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Destination: Mississippi : Deep-Fried South : Forget light food: Dishes from the Delta nurture the soul if not your figure

November 05, 1995|PAT HANNA KUEHL | Kuehl is a Denver-based free-lance writer. and

VICKSBURG, Miss. — The Mississippi Delta, according to Southern definition, begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tenn., and stretches south to Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Miss.

I see this as the distance between the king-size slabs of barbecued ribs at the Rendezvous restaurant, up the alley from the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, to the dainty tomato sandwiches at the Harrison House Antiques & Tea Room, just a few blocks uphill from the Vicksburg riverfront, where slaves lived not so long ago.

Catfish Row, as the riverfront area is referred to locally, has disappeared and been replaced during the past two years by five riverboat gambling casinos that are anchored along the waterfront. But local gentry prefer to direct visitors to Civil War attractions such as the Old Court House Museum, where Union soldiers lowered the Confederate flag and raised the Union flag on July 4, 1863; the Vicksburg National Military Park, one of the major battlegrounds of what folks here call the War Between the States, and the Vicksburg Corner Drugstore, where the owner's collection of Civil War guns, tattered Rebel flags and bullets bearing teeth marks testifying to battlefield surgery without anesthesia are displayed alongside Moon Pies--a chocolate marshmallow sandwich that is popular in the South and definitely an acquired taste.

Sandwiched between modern Memphis and historic Vicksburg is the Delta, a long stretch of low, flat, agricultural land protected from the flooding of the moody Mississippi River by high, grass-covered levees. Many of these Delta fields that once yielded cotton now grow farm-raised catfish--Mississippi produces 75% of the world's supply. And in Humphreys County, self-proclaimed catfish capital of the world, northeast of Vicksburg, there's an early April Catfish Festival that draws more than 20,000 visitors to tiny Belzoni (population 2,500) to sample the local harvest and, if they've a mind, to drink a little beer.

But the Delta has all kinds of good eating, as I discovered last year: catfish a dozen different ways, including an interesting catfish pate; those Vicksburg tomato sandwiches, fried dill pickles, boiled mustard greens doused with pungent chili pepper vinegar, okra guaranteed to convert people who don't like okra, blackberry cobbler, sweet potato pecan pie. . . . Abandon calorie counts, ye who pass this way.

Yet the biggest surprise for me was what appears to be the emergence of low-fat cooking in deep-fried territory. It starts at Memphis International Airport, where murals promote the merits of cooking with canola oil, which is less saturated than the animal fat traditionally used. It continues southward to the Walnut Hills restaurant in the oldest part of Vicksburg, where the daily blue-plate special offers one meat, three fresh vegetables, iced tea and dessert for $5.75.

"I do all my vegetables the same way," Walnut Hills cook Herdicine Williams told me. "I boil 'em and then season them with canola oil, salt and black pepper and sometimes a little sugar. I use a lot of red pepper--more red pepper than black." The canola oil may not be traditional, but the resulting combination is delicious. You have to taste Williams' veggies to understand how good that can be. Her steamed okra, for example, is cooked with pepper, a little bit of thyme and a little butter.

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A t Walnut Hills, the smart visitor will catch a seat at one of two big tables topped with a rotating Lazy Susan filled with house specialties. Walnut Hills is a local hot spot for lunch, when anyone can take a seat at the table's rim--first come, first served--and enjoy the food along with conversation brimming with insight into what's going on in Vicksburg.

Harrison House Antiques & Tea Room, where owner Betty Bullard is in command in the kitchen, is another Vicksburg treasure. The menu and ambience are as genteel Southern as it gets, both at lunch and at teatime. And should the visitor admire something on the table, the wall or out in the hallway--everything's for sale.

But food is the real buy here. The owner, who was dressed in a starched, white, lace-trimmed pinafore on the day I was there, knows that if her stewed chicken and zephyr-light dumplings don't get you, her dessert trolley will. I was witness to four killer desserts, including a chunky chocolate pie with pecans (almost worth the calories), English trifle, Pavlova (fresh fruit in a meringue shell topped with whipped cream), cheesecake, lemon chess pie and German chocolate cake. Lunch--entree, salad, dessert and beverage--runs $10, if you refrain from antique purchases. Afternoon tea is less, about $6-$8. The high tea menu might include tomato sandwiches, a Vicksburg tradition that is, at its most basic, sliced tomato on white bread rounds with mayonnaise.

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