The farther we get from home the harder it is to reconcile a freewheeling search for Chow with the biological imperatives of our 8, 7 and 2 year olds. They've come to tolerate forays deep into the outer boroughs, but after an hour or two of driving they don't really care if the pork is pulled or if the cook does magic with corn meal; they have to eat or they explode. Nevertheless, there was Chowhound intent in the 6-day trip primarily through Mississippi from which we have just returned. The intensity of Chowhounding was limited both by the offspringal demands as well as our traditional Christmas timing of our roadtrips. Hotels are cheap and empty, but on and around the 25th retail of any kind can be variable especially outside of big cities (a description, by coincidence, of most of Mississippi).
We went armed with many of the fine comments found on this board as well as Edge's Southern Belly and printouts from both Roadfood.com and DixieDining.com. All were useful not just in the search for chow, but in providing some bearings for a somewhat loose travel itinerary (my wife is an extremely forgiving soul). Excuse the non-Chow elements of what follows, but if by chance others are looking to follow a similar route, this could be of some use.
New Orleans (our trip's entry point) - 12/20
Hotel: Hotel Dupuy
Activity Highlights: Exhilarating airboat swamp tour (www.airboattours.com) and New Orleans Zoo
Chow: dinner at Irene's in the French Quarter, not a well-chosen first meal, but my soft-shell crab over pasta was tasty. Lunch of Po-boys (the Felix's Special) and raw oysters at Felix's were outstanding.
Biloxi - 12/21
Hotel: Grand Casino (the only reasons to go to one of these casinos are cheap rooms, a pool for the kids and irony)
Activity Highlight: George Ohr (the "mad potter of Biloxi") Museum. Currently housed on the public library's upper floor and soon to be part of a big Frank Gehry project breaking ground in March.
Chow: Catfish Charlie's, this one was less about the food than the journey for the food. With no other viable food options in sight (Biloxi's casinos are not generally known for their cuisine), after calling around to no avail, I jumped in the mini-van with map in hand following a lead from a posting on this bulletin board. As hope began to disintegrate into visions of a very poor club sandwich, I came upon Charlie's roadhouse-themed palace. The fish itself was a bit generic, but the turnip greens were ambrosial.
Natchez - 12/22
Activity Highlights: First glimpse of the big river, awesome under any circumstances. Natchez Indian Village Mounds. Longwood House, an, octogonal mansion unfinished due to the Civil War; the Xanadu of the south.
Chow: not much open, but a Gringo Pie (tamale smothered in chili) and a margarita at Fat Mama's Tamales kept us from running aground.
Jackson - 12/23
Hotel: Crowne Plaza
Activity Highlights: the Natchez Trace Parkway is remarkable. Vicksburg battleground.
Chow: dinner at Crechale's was beautiful; everything about the place is just right, they so obviously care deeply about giving their customers an honest and consistently wonderful experience; the food was perfection (steak for mom and kids, assorted fried seafood for dad, the best onion rings ever for everyone). Unforgettable. We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Food was nothing special, but there is something great about having an entire commercial food service establishment to yourselves. On the way to Clarksdale from Vicksburg we stopped for lunch just south of Port Gibson at Goldie's Trail BBQ. The highlight was the sauce; right in the middle between a ketchup and a vinegar base. On the smoked sausage, it was nice.
Clarksdale - 12/24 & 12/25
Hotel: The Shack Up Inn
Activity Highlights: The Shack Up Inn. Eight shotgun shacks that have been moved to an old plantation and renovated to accommodate "21st century expectations", as the handout says. This was the highlight of our trip for several reasons. The kids couldn't wait to sleep in a shack. When they discovered that the shacks also had VCRs, well, that was the daily double. The heating system was just enough to avoid discomfort, but not so effective as to have you forget what you were sleeping in. Christmas Eve and day are rough anywhere for eating out, but on the Delta if you're not eating at home, you're not eating. On the 24th we were wise enough to gather provisions at a local "grocery warehouse," but nothing could have prepared us for the sheer desolation of Christmas Eve. Thank goodness for Waffle House or we wouldn't have made it to the afternoon. After driving hours just to get to an open movie theater we struck out back to Clarksdale hoping to encounter a miracle on the way. No such luck, but the miracle was to come. Upon returning to the Shack Up, we stopped by the proprietor's home (doubling for "the lobby") to pick up a new video to get the kids through the evening. After mentioning in passing the lack of available food options, we were piled high with the leftovers from the proprietor's own Christmas meal. Anything would have tasted heavenly, but the clove-imbued smoked ham really was manna.
Chow: breakfast at Chamoun's Rest Haven. A Southern diner run by a Lebanese family. I had a delicious Kibbie (Lebanese chopped meat combo) omelet and lovely lemony stuffed grape leaves.
Memphis (our departure point) - 12/26
Hotel: The Peabody (had to see those ducks on parade once; a let down)
Activity Highlight: Graceland. I've known my wife for almost twenty years and in that time Elvis had not come up between us more that twice. As we were turning into the parking lot across from the King's mansion she informed me that she had waiting her entire conscious life for this moment. You learn things about people on the road.
Chow: hamburgers at Dyers. Lebanese-Southern for breakfast and Vietamese-Southern for lunch. When I read that they fry the burgers at Dyers I assumed that meant fry on a griddle. Nope. They've been frying 'em in oil since 1912 and since it's been run more recently by a Vietnamese woman, that oil's in a huge wok. Greasy goodness. And the french fries rocked as well. Next time I'm trying the Vietamese food. From there it was over to the soda fountain counter at Wiles-Smith Drugs for malted shakes.
That's it. Unfortunately, to compound the Christmas closings, we found that several places on the various lists were closed permanently especially, it seemed, in Jackson and Biloxi. Our biggest regret was having missed a meal at Payne's in Memphis, but the Stax Museum opens in April, so that might give us an excuse to try again.
It was a great trip.