Clarksdale: Moving Past the Crossroads
How one Delta community is looking to the future by reclaiming its past.
Justin Fox Burks
Blame it on the sea bass. Or perhaps, the food and wine tasting that featured the sea bass. Either way, that's how I discovered Clarksdale. I'd received an invitation to be a guest at a gourmet tasting; the caveat was that my destination wouldn't be East Memphis, but Clarksdale, Mississippi. A colleague had tipped me off, saying that Madidi Restaurant, owned by Mississippi gubernatorial candidate and attorney Bill Luckett, and business partner Morgan Freeman, had this new chef who was really sharp. And the town, with its recently opened art galleries and funky museums, had a cool buzz going.
It sounded hopeful, but an hour and a half's drive through the Delta — on a Saturday night?
Nonetheless, a few weeks later I'm sitting in an elegant dining room aglow in candlelight and warmed by a convivial group of 75 diners as eager as I am to discover what the evening has in store. While the kitchen staff works their magic, I fall into conversation with a dizzying array of guests: a cardiologist from Grenada, a librarian from Clarksdale, farmers and realtors from Helena, an aide to Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln in Washington, educators from Memphis and Oxford. Even Madidi's illustrious owners table hop. We are an eclectic, food-loving bunch.
When I bring up the distance, several guests shrug it off, saying, "When you live in the Delta, you're used to driving somewhere else to get what you want."
Tonight's gracious plenty proves well worth our travel. General manager Madge Howell and executive chef Levi Minyard have assembled a talented, energetic group of regional chefs and vintners who ply us with savory breads, dense wild mushroom soup, rabbit and foie gras terrine, honey-roasted quail, and that delicate, divine sea bass. A raucous evening ensues as the wine and conversation flow.
Driving be damned, I'm in foodie heaven.
Now I'm curious. Not many people would have had the stomach to open a fine-dining establishment in downtown Clarksdale a decade ago. But 62-year-old Luckett considered it simple economics. "I wanted to find a good use for an old building," he says. "I'm conservative in terms of rehabbing old buildings. I'm really just a frustrated architect." He was also tired of watching the exodus of business from downtown.
Clarksdale's economy has long been tied to the land. Cotton farming, agriculture, and light manufacturing for many years provided steady work. But as farming became more mechanized, fewer hands were needed and people moved off the land to destinations that held brighter promise. Coahoma County's population (26,936) declined 12 percent during the last decade alone. In an effort to stop the brain drain, community leaders began to consider how best to develop new economic potential for Clarksdale — with a focus on cultural tourism.
During my next visit, I stop briefly to admire the quirky guitar sculpture at the crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 (where, legend has it, bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil), and meet musician Max Bevilacqua, a compact Italian who is (of course) stylishly clad in a sleek leather jacket and Fendi glasses. He's spending his holidays in the Delta, he tells me, making the rounds to museums and juke joints, soaking up the ambiance as he researches a book he's writing on the blues. When I ask him where he's staying, his answer tumbles out like a Cracker Jack prize: the Riverside Hotel. "This is where Bessie Smith died, and John Hoo-gar once stayed," he says breathlessly. (That's Italian for John Lee Hooker, you understand.)
I'm puzzled. How did you hear about Clarksdale? I ask.
"I know always that Clarksdale is the birthplace of the blues," he says with surprise, like I've asked him something ridiculous. "After all, I learn blues guitar when I'm 18." Now, he shares his passion by teaching the blues to students at three private schools in Rome.
"Of course, I know that this is not exact place," he concedes as we scan the busy intersection. "It's just a tourist place." Nonetheless, Max wants a memento and asks us to take his picture. The Roman then plants himself squarely in the shot, looking distinguished, arrived.
He is, after all, on hallowed ground.
The food. The music. The history. It's a combination that holds a certain fascination. Max Bevilacqua is just one in a steady stream of tourists who find their way to Clarksdale and the Delta each year. In the month of June 2009 alone, Clarksdale's Chamber of Commerce newsletter reported visitors from 21 states and four countries, including England, Australia, the Netherlands, and Ireland. "Make our visitors feel welcome," the Chamber prompts in an advertisement for the popular Sunflower River Blues Festival staged here each August. In fact, it is the town's gracious hospitality as well as its musical roots that resonate with out-of-town visitors. They need only stroll Clarksdale's Walk of Fame, which salutes bluesmen like Sam Cooke, Muddy Waters, and ZZ Top, individuals who've made significant contributions, to appreciate its history.
Yet those who support the town's revitalization efforts acknowledge the ignorance many residents share about the region's rich cultural heritage. Luckett was once among them. Growing up in Clarksdale during the 1950s and 1960s, he was oblivious to the music, despite the presence of WROX, the radio station at Third and Yazoo where Early Wright broadcast blues and gospel for more than 50 years. As one of the South's first black disc jockeys, Wright frequently featured live performances from Robert Nighthawk, Pine-top Perkins, and a fledgling rocker named Ike Turner.
