Devouring the Delta

Celebrating a region’s storied culture and cuisine

By Keith Pandolfi

Published on March 19, 2013

It's around 250 miles from the smoky pork barbecue joints of Memphis to the elegant antebellum mansion restaurants of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Traveling between them will take you through a haunting 4 million-acre expanse of raggedy floodplain that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, and is known simply as the Delta. In Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler's Journey through the Soul of the South, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution food editor and Mississippi native Susan Puckett has penned a paean to her homeland in the form of a combination cookbook and culinary travelogue packed with recipes, restaurant profiles, and endearing anecdotes. Think of it as your road trip companion through a bountiful land of catfish ponds and tamale stands, rundown juke joints and country cafes serving up lemon icebox pies and slow-cooked greens. It's a book that, if used properly, will wind up tattered and dog-eared in your glove compartment, its pages stained with grease from the fried okra you ordered at the Blue Levee restaurant in Rosedale, a watermark from the Rhett Butler cocktail you savored at Vicksburg's Cedar Grove Mansion Inn, and a spatter of gravy from the chicken and dumplings you downed at a gas station cafe in the casino resort community of Tunica, where diners still accompany their meals with glasses of ice-cold buttermilk. While guiding you through the region's restaurants, Puckett delivers odes to Delta-made delicacies ranging from pork cracklins to Kool-Aid—marinated pickles, as well as dozens of intriguing recipes, some sourced from Mississippi icons—Craig Claiborne's mom's hotcakes with orange syrup; the late writer Shelby Foote's foolproof cornbread, which made my Brooklyn kitchen smell like a Delta diner when I baked it up in a cast-iron skillet on a recent afternoon. Along the way Puckett meditates on the area's most celebrated traditions—its barbecue and blues clubs, its meat-and-three-dishes, and the caramel cakes and other life-affirming foods typically served at funerals. In addition to Puckett's evocative writing, the book's regional character is fortified by Mississippian Langdon Clay's faded photographs, which appear like 1970s tapered-edge snapshots throughout the book. Together these two Deltaphiles have created a keeper of a book—one that inspires exploration both in the kitchen and on the road.

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