Our family recently took a trip through the Deep South — with stops in Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas — and, like most of our trips, food played a major role.
The main purpose of the trip was to allow me to do some academic research tracing today’s popular music back to the blues of the Mississippi Delta, and particularly to the legendary guitarist Robert Johnson. As the story goes, Johnson met the devil at the crossroads one midnight in the 1930s and exchanged his soul for the ability to play a mean guitar. His music has influenced countless other guitarists including Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton.
We spent a couple of nights in Jackson, Mississippi, and ventured about 25 miles south to Crystal Springs, where the Robert Johnson Blues Museum is located. Volunteering at the museum that day was Casey Kitchens, who is also executive director of the Crystal Springs Chamber of Commerce. She graciously showed us around and introduced us to Teresa Guynes, Johnson’s granddaughter.
Kitchens also recommended that we have lunch at Louise’s Open Pit BBQ, outside of town on State Highway 27. I ordered the rib plate, thinking since it was the lunch hour, I would get two or three ribs. Nope. The plate contained five big, meaty ribs and a couple of sides, and I ate every bite. That was our first Southern meal of the trip.
Our next stop was Tupelo, birthplace of Elvis Presley. In downtown Tupelo we stopped at the Caron Gallery, which is rich with work produced almost exclusively by Mississippi artists. We met the gallery owner, Kim Caron. Naturally, the talk turned to dining, and we told her we planned to have lunch at the Neon Pig. She suggested we eat at Kermit’s Outlaw Kitchen, a few doors down from her gallery and owned by the same folks who run Neon Pig.
While the kids split a big turkey sandwich, Abby and I each had the lunch special of pork belly tacos with a side of Parmesan fries. I’m not sure what the Neon Pig’s special was that day, but it couldn’t have been better than what we ate.
Caron, whose two children attend the University of Mississippi, also recommended places to eat in Oxford, our next destination. I spent much of one day doing research at the Blues Archive at Ole Miss, and the next morning we had breakfast at Big Bad Breakfast in Oxford, one of Caron’s suggestions.
I had an interesting conversation with a regular at Big Bad, who bought our kids some ice cream, prior to my breakfast of a wonderful, spicy BLT with a big bowl of grits on the side. Abby had the Secret History, an omelet with herbs, tomato, shallots and Swiss cheese.
Other meals in Oxford included fried chicken and sweet tea at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken and a Doctor John pizza salami, ham, turkey and three cheeses and an olive salad at Soulshine Pizza Factory, another recommendation from Caron.
The most anticipated meal of the trip took place at Interstate Barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee, a place where Abby and I ate about 17 years ago. I’m pretty sure I had the ribs then, but I do remember eating the barbecue spaghetti, a delicious mixture of pulled pork and barbecue sauce served over spaghetti. During this visit Abby and I each had a chopped pork sandwich, and we split a side of the spaghetti, a bargain at $2.
When we got home, we still craved Southern food, so we came up with this menu. For the main dish, we used Cornish game hens, but any variety of bird will work. The triple corn bake is a super easy side dish that comes together quickly. Even though I’m not a fan of “stuffed” dishes — bell peppers and the like — the deviled tomatoes were really tasty. The recipe calls for large tomatoes sliced in half, but we bought a smaller, sweeter variety and just scooped out the flesh but didn’t halve them. And I’m not going to admit to having any leftover Hummingbird Cake for breakfast, but a slice that’s still cold from the refrigerator sure tastes good with a cup of hot coffee.
Mahogany-Glazed Game Birds
- 4 Cornish game hens
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tangerine, unpeeled and cut into wedges
- 1/2 cup molasses
- 1/2 cup bourbon, plus extra for the sauce
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
- 2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated
- 4 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
- 2 teaspoons sweet paprika
- 2-4 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
Heat oven to 375.
Rinse and pat birds dry. Season inside and out with salt and pepper. Place a couple of tangerine wedges in the cavity of each bird and tie the legs together. Turn the wing tips under the birds to make a triangle behind the necks.
