At the Shady Nook convenience store in Lyon, Mississippi, there are 19 cars in the parking lot and none at the pumps. It’s lunchtime on a Wednesday, and a line stretches from the entrance to a hot bar some ten yards inside and to the left. It’s $6.99 for a meat and three (sides, as well as dessert, cornbread and fountain drink). The cost is a sore spot for local John Chaney. “It used to be cheaper, but now you get a dessert. Today it’s peach cobbler,” he says.
Sitting at a series of tables and chairs near the gas station’s entrance, locals catch up on gossip as they nosh on ribs, fried chicken, pasta, collard greens, sweet potatoes and red beans. “For breakfast they’ve got grits, fried bologna, biscuits, eggs, and it’s cheap. It’s good Southern cooking” says Chaney.
Behind the building, smoke rises from a rusted barbecue smoker, a near-ubiquitous site in the Mississippi Delta, where Memphis-style barbecue appears on menus frequently. The region boasts an array of culinary influences – African American, Italian, Jewish, Lebanese, Chinese, Mexican and Indian to name a few, arising from the migration of peoples up and down the Mississippi River.
Today, these culinary influences appear in unexpected places, like La Sierrita in Greenville, where Mexican cuisine finds its home in an old truck stop (The Midway Truck Stop Motel and Café). “The décor is in transition. We’ve painted over some of the old art, but you can still see some of the trucks,” says waitress Cristal Ortega, gesturing to a series of hand-painted 18-wheelers adorning all but one white wall of the dining room.
Near the kitchen, a framed portrait of Vincente Fernandez hangs next to a sombrero, and a taxidermy red fox oversees the restaurant from the red-walled entryway. Across from the kitchen’s window, guests can hear meat sizzling on the flat top and see the trucks painted in the back. “We’re known for our tacos and our tortas cubanas,” says Cristal.
La Sierrita’s tacos come in two varieties – Mexican and American. The Mexican version features well-seasoned meat in a corn tortilla topped with cilantro and onion, then served with sliced limes. It’s what one would expect from a taco truck. The American version pairs the same meat with a flour tortilla, lettuce, tomato and cheese.
Another Mexican food import – tamales – made its way into the Delta’s foodways sometime in the early 20th century. Scholars theorize tamales could have arrived via Mexican migrants, as black and Latino day laborers interacted in cotton fields. Others have connected tamales to an old African dish called cush – a mixture of cornmeal and a small amount of meat meant to make dwindling supplies go further.
At Delta Fast Food in Cleveland, owner Gentle Rainey serves tamales in a style he learned from his grandfather, Sylvester Blalock. “He was a sharecropper and used corn husks from the field, and sold tamales on the weekend,” says Rainey. He serves his tamales in the red sauce they’re cooked in, as opposed to Mexican tamales which are often steamed. He also uses cornmeal in place of masa, traditional in the Delta style.
“I make mine mostly like my grandfather – but I added some more spices like sage and garlic powder. I also serve cheeseburgers, wings, stuff like that,” he says. Spots like Delta Fast Food, open since 1995, become gathering places in rural communities. With the Delta’s low population densities and above-average number of low income residents, public spaces often lack adequate government funding and the community comes together in other ways.
Fratesi’s Grocery in Leland has served as an area institution since 1941, with the Fratesi family’s Italian roots visible in its menu as well as the imported meats and cheeses sold. “It’s a family run operation that reflects their customs – like fried catfish on Fridays during lent,” says Hank Burdine, a Greenville resident, writer and levee board member who frequents Fratesi’s along and several other gas stations in the Delta. “The best day is on Thursdays. People travel for miles to have their pork chops.”
One half of Fratesi’s resembles an average convenience store, with rows of chips, sodas and commercial snacks. The other side looks like an Italian Cracker Barrel with more taxidermy. Wooden tables and chairs crowd the area, along with several cases of imported food items, including olives, cured meats and Italian cheeses. Many menu items at Fratesi’s can also be found in New Orleans, which makes sense given the influence of Italian immigrants on that city’s cuisine. There are more than 20 different poboys, muffalettas, hot plates, fried olives, fried chicken and more.
“If I don’t stop at Fratesi’s, I might stop at the Double Quick in Belzoni. There are two Double Quicks in Belzoni, and one has the best fried chicken in Mississippi,” says Burdine. “The best chicken gizzards are at the Double Quick in Rosedale.”
Double Quick gas stations abound in the Delta. The majority of the company’s 60 franchises serve fried food, like bone in fried chicken and fried livers and gizzards. “My friend John Weathers likes the gizzards at the Double Quick in Sunflower,” says Burdine.
“We were headed to Ruleville and stopped in there and they were out. He said, ‘We’ll be back in a half hour or so, so make us some gizzards.’ We got back and they were out. He said, ‘I thought I told y’all to make me gizzards.’ And the lady there said, ‘We did; they sold out.’ So, that tells you how much people in the Mississippi Delta like chicken gizzards.”
Most of the Delta’s dives serve fried food, but the variety of cultures in the area bring unique additions to menus that hint at the region’s culinary history. Back at the Shady Nook near Clarksdale, red beans with smoked sausage speaks to Louisiana Creole traditions, served from a hot bar also featuring classic Italian spaghetti, barbecue pork ribs, Southern sides, and, of course, fried chicken. It’s food that speaks to Mississippi’s past while remaining unexpected.