttery avocadoes and fresh lettuce. Then all at once, the salsa surprises the palate — not too spicy, but just enough to add a kick and complexity of flavor. Any heat from the sandwich was extinguished by the sweet and sour coleslaw that I had requested as my choice of side because, well, I’m obsessed.
This particular coleslaw was of the vinegar and oil-base. Lots of vinegar, and lots of oil. So much, in fact, that as I was nearing the end of the punchy cabbage dish, I had the option of slurping the excess vinegar in the bottom of the bowl. This, too me, truly is the embodiment of a well-executed slaw.
It was beautiful.
The road to Missouri took us into Memphis, Tennessee for another planned stop. Like all respectful Michiganders, we had to pay homage to the native dish around this part of the southern region: BBQ.
Tom’s BBQ & Deli is a hole-in-the-wall shop located on a corner just outside downtown Memphis; if you were to drive too fast, you would just miss it — and that would be a crying shame, a calamity, a detriment, a mistake.
Tom’s was featured on the popular show Diners, Drive-ins & Dives, hosted by chef Guy Fieri on the Food Network. The owner, Adam, greeted our group warmly as we sought refuge from the monsoon outside.
When you walk in and snake through the narrow interior layout, past the tables to find the kitchen, all it takes is one look at the giant white menu to decide what you’d like — EVERYTHING is good — (I ordered the brisket sandwich combo that comes with fries and a drink), then you order cafeteria-style before paying at the window.
The wait was not long at all before our plates were placed in front of us. And it took equal time for me to I-N-H-A-L-E both my sandwich and fries. It was an outer-body BBQ experience because I have zero photgraphic evidence of my plate.
Adam came over to check on us during the meal and shared not only his background, but also discussed his rub. We didn’t get to learn the knitty-gritty details behind the famous recipe, but he told us that he used a unique spice blend that also marries his two heritages (Greek and Middle Eastern) to create such a robust rub.
The mouthwatering brisket was tender and earthy from the low-and-slow smoking it had patiently undergone. I couldn’t remember the last time I had ate such gloriously rich meat that was perfectly caramelized and blissfully seasoned. My sandwich came topped with both Adam’s famous BBQ sauce and coleslaw. I wouldn’t have had it any other way, both added their own textural dynamite with the slight crunch from the cabbage and zing from the sauce.
Group photos were taken with BBQ-face smiles and I entertained the idea of asking to be rolled out of the restaurant in a wheelchair. Our appetites had indefinitely been satiated for our afternoon trip into downtown to visit the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Admittedly, after riding off of such high BBQ endorphins, the Civil Rights museum was a sobering experience. This historical place told a harsh story about both the origins of slavery and the struggles that the south dealt with in terms of segregation and civil rights. Several exhibits honored those who gave their lives in the name of racial equality and chronicled MLK’s life, involvement with the fight for equal rights between blacks and whites during the 1950s and 60s.
The hairs on the back of my neck prickled at the thought of such dissonance and discord within the south and its communities during this time in our nation’s history. Such hate and a lack of understanding — even values — made me feel uncomfortable and pained to see and observe historical documents, recounts of horrid actions and abuse toward blacks, even white supporters, in the south. And it was eerie standing so close to the exact spot in which MLK was shot by James Earl Ray in 1968.
With insight from the museum, it made me proud of the progress that our nation has made toward Civil Rights; we can’t forget about progress. I acknowledge that we still have a ways to go, just like with everything else that one works to hone and craft. What always works? A listening ear and an open mind. I’m incredibly grateful that I did not have to live in the deep south during the 1960s as a twenty-something.
The museum presented us with heavy context to sift through all afternoon. By the time we were finished with the three-hour tour (*props to you if you just sang that to tune of Gilligan’s Island theme song like I did in my head), many of us were ready to relax and loosen up with a drink. We headed toward the famous Beale Street to shake it out with blues music in the streets and experience the local cuisine.
I chose to tag along with one of our professors and a small group of others to scout out a spot to grab a few appetizers for dinner. Half of the group chose to bar-hop along the smoky, blues-blaring main drag with eccentric shops and dives. We, on the other hand, took a considerable amount of time exploring dining options before we stumbled upon a gastropub called Local, a few streets away from the bustle of Beale Street.
Immediately we were seated and ordered drinks then an assortment of apps. My poison of choice was named the Old Havana, and consisted of grapefruit juice, specialty rum, maraschino cherry juice and a lime garnish. The table shared beer-battered pretzels with cheese sauce, duck quesadillas, corn tortilla chips with a spinach and artichoke dip, a four-cheese grilled sandwich, cheese smothered brussel sprouts and fries sinfully doused in cheese, jalapenos and topped with a garlic egg.
Between the five of us, the plates never stood a chance: each of us snacked and munched happily on the small noshes while sipping cocktails. It was one of those instances were I had felt like a mature Millennial who totally knew her way around a mosh metropolitan area.
The following day (April 30), our group left Tennessee for Jackson, Mississippi. On our way, we took a detour in Cleveland, MS for a late-lunch at a local restaurant called the Country Platter. This was a place where “Civil Rights leaders Thurgood Marshall, Hubert Humphrey, Medger Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely Carmichael,” were able to meet and discuss their strategic plans to overcome racial injustice, according to visitmississippi.org.
My order was of the catfish and green beans with coleslaw and cornbread. The meal itself was essentially a coming-to-Jesus experience. The breading on the fish was nothing short of divine: it was crunchy, it was salty, it was everything and then some that you wish for in a dredge and coat. The fish itself was flaky and tender, no sauce needed. The green beans were perfectly seasoned, buttered and salted, steaming hot and fork-tender. The coleslaw was creamy and crunchy, with thanks to a mustard base for flavor and vinegar. This slaw was not shredded, but rather roughly diced. This time I had paced myself through the entire meal and was a proud member of the Clean Plate Club afterwards. I had never been so content after a meal in my entire life.
When our group was ready to depart, I made sure to give one of the women who helped serve our table a hug and thanked her for the food and service, because that was the next best thing to jumping up and down and singing praise like you would in a gospel church, being moved by the music of the Lord and all.
That was when it truly hit me that we were in the deep south.
To work off our carb-induced food comas, our last stop of the day was to stretch our legs at Dockery Plantation in Dockery, Mississippi — a then-10,000 acre cotton farm where owner Will Dockery was known for treating his workers fairly, and the place where the Delta blues are believed to have been born.
We milled about the property, only to be disappointed to find out that the gates to the actual plantation home were closed and locked to visitors. A wedding party was in the process of setting up for a ceremony that was to assumably take place later in the day. Still, even after all of the rain earlier, it was a gorgeous farm. The sunshine felt good on our faces and travel-fatigued bodies. I felt connected to the historic land as we roamed around and took pictures of the greenery while envying the beautiful country wedding setup. True to its blues roots, a live band was warming up on the nearby stage with catchy blues riffs and easy-feeling beats.
The road continues in the south as our boots take us toward New Orleans, Louisiana. ||