"I didn't have any idea who [musicians like] Robert Johnson were growing up," Luckett says. "[Yet] Robert Plant [a passionate blues historian who's done much to promote the region] knew so much about these blues musicians. I wondered, 'How did he know all that?'
"Our maid sang field hollers while she worked," he recalls, "so you couldn't help but hear the music. But it was always across the tracks. [Race music] just wasn't embraced by the white community."
That clear divide is one reason cultural tourism has been slow to evolve here. It's too closely associated with a racially charged past many would just as soon forget. Yet Luckett and Freeman, who are now in the midst of renovating the Alcazar Hotel which long housed WROX, were among those who realized the international interest Clarksdale holds. The Delta Blues Museum, established in 1979, has long been part of the musical "must see" itinerary for travelers, along with Red's juke joint, CW's, Messenger's Food Hall, and the Riverside Hotel. More recently, the Mississippi Blues Commission created the Mississippi Blues Trail highlighting musical contributions across the state, and many of the blue markers can be found here. But Luckett wanted to give tourists other options while visiting downtown, and spur on economic development in the process.
"In the summer of 2000, you could have taken a shot with a deer rifle down Delta Avenue, and not hit a car," says Luckett, referring to the main drag of downtown the year Ground Zero Blues Club opened. "There wouldn't be a car parked there unless it was broken down. Now some nights, you can't find a parking place." Ground Zero and Madidi served as anchors on the north and south end of Delta Avenue, and their success gave investors the push needed to believe downtown could be re-envisioned. Now, a stroll down Delta Avenue takes you past several galleries, restaurants, and gift shops. "The more we have to offer in Clarksdale," he says, "the more of a destination it will become."
"Clarksdale has this unbelievably amazing amount of history in literature and music and cotton," notes local blues journalist Pennie Mayfeidl, public relations director for Coahoma Community College. "People come here and realize we've got a town steeped in so much lore." Mayfield notes that over the past decade, both railroad depots have been restored (the Delta Blues Museum resides in the freight train depot), the New Roxy Theatre in the New World District on Issaquena Avenue (where black commerce once thrived) is being renovated, and the deco-styled Greyhound Bus Station now houses the nonprofit Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc.
"Of course, it's not easy," adds Clarksdale's Bubba O'Keefe. The local developer has renovated several downtown properties, including the Lofts at the Five and Dime (the old Woolworth building), and the old Bank of Clarksdale building, which movie crews used last summer while filming The Help. "The problem is, people won't buy because they don't have a vision. It's a risky thing. There's not an annual return; it could take a long time before we get a return. It's not Beale Street where we're getting 200,000 visitors. We're Clarksdale. All we want to do is embrace our history as small-town America, [playing] on where we are and who we are."
To foster that growth, Luckett helped form Clarksdale Revitalization, Inc. Executive director Mac Crank says 24 downtown structures are currently being rehabbed, some by out-of-town investors, others by locals like Luckett and O'Keefe. Additionally, the nonprofit, which is supported by city and county government as well as private enterprise, received a grant to build a weir across the Sunflower River, which runs at the base of downtown. Once in place, the weir will enlarge the river and make riverfront development more viable. Businesses like John Ruskey's Quapaw Canoe Company, which provides tours of the Mississippi River, will be able to launch boats from the Sunflower. Other plans include developing a cultural heritage walk through downtown and a bike trail.
Despite modest success thus far, Crank admits, "A large segment of the public still doesn't get using tourism as an economic engine. They see the value but they don't understand the potential economic impact, which last year was $64 million. We're trying to preach that the agricultural and manufacturing models are failing, so what can we replace that with? Right now, blues music is the easiest to build on because it's been building naturally."
Walk into the Rock and Blues Museum on Second Street and you'll find the kind of place visitors hope to discover. Theo Dasbach's international collection of blues and rock memorabilia is staggering, with nuggets like an original copy of Ike Turner's Rocket 88 on display. He and his wife moved from New York City to Clarksdale several years ago, and have woven themselves into the town's fabric. Other development activity has taken place organically too, like the four art galleries you'll find on Delta Avenue, where artists like Bradley Gordon of Gordon Gallery have show space in the front and lofts in the back. When owners get hungry, they can dip into restaurants like Lady on the Levee or Stone Pony Pizza to enjoy a mouthwatering array of food choices.
