The Mississippi River Delta Region spreads across eight states: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee. Traveling along its many waterways — including the Mississippi, Yazoo, Atchafalaya, Ohio and Tennessee rivers — offers a myriad of wonders along a vast cultural, historic and geographic landscape. No matter what your interest, for boaters, the Mississippi River Delta Region (MRDR) has something for everyone.
Originating on the plantations of the deep south where African American slaves incorporated hymns, the music of their homeland and ballads of their tribulations, the soulful sounds of the blues are celebrated each year during the King Biscuit Blues Festival, now in its 32nd year in Helena, Ark., and the Mississippi Delta Blues & Heritage Festival in Greenville, Mississippi, now in its 39th year — both on the Mississippi River.
The Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival features great Cajun, Creole and Zydeco sounds. Close to 450,000 people are on hand as country, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, blues and R& B headliners perform during the seven-day New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The Hank Williams Festival, held on the grounds of Williams’ Boyhood Home and Museum in Georgiana, Ala., celebrates the legendary singer/songwriter’s short-lived but vastly influential career.
Beyond the big festivals, there are countless clubs, big and small, where you can listen to the music of your choice. On Walnut Street, within walking distance of Waterfront Park in downtown Greenville, Miss., boaters can enjoy food and music at Level 129 and the Blues Bar. B.B. King, who was born in poverty in the Mississippi Delta and went on to become the King of the Blues, passed away a few years ago. But his songs and spirit carry on at the B.B. King Blues Club in Memphis, another great Mississippi River city.
Walk down Bourbon, Frenchman or Decatur (or almost any street) in the French Quarter and be seduced by the sounds of jazz coming from the open doors. Personal favorites include Fritzel’s European Jazz Club, Palm Court Jazz Café and any place with a great band, freshly shucked oysters and Hurricanes — that quintessential New Orleans drink made of dark and white rum, grenadine, lime, orange and passion fruit juices, and simple syrup.
Speaking of Spirits
Kentucky, the birthplace of bourbon, distills about 95 percent of the world’s supply, ranging from big brand names (think Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam) to smaller producers such as Angel’s Envy. Not far from the Kentucky River in Frankfort, Buffalo Trace Distillery has been crafting bourbons for more than two centuries in what is now a vast complex — part of which is said to be haunted.
As one would expect, bourbon trails abound in Kentucky, but we really like the Urban Bourbon Trail in Louisville, with its stops at Proof on Main (more than 120 bourbons available, including several bottled exclusively for them) and the bars at two grand hotels: The Brown and the Seelbach. That leads us to another famed southern drink: the Mint Julep, a libation of crushed mint, bourbon and simple syrup. And, yes, there’s also a Kentucky Mint Julep tour.
Tennessee is whiskey country, and for us there’s nothing like a stroll amongst whiskey-filled barrels, stopping every once in a while as a guide turns a spigot for a splash of maturing mash. Nashville, on the Cumberland River, is home to several whiskey makers, many of them offering tours, including Nelson’s Greenbrier Distillery and Corsair Distillery.
Sazerac, the official drink of New Orleans, is said to be the world’s first cocktail. The whiskey, syrup and bitters concoction, invented by a New Orleans apothecary in 1838, has been a hit ever since. You can order it anywhere but why not raise a glass at The Sazerac Bar in New Orleans?
Beyond the hard stuff, Little Rock, located on the southern bank of the Arkansas River, is known for such artisan breweries as Diamond Bear Brewing Company and Lost Forty Brewing, which uses local products in crafting such winners as its Love Honey Bock, sweetened with Arkansas honey. Tastes from these breweries and more will be on hand at Nashville’s Riverfest.
The name may be strange, but the Purple Toad Winery in Paducah is Kentucky’s largest vineyard. Paducah Distilled Spirits (The Moonshine Company) takes raw liquor out of the backwoods and into the mainstream. Quaff a glass or two of Tazonia, a Paw Paw Rum Barrel Saison or Lonesome, Ornery & Mean, a black IPA with aromas reminiscent of carrots simmered in a mole (Mexican chocolate) sauce at Dry Ground Brewing Company in Paducah.
