Shake and Bake

Dancing and dicing in the Mississippi Delta.

Mississippi is in my blood. I am a fifth-generation Magnolia-stater, and have lived in or have been to every small town there you've never heard of. Mississippi — from its flat, fertile Delta to its muggy, moss-draped Coast — is as comfortable to me as a favorite T-shirt. I'm pretty much at home anywhere south of the Tennessee state line. But I struggle with one simple — and constantly asked — question. Where are you from?

 If I'm outside the city, I'm from Memphis. If I'm here and asked the same question, I'll say Mississippi. Columbus, to be exact. I moved back and forth from small towns in Mississippi to Memphis for years before finally settling in the Bluff City when I was about 14 years old. Somehow, each answer feels right.

So, when it came time to pick a weekend getaway for this issue, the choice was easy. Mississippi. Somewhere. Anywhere. Maybe I can figure out once and for all what the answer should be.

Greenwood, here I come.

Hail Marys

Greenwood, 130 miles south of Memphis, sits on the eastern edge of the Delta, and is home to around 20,000 people, the Yazoo River, the Alluvian Hotel and Spa, and the Viking Cooking School and Retail Store.

That's pretty much it.

Like many of the tiny towns found in the Hill Country and the Delta, Greenwood is a mixture of old money and abject poverty, and has seen better days. But the area is slowly making a comeback, thanks mostly to the arrival of the Alluvian in 2003. An eclectic, luxurious boutique hotel consisting of 45 rooms and five suites, the stylish establishment stands out — in a good way — in the heart of downtown Greenwood. With the hotel came the Viking Cooking School and Retail Shop, the Alluvian Spa, and the updated version of Giardina's Restaurant, a Greenwood landmark since 1936. Architects took great pains to create the Alluvian empire around the historic restaurant, which features an Italian-inspired menu and is described by the locals as "Delta casual." Translation? You'll spot diners sporting everything from jeans to tuxedoes, and somehow, no one feels under- or over-dressed. The Alluvian and Giardina's are connected on one side of downtown Greenwood's Howard Street, while the Spa and Viking face it from the other. It's an impressive, cosmopolitan aberration among the crumbling edifices lining what was obviously once a bustling commercial district.

I walk through an impressive glass, marble, and stainless-steel lobby and head for my room, which is quite lovely. Modern but comfortable, it has a great view of downtown Greenwood and a bathroom that promises a sumptuous soak later on. But there's no time to waste. It's almost 6 p.m., and time for a cooking adventure across the street.

The hotel draws people from all around the South with the lure of a luxurious getaway, massages and facials, and of course, a chance to cook like a pro at the Viking. With themed classes such as "Fear of Frying" and "Cooking to the Blues," the Viking draws beginner chefs looking to learn the basics as well as more-experienced menu mavens looking to hone their skills.

Now, I've never been that successful a chef. Ambitious? Yes. Enthusiastic? Absolutely. Food poisoning? Sadly, more than once. So it's with some trepidation that I enroll in a Friday evening class called "Summer Cocktails and Cooking." I mastered cocktails years ago, but the cooking part had me running scared. I just hope to get out without embarrassing myself or making anyone else sick.

As I enter the stainless-steel shrine to the culinary arts that is the Viking, I have the urge to cut and run. I am totally out of my depth in this Mecca of Martha, and I know it. Too late. I'm spotted and welcomed into the kitchen, where I join nine others for introductions, instructions, and apron donning.

We take turns introducing ourselves. "I'm Mary Dabney, from Mississippi." "I'm Mary Elizabeth, and I'm from here." "I'm Mary Randall, from Clarksdale." "I'm Mary Helen, and I'll be the assistant chef tonight," a curly-haired brunette says, standing briefly, but with authority. At this point, I think I'm either being Punk'd or have been called home to the Mississippi mother ship.

"I'm Mary Helen Tibbs, and I'm from Memphis," I say, wondering if this is indeed the right answer.

Doing a quick calculation, I realize half of our class has a double-Mary name. It's going to get complicated.

We are divided into groups of two and three and given our assignments. On the menu for the evening: mini shrimp tacos with grilled corn and avocado salsa, spicy smoked gazpacho in cucumber cups, lemonade-glazed fish kebabs, pork tenderloin with plums on herb biscuits, and bite-size peach pies. I get busy slicing cucumbers and coaxing out the insides with a tiny melon ball scooper while the rest of the groups tackle their jobs. At first, the kitchen is a bit chaotic (but it might have just seemed so to me as I thought someone was calling my name every few seconds). Soon, we fall into a groove, moving around each other and slipping gracefully around hot pans and grills with a culinary choreography found in large families used to cooking Sunday meals together. We finish our various dishes, fill our plates, and gather around the table to see how we did.

We did very, very well. Within an hour, the serving platters cling to scant few scraps, and we are all full, happy, and pleased with ourselves. The pros at the Viking prepare just enough of the ingredients in advance (chopping veggies, marinating meats, and the like) to keep the pace moving swiftly, and the chefs are quick to see when and where a group might need a little help. It's a fun way to spend an evening with friends while picking up some expert cooking tips to boot.