Frog legs or burnished lamb chops at Madidi, spicy catfish cakes at Rust, and hand-tossed pizza and the oh-so-decadent chocolate lava cake at Stone Pony Pizza offer good eats on brisk winter nights. Executive chef Levi Minyard, an Oxford native whose cooking career took him from Le Cordon Bleu School in Portland, Oregon, to apprenticeships in France, has brought consistency and excellence to Madidi's kitchen. Minyard features high-quality goods: ahi tuna flown in fresh from Hawaii, massive porterhouse steaks shipped from the West, as well as the bounty available from local purveyors.
"I really want to open people's eyes to good food and service," he says.
And open they will, for Minyard is masterful at combining flavors. Take, for example, his frog legs. Now before you squirm, these lightly battered, crispy fried morsels are like no other. Garnished with lemon sections and a sweet/spicy chili sauce, their delicate flavor is divine. His glazed lamb chops, accompanied with garlic-flecked mashed potatoes, are also excellent, the kind of hearty fare that will keep farmers or blues fans coming back for more.
The 29-year-old chef understands the role Madidi plays in the health of downtown's economy. "This is a business that will help others thrive," says Minyard. "I want people not here just for a meal but for an experience."
While Minyard is trying to broaden diners' palates, his friendly competitor, chef Deon Hence at Rust, is also giving people something to talk about. "People are used to eating basic cuisine and I'm trying to challenge what that means," says Hence. His speciality is sauces, some tinged with Asian flavorings that make his dishes pop.
As I sample some of his delightful catfish cakes at Rust one Saturday night I can't help but tune into the small-town vibe that permeates the place. It seems everyone knows someone here. Even I get into the act, introducing myself to two local women I recognize from the Madidi tasting. As we visit, several people stop by their table, sharing bits of news about weddings and parties. I also meet Gary and Carol Vincent, who run Clarksdale Sound Stage, a recording studio just blocks from the restaurant. The couple moved to Clarksdale several years ago from Nashville, enticed by the music and small town life.
If this nascent movement continues its course, downtown Clarksdale may slowly take on the prosperous appearance the town once knew during its halcyon days. Given the state of the nation's economy, the fact that they are making steady progress is a hopeful sign indeed.
Meals Under the Magnolias
Any visit to the Magnolia State — with its museums, art galleries, music halls, and tourist attractions like the ones we've just showcased in Clarksdale — is bound to drum up an appetite. Luckily, Mississippi has an enticing selection of some of this country's best (and sometimes most unusual) restaurants. Here's just a selection. Enjoy, and don't forget to wipe your chin!
616 N. State St., Clarksdale, MS 38614, (662) 624-9947
Abe's sits at the most famous crossroads in blues history at Highways 49 and 61, immortalized in song by bluesman Robert Johnson. In business since 1924, the tangy house-made barbecue sauce is the key to the restaurant's success. Expatriate Mississippians and fans have it shipped all over the country. Historic, laid-back locale and great smoked barbecue.
3806 U.S. 6, Cleveland, MS 38732, (662) 843-4817
If you want barbecue, tamales, or a terrific mixed drink in Cleveland, this is the establishment to get it. The menu is large and varied, offering several different po' boys and main dishes. A favorite appetizer is the barbecue nachos, smothered with pulled pork, barbecue sauce, and jalapeno peppers. On Saturday nights don't be surprised to find the place packed and a local blues band on the stage. The bartenders make a mean bloody mary.
118 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS 38655, (662) 232-8880
Comfort food at its best, Ajax means good, Southern, rib-sticking, diner fare. The fried chicken is one of the best meals you will ever have, and be sure to try Matty's Mom's Meatloaf. The yeast rolls are a great substitution for the jalapeño cornbread, for those who can't stand the heat. All of the sides are great, and the casserole sides are better than your momma makes. You certainly won't go home hungry. This place has a laidback atmosphere and wonderful service, making it a great local dive.
Blue & White Restaurant
1355 Highway 61 N., Tunica, MS 38676, (662) 363-1371
Fried chicken legs, vegetables, sweet tea, and Southern accents, Amen! The buffet is well-stocked with good home cookin', and the prices are very reasonable. The homemade donuts and rolls are spectacular. Locals are there all the time, and the staff know the names of most customers. If not, they get to know you. This place generally warrants a hearty thumbs' up.
152 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS 38655, (662) 232-8080
Housed in a former grocery store, this popular downtown Oxford spot offers an ambitious, ever-changing menu with a wide range of cuisine from gourmet to ethnic, and just a touch of New Orleans Creole when appropriate. City Grocery has remained consistent over the years, serving inventive Southern cuisine starting off with their slightly spicy cornbread muffins and honey butter. The menu mainstay of shrimp and grits is a real treat, and traditional game is usually available with some inventive twists on international dishes. It's a beautiful space right on the town square, and the interior is stylishly decorated with the work of regional artists. The service is a great example of traditional Southern graciousness and politeness.