When it comes to barbecue, geography is all, says food author Matt Moore in explaining how barbecue differs in the states comprising what he calls the Barbecue Belt.
“In Northern Alabama, they combine vinegar and mayonnaise along with other variations to make a chalky white-style sauce,” said Moore. “In Tennessee and Kansas City, barbecue sauces are tomato-based sweetened with molasses, and in Northeastern Kentucky, it’s very dark, almost black. The reason why there’s a mustard-based sauce in South Carolina is because of all the Germans who settled there.”
But don’t think it’s just slapping some sauce on meat. Tempers rise when debating the age-old question of what to burn (fuel equals flavor, says Moore), whether to go wet or dry, and what to serve alongside it. Helen Turner, owner and pitmaster of Helen’s BarB-Qe in Brownsville, Tenn., tops a lot of her sandwiches with her special cole slaw. At Bogart’s Smokehouse in St. Louis, intriguing sides include their Fire and Ice Pickles, Deviled Egg Potato Salad and BBQ Pork Skins.
Tamales, yes tamales, are another MRDR standout. In fact, they’re so engrained in the Southern food culture that Greenville, Miss., is not only a major player on the Hot Tamale Trail, it’s also the home to the Delta Hot Tamale Festival, a three-day celebration including a hot tamale eating contest (last year’s winner at 29 tamales in five minutes).
The origins of why tamales are big in the Delta Region are somewhat hazy: field food for farm workers, soldiers bringing recipes home after the Mexican-American War or an adaptation of cush, a stuffed cornbread brought to the region by Africans who were sold into slavery? No one knows for use, but you have try them. Doe’s Eat Place, a James Beard America’s Classics and famous for its tamales, opened in Greenville in 1949. It’s become so popular the founders also have a restaurant in Paducah, Ky., plus there are Doe’s franchises in Arkansas, Missouri and Louisiana.
If you visit Natchitoches, founded in 1714 by the French, take time to try one of Louisiana’s state foods, the Natchitoches meat pie — a pastry turnover filled with beef, pork, onion, peppers and garlic.
“There are so many different iterations of Southern cuisine,” said Chis Hastings, winner of the James Beard Award for Best Chef: South and owner of the Ovenbird and the Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham, Ala.
He likes to take serious foodies on foraging tours, where they learn to gig flounder, shuck oysters and pick the ripest vine tomatoes at the peak of the season. It’s all part of the New Southern Cuisine, says Hastings, who is happy that people are finally seeing beyond the one-dimensional aspect of Southern cooking and realizing it’s an amazing tapestry of cultures.
The MRDR is the cradle of the slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, all leading to the Civil Rights Movement, where peaceful activists like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equal opportunities. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis honors King, who was slain while standing on the balcony 50 years ago. To learn more about the movement, travel the Alabama Civil Rights Museum Trail and the Mississippi Freedom Trail.
Situated between Nashville and Memphis, check out the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center. Also be sure to visit the National Quilt Museum in downtown Paducah, a UNESCO World Creative City, during the AQS (American Quilt City) Spring or Fall Quilt Festivals.
A boat mooring at the Oakland Plantation is a good stopping place for those exploring the 30-mile-long Cane River. Part of the Cane River National Heritage Area, it has a trail that runs along Cane River Road and includes other plantations such as Melrose and Magnolia, which are open to the public. Not all here is focused on the almost mythological grandeur of the big house inhabitants; these plantations also tell the story of the slaves who worked the lands.
Five miles from downtown Greenville, Miss., Warfield Point offers a boat ramp, hot showers and an observation tower. It’s a beautiful spot for RVs and camping and has a great view of the bridge crossing the Mississippi into Arkansas.
Motor into the Memphis Yacht Club, located next to Mud Island River Park, ride the monorail that crosses into Memphis and explore what the downtown has to offer. There are games to catch at FedEx Forum, where the Memphis Grizzlies play. Drop by the Memphis Rock ’n Soul Museum, Gibson Guitar Factory, Sun Studio and the Orpheum Theatre, or jump in a cab for the short trip to Elvis Presley’s Graceland.