The group breaks up and I decide to take my watermelon margarita (a surprise for participants at the end of the four-hour class) in a to-go cup and sit outside to see what's happening at 10 p.m. Friday in downtown Greenwood.

Dirty Dancing

Fifteen minutes later, the margarita is gone, and I've seen about three cars drive past. Quiet. Very, very quiet. I walk back across the street to my room, throw on jeans and a T-shirt, and head out to find a true Mississippi juke joint or blues club.

To make a long story short, within the town of Greenwood itself you're not going to find the Crossroads-style blues clubs you conjure when imagining a Friday night in the Delta. You'll have to drive a ways for the real deal, so be prepared for a mini-road trip within your road trip if you're looking to hear some gutbucket stuff. After deeming three clubs inadequate, I make my way into a place that looks promising: a hand-painted sign with a misspelled word, the bumping beat of a bass oozing from the dark interior, and a half-lit neon sign. This is the place. I pay the cover and head inside.

Thirty minutes later, the dance floor shifts from Raiford's-style fun to a scene that would make Bill Gibbons' head explode, and I'm extended a very ungentlemanly proposition involving 1) a few too many people and 2) the club's back alley. It's time to go. Unless you're into that kind of thing, stick to places with all the words spelled properly on the signs and you'll be just fine. I head back to my hotel room, fill the magnificent tub full of Aveda bubble bath, and soak until positively pruney. No more midnight adventures for this big city girl. It's time for bed.

Bed, Bath, and Beyond

In the morning, I head to the fourth floor for what I've been promised by both folks in the previous night's cooking class as well as hotel staffers is "the best hotel breakfast you'll ever have."

They weren't exaggerating.

The Alluvian mocks the concept of even the most upscale hotel's interpretation of "continental breakfast" with its gourmet spread. The hotel's chefs serve up everything a good Southerner could want to start the day. There are mounds of garlicky cheese grits, piles of pork in all its breakfast-y forms, waffles, frittatas, biscuits and gravy, fruit, pastries, and fresh juices galore. Gleaming white china cups and saucers steam with rich coffee, and no one seems ashamed to make second and third trips to the buffet.

I take my second plate of the morning to the terrace and settle into a shady spot overlooking the road below. A few blocks away, folks are flocking to a farmer's market, and just down the street, a handful of people pop in and out of the shops that dot Howard street, but for the most part, the town still sits sleepily, as though waiting for something to happen.

It would have to wait a bit longer for me. It was time for my date with the Alluvian Spa.

Like every spa worth its sea-salts, the Alluvian has a "signature." From volcanic ash to Dead Sea mud to tropical flowers, spas take advantage of their regional offerings, treatments here are tinged with Southern flair — from the Delta Sunrise facial to the Muddy Waters therapeutic bath to the Riverside Renewal package. Each treatment is utterly luxurious, and every inch of the 7,000-square-foot paradise smells like freshly brewed sweet tea. The Sweet Tea fragrance was created for the spa, and once you visit, you'll never smell another glass of the sugary Southern staple without being reminded of the Alluvian Spa.

Talk about a genius marketing trick. Services run the spa gamut, from facials and massages to manicures and pedicures, cuts and color to cellulite treatments and detoxifying masques. Once inside the sleek, cool confines of the spa, it's easy to forget you're in the middle of the sweltering Delta, surrounded by cotton and soybean fields and miles and miles of flat roads leading to more flat roads and fields. Like the hotel itself, the spa is comfortably sophisticated, without trying too hard. The Alluvian gets it right, from the luxe, plushy down comforters to the marbled bathrooms to the sumptuous meals and perfectly mixed cocktails, no detail has gone overlooked.

After a much-needed facial, I pad across the street, shower, and head back down to explore more of the area.

It doesn't take long. I try on glittering estate jewelry at Russell's Antiques and try not to physically react when the owner tells me the prices, and cruise the aisles at a few mom-and-pop retailers, passing shelves filled with local art, jams, jellies, and honey. I spend a good hour at the Turnrow Book Company, which is everything a good bookstore should be. The two-story historic building boasts gleaming heart-pine floors, cozy couches and nooks, an incredible selection by Southern writers or writers writing about all things Southern, a knowledgeable staff, and adult beverages. I almost miss the tiny upstairs café in my enthusiastic exploration of the shelves, and that would have been a shame. Bookish browsers can buy a soda or beer and make their way to the screened patio, and tuck into a comfy, quiet spot. I feel as if I've stumbled upon a secret as I take my pile of books to one of the couches and begin to narrow down the stack of goodies into what I want, what I can afford, and what I can probably live without. Time passes quickly, and a barking dog in the alley below pulls me from my reading reverie and back into reality.

It's late Saturday afternoon in the Delta. From my shady perch at the bookstore, I spot snaky heat waves rising up from the pavement below, and sigh, accepting that it's time to head back out into the blistering heat, pack my things, and return to the world of bills and deadlines and yards that need to be mowed.

Even though it's not been a full weekend away, I arrive home feeling refreshed, as if I've been miles farther and for much longer. Mississippi magic? Possibly. A trip I'll make again? Without a doubt. Home? The jury's still out. 

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