Although Susan Puckett, former longtime food editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, grew up in Jackson, Miss., she didn't experience the Delta - the state's storied northwest corner, which stretches from the Tennessee border to Vicksburg - until she was a college student dating a boy from Greenwood. He took her to Lusco's, where cotton planters since 1933 have been celebrating harvests with t-bone dinners served in curtained booths.
"I have spent the better part of my life writing about food, in a career that has taken me to top restaurants all over the country," Puckett writes in her new culinary travelogue, Eat Drink Delta: A Hungry Traveler's Journey Through the Soul of the South, evocatively illustrated by photographer Langdon Clay. "Yet few of those experiences have made an impression as lasting as Lusco's."
More than 30 years after that memorable meal, Puckett plotted her return to the region. She wanted to poke into every overlooked edible cranny of the Delta and discover the stories behind institutions such as Lusco's.
But the staunchly rural Delta, while home to extraordinarily welcoming people, isn't immediately hospitable to modern tourists. There aren't any interstates, or glitzy visitors' centers. There isn't much of anything to see: First-time visitors are always struck by the flatness and sparseness of the terrain, where the most valuable resource lies underfoot. Yet few Mississippians have wrung wealth from the fertile soil: The Delta is painfully poor. In Coahoma County, home to Clarksdale, the per capita personal income in 2000 was $19,041. The same statistic for the Seattle metro area was nearly $40,000.
So how does a culinary explorer approach a region without a ready-made itinerary? I rang up Puckett, a friend from the Association of Food Journalists and the Southern Foodways Alliance, to ask her advice for holiday travelers who find themselves in hometowns or new cities without any obvious food-related destinations.
1. Don't show up unprepared.
"The best thing is to do your homework ahead of time," Puckett says. "But not just book research." Puckett says the best tips are usually gleaned from friends, or friends of friends, who are easy to locate through Facebook. "Even if they're not a foodie, they probably have a friend who is," she says.
2. Don't be shy.
"Honestly, I just yakked," Puckett says of her many research road trips. "I talked to hundreds of people."
3. Don't let the online landscape discourage you.
Very few restaurants in the Delta have websites, and reader review sites aren't as active there as elsewhere. But Puckett discovered most restaurants have Facebook pages, and she was able to gauge a restaurant's quality by scanning the lists of people who've friended them and things the restaurant likes.
4. Don't fall into the anti-elitist trap.
Many food lovers believe there's an inverse relationship between a restaurant's cleanliness and the quality of its food. Turns out, shabby restaurants often serve shabby food. Puckett warns against picking restaurants for their rustic appearance. "Just trying to drive in and try things on your own, I do not recommend that," she says. "The chances of being disappointed are about 50 to 1."
5. Don't get cold feet.
Following leads may land you in venues that don't look quite right. When Puckett approached Fratesi Grocery in Leland, she thought it was "a plain old gas station." Indeed, one side of the store is stocked with kerosene for hunters' lanterns, and the other side features a wooden box of minnows. But there's also an Italian deli case, "with imported capers and really good meats. They do a booming lunch business." The mufalettas are especially wonderful, she says.
Over in Cleveland, Gentle Lee Rainey runs Delta Fast Food. "It looks like this mom-and-pop where you can get toilet paper and dishwashing detergent, but his tamales are fantastic," she says. "They have chitterlings and hogmaw."
6. Don't forget why you're adventuring.
"You have to think about what it is you're after," Puckett says. "If all you're focused on is having the best hamburger, you may be disappointed. But, for me, I want to get that story to go with it." That means sometimes choosing a venue with character over an award-winning restaurant - and knowing how to find it.
"Finding these places takes work and dedication," Puckett says. "But when it pays off, it pays off big time."