The Crown Restaurant
112 Front Ave., Indianola, MS 38751, (662) 887-4522
The Crown is a remarkable little restaurant. The business focuses largely on its packaged dips, sauces, spreads, etc., but showcases them in its excellent menu. The Catfish Allison is one of the best meals you could ever eat. They serve warm bread before the meal, every entrée comes with a fresh salad, unlimited coffee, and access to the dessert buffet. It's not just any old dessert buffet, but rather a pie buffet with the most delicious chocolate pie in all of Mississippi. Outstanding food at a reasonable price, it's a great place for a casual lunch. Hospitality here is out of this world; you'll always be greeted with a smile and can nibble on crackers and cheese before being seated. No one is allowed to leave disappointed.
Doe's Eat Place
502 Nelson St., Greenville, MS 38701, (662) 334-3315
Doe's Eat Place is the stuff of legend. Real foodies make the trek to this family-owned, bona fide landmark (circa 1941) inside an old grocery store. Since the original Doe's debuted, a few other branches have opened up in the region, but none quite live up to this one. Steaks aged for 21 days are cut daily, but before you get to the meat of the menu, order up a few sides. Here, a steak wouldn't be a steak without a homemade, hand-rolled hot tamale with a bowl of chili; it's a specialty of the Mississippi Delta region and a must-order. Hand-cut crispy french fries or drop biscuits rule as well.
Ground Zero Blues Club
0 Blues Alley, Clarksdale, MS 38614, (662) 621-9009
It's harder to get more authentic than a blues bar and restaurant that is located next to the Delta Blues Museum, just a scant few miles away from the house where Bessie Smith died. They really know how to fry up a thick and juicy BLT here, and serve it right, but that's just the beginning. Try the fried green tomatoes, fried tamales, grilled or fried catfish, and the git-back sauce! The music is always a treat, too. Great place for amazing blues and even better people watching.
135 E. Van Dorn Ave., Holly Springs, MS 38635, (662) 274-0705
Good Southern hot lunch for a good price, and the ambiance is neat as well. Everybody in the place, it seems, wants to know where you're from, and dish out advice. The owners are extremely personable. A great restaurant, right across the street from the beautiful historic town square, JB's has the best hamburger steaks and cornbread in town.
722 Carrollton Ave. Greenwood, MS 38930, (662) 453-5365
The menu is best-known for its high-end items, as the T-Bone steaks are among the finest anywhere. Pompano is another popular standout, usually available in the spring, and served covered in a delicious, buttery, lemon sauce that’s been perfected over the years. They also make outstanding salads, from the classic New Orleans-style to more modern options with endives and radicchio. Currently run by the third generation of Luscos, this place is a complete dining experience that’s not to be missed.
164 Delta Ave., Clarksdale, MS 38614, (662) 627-7770
The dinners have always been delightful at this restaurant, owned in part by actor Morgan Freeman, who grew up in the Delta. The bloody mary brunches are perfect after a night of juke joint hopping. Madidi serves French cuisine with a decidedly Southern take. The ambience is soft and warm, the food terrific, and the cost is well worth it. The restaurant blends in with the historical feel and flavor of the area. Cozy, romantic, quiet, personable and pleasant service, and an excellent meal.
Michael’s Country and Creole
405 E. Van Dorn, Holly Springs, MS. (662) 551-1028
Great etoufee and fried shrimp, with huge portions at good prices. Michael’s offers a wonderful variety including po’ boys, burgers, wings, and an assortment of Cajun foods. Who could resist their fried green tomato sandwiches? It’s always a great place to try something new. Chef Michael Pratt can conjure up amazing dishes that somehow bridge the gap between country and Cajun cooking.
218 Delta Ave. , Clarksdale, MS 38614, (662) 624-4784
Rust Restaurant is a hip place where owner and chef Randall Andrews prepares progressive Southern dishes with a New Orleans influence; like gumbo, crawfish and sweet corn quesadillas, and seared tuna. Randall’s nightly specials are creative and tasty. If it’s possible to get tired of the down-home type Delta food, Rust is a nice escape. The menu branches out, the environment is pleasing, and the chef will even make recommendations. You’ll want to go back to sample other menu items.
Stone Pony Pizza
226 Delta Ave. , Clarksdale, MS 38614, (662) 624-7669
Stone Pony Pizza and the Brick Bar is not just a pizza place — the bar area has a number of TVs (like what you would expect at a Sports Bar), they have a great happy hour, a full bar, and lots of beer on tap. The main attraction has to be the chef, who makes the bread, pizza, and sandwiches right before your eyes. The chicken salad tossed in lemongrass is to die for. Their seating arrangement is perfect, lending to the atmosphere, with its funky decor. Skip all the touristy places on the map, and go to Stone Pony.
— Compiled by Ashley Johnston