In a saucepan, combine molasses, bourbon, butter, ginger, garlic and thyme. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter is melted. Dip each bird in the sauce. Place the birds in a roasting pan and sprinkle with paprika.
Cover the pan with foil; bake for 30 minutes, basting occasionally with the glaze. Uncover, brush with the remaining glaze and bake until browned, when juices run clear and the internal temperature reaches 165 F — for about 20-25 minutes or longer for larger birds.
When the birds are done, remove them to a platter and keep warm. Strain the collected juice from the roasting pan into a clean saucepan. Then strain any remaining glaze into the saucepan. Add 1/2 cup water and a splash of bourbon. Let this mixture reduce until it thickens. Then add butter, 1 or 2 small pieces at a time, and swirl into the sauce until melted. Continue, adding 1 or 2 butter pieces at a time until all of the butter has been incorporated and melted. Serve the sauce with the bird. Makes 4 servings.
Triple Corn Bake
- 1 can (16 ounces) cream style corn
- 1 can (16 ounces) whole kernel corn, undrained
- 1 package (8 ounces) cornbread mix
- 1 cup sour cream
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
Heat oven to 350. Spray a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with nonstick spray.
In a large bowl, combine all the ingredients and mix lightly but thoroughly. Pour into the prepared dish. Bake uncovered for 30-35 minutes. Makes 12 servings.
- 6 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
- 1 cup red onion, chopped
- 2 jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 3 large tomatoes, peeled and halved
- 1 tablespoon fresh oregano, chopped
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1/4 pound pepper jack cheese, shredded (about 1/2 cup)
In a large skillet over medium heat, cook bacon until crisp, for about 6 minutes. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain; reserve the drippings in the pan. Add bell pepper, onion, jalapeno and garlic to the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, scoop the flesh out of the center of the tomatoes and chop, reserving the shells. Add chopped tomato to the pan. Stir in oregano, season with salt and pepper; cook for 2 minutes.
Place an oven rack in the center of the oven and heat the broiler. Spoon the vegetable mixture evenly among the tomato halves; place in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Top each tomato with cheese; broil for 3 minutes or until cheese is melted. Makes 6 servings.
Cold-Brew Sweet Tea
- 4 pitcher-size cold brew tea bags
- 3/4 cup sugar
- Ice cubes
- 2 lemons, sliced
- Fresh mint (optional)
Place tea bags in a large pitcher. Add 3 quarts cold water; steep for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile in a small saucepan, combine 1 cup water and the sugar. Boil, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved.
Remove tea bags. Add the sugar mixture to the pitcher and stir. Serve over ice with lemon slices and mint, if using. Makes 3 quarts.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 cups sugar
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs, beaten
- 1 1/2 cups vegetable oil
- 1 can (8 ounces) crushed pineapple, undrained
- 2 cup nuts (pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts), chopped
- 2 cups bananas (about 2 bananas), chopped
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
For the icing:
- 2 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, at room temperature
- 1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 pounds powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla
- 1 cup nuts, chopped
Heat oven to 350. Grease three 9-inch round cake pans with butter, dust the bottoms and sides with flour; set aside.
To make the cake, combine flour, sugar, baking soda, cinnamon and salt in a large bowl; stir until well blended. Add eggs and oil; stir until the dry ingredients are just moistened. Stir in the pineapple, 1 cup of the nuts, banana and vanilla.
Divide the batter evenly among the prepared pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. Let the cakes cool in the pans for 10 minutes, then turn them out onto racks to cool completely.
To make the icing, combine cream cheese and butter in a large bowl; cream with an electric mixer until smooth. Add powdered sugar, beat until light and fluffy, then stir in vanilla.
Spread the icing on the tops of two of the cakes, then stack them on a cake plate. Add the third cake; spread icing on the top and sides of the entire cake. Sprinkle with 1 cup of remaining chopped nuts. Makes 10-12 servings.