Photograph by Emma Schwartz
You still find plenty of Southern fried chicken and fatback-infused turnip greens in the Mississippi Delta, a pancake-flat floodplain that has been called “the most Southern place on Earth.” But those classic dishes represent just half the culinary story here; the rest emerges in such quirky regional preps as fried dill pickles and catfish pâté, served in eateries as individual as the three vintage Southern towns they call home.
Before native son Fred Carl, Jr., founded the Viking Range Corporation and brought stainless-steel cooking appliances to this faded cotton town, there was Lusco’s. This former grocery store on the wrong side of the tracks is as famous for its old-Delta ambience as its food. Diners sit in curtained booths—a holdover from Prohibition days—and push buzzers to summon servers, who invariably recommend the evergreen house specials: hubcap-size steaks and whole pompano fish broiled in a tangy, buttery sauce. For almost as long, the Crystal Grill has packed in families and business folk for its fried chicken, Delta tamales, yeast rolls, and mile-high meringue pies. Looking for edible souvenirs? The Mississippi Gift Company tempts hungry shoppers with such must-haves as muscadine and hot pepper jelly, cheese straws, and caramel cakes.
The town where a young Riley B. King—better known as B.B.—once chopped cotton is now home to the B.B. King Blues Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. The blues legend returns periodically to jam at nearby Club Ebony, the 1940s-established club he played in early on—and now owns. Tuck into a favorite local pairing: batter-fried pork chops and beer. Indianola is also catfish country. At the Crown, a café and giftshop, fillets are flaked into salads, baked in gratins, and smoked for award-winning pâtés. Nola, a bistro in a repurposed movie theater, serves catfish sliders. Pea Soup’s Lott-A-Freeze, a beloved little dairy bar, sells catfish po’boys along with tamales, baskets of fried seafood, and topless “floating” burgers drenched in chili. On weekends, a rollicking music club and restaurant called the Blue Biscuit puts on “redneck fish fries,” which include plenty of catfish, along with pulled-pork barbecue and co-owner Harlon’s famous hush puppies. Chef/owner Trish Berry also devises recipes for fresh pecans sold at the nearby Indianola Pecan House and rents refurbished shotgun bungalows to visitors.
Most of the action in this tiny, weathered Delta town happens in three institutions. Crawdad’s, a sprawling eatery adorned with taxidermied critters, draws a repeat clientele with shrimp étouffée, charcoal-grilled steaks, and fresh crawfish in season. The award-winning McCartys pottery studio, in a former mule barn surrounded by lush gardens, also runs the Gallery Restaurant, which serves Junior League–style luncheons, with corn bread and iced tea, on signature clay dishes. And Po’ Monkey’s is an outlier both geographically (on a dusty road a mile out of town) and in spirit. Farmer Willie Seaberry transformed a sharecropper shack into one of the last authentic juke joints, making this the place to be on Thursday evenings for old-school tunes, informal eats, and beer from a cooler—Delta-style nightlife in one of its purest forms.
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