In Play: Eating up the Natchez Trace

– By Bill Dudley –

  The Natchez Trace is a broad path between Natchez, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee. It was formed by prehistoric animals finding their way from the eastern Midwest plains to the Mississippi River and later used by the Chickasaw Indians as a trading route and war path.

  Doesn’t that sound like a fun destination? So the Dudleys, Holbertons, Denickes and van Loben Sels – a.k.a. “The Crazy Eight” – decided to test our 50-year friendship and follow the trail of those fun-loving Chickasaws.

  How many people does it take to plan a 444 mile road? Well, eight might be too many, because we started in N’awlins, not Natchez. We traveled 1,037 miles not 444. It took two weeks, not two days, and we forgot the bug spray. However, we remembered the Tequila, Triple Sec, and lots o’ limes.

  Look, you already know the best stuff in N’awlins – WW2 Museum, Jackson Square, brunch at Brennan’s, and New Orleans School of Cooking followed by Pat O’Brien’s, “Sweeeeet Caroline, bom, bom…bom” – So let’s get to the Natchez Trace Parkway.  

  We drove three hours to Natchez and picked up discounted tickets to three antebellum mansions at the Visitors Center. The next morning we toured Longwood, Stanton Hall, and Rosalie. Our gals “ohhed and ahhed. Spectacular!” The first two would have been enough for us boys.

   Staying at the Monmouth Historic Inn, we enjoyed a magnificent private dinner in their 1818 dining room. Our table could have seated 14, but set for eight, we were just too far apart. We shuffled everything down-table and closer together. Shirley, our period-costumed server, was not pleased. “The table, the setting, the candelabras are all antiques and quite fragile,” she huffed. We were contrite, and D.D. explained: “Our husbands are all deaf and couldn’t hear each other’s bad jokes. Sooo…” Shirley laughed and asked, “Well, what can I bring you?” To which Martin offered his longest basset hound expression, and with paws perched below his muzzle, whimpered, “Puhleeese, Mistress Shirley, might I have some more wine?” All was forgiven.

  Saturday we headed up the Natchez Trace (speed limit 50) towards Vicksburg with a roadside stop at mile post 10, The Emerald Mound. It’s a 3,200-year-old Native American earthworks constructed for spiritual ceremonies, or three minutes up and two minutes back down; less if you jog.

  We jogged, because our next stop was lunch. The Old Country Store is maybe 10 miles off the Trace, in Lorman, Mississippi, and Alton Brown says, “Arthur makes the best fried chicken I ever tasted.” But our waterin’ mouths gotta get there quick. Like most restaurants in the ole’ south, Arthur stops serving lunch at 2 p.m. This ain’t Costco, where you can get a hot dog and coke any damn time you want.

  Arthur Davis is the owner, the entertainment, and the cook. And lunch is $15 for all-you-can eat with cornbread, baked beans, salad, and outa-this-world blackberry cobbler. So good your brains will fall out.

   We’re waddling off to Vicksburg National Military Park. Get a guide, it’ll cost $50 a car, and take two hours. Without a guide you’re reading monuments but missing the story.

 We stayed in downtown Vicksburg at the Anchuca Inn, once owned by Jefferson Davis’ older brother. In the morning we had breakfast with the owner, Tom Pharr. He gave us a fascinating 30-minute oral history of this antebellum treasure. The tours were in walking distance, but the best was the Lower Mississippi River Museum.

 After lunch we headed back to the Trace and north to Tupelo, the birthplace of Elvis. We found the museum, his family’s unbelievably small two-room house, and a funky pink and black themed gift shop. Val grabs “the King” and a photo.  

  At mile post 122, where the Trace touches the Pearl River a half-mile boardwalk meanders through the Cypress Swamp. The tall limbless Cypress trees stretch out of the flat silver-black water far into the sky, reflections extending both length and depth. But for your breath and the buzz of mosquito, it is spooky, haunted quiet…. ”Hey, what was that?!” I head back to the car.

It’s just 50 miles to Oxford, Mississippi and dinner on the square at the City Grocery, a 10 minute walk from our digs at the Graduate Hotel. This is “fine dining” at a reasonable price, with exposed brick walls, white table cloths, inventive cuisine, and packed with town folks more than with Ole Miss students. Terry, our waiter and the manager of the place, was a fount of knowledge on the menu and Oxford. But as he described “spicy Gulf-shrimp grits sautéed in garlic, scall…” one of the Crazy Eight – who shall remain nameless – interrupted with, “what can I substitute for the grits.” Terry reflected a moment and… “My, my” was as close to judgmental as he would allow himself.

  Yes, the food was fabulous, but the ambiance and hospitality were equal to the meal. Four women dined at the table next to ours, and their enjoyment of each other’s company continued long after their meal, talking and laughing, as Terry refilled their water. This was fun, and unlike some bigger city restaurants, absolutely no one was quietly encouraging them to leave…tres gentile. Our dinner at the City Grocery was a “meal stone” event.   

The next morning we visited William Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oaks, where his Pulitzer winning “A Fable” is outlined in pencil on the plaster wall of his study. That alone is worth the $5 self-guided tour.

  That afternoon on our way to Memphis, we stopped in what remains of Clarksdale, Mississippi, one of the poorest cities in the state. When cotton was king, Clarksdale was the golden buckle on the cotton belt. Today, one look tells ya, ‘cotton ain’t king no mo.’ But Clarksdale is “the home of the blues,” and we’re here to lunch at Ground Zero, one of the best Blues Clubs anywhere, and the scariest looking place you’d never set foot in.

  Martin encourages us with, “the place is owned by Morgan Freeman, it’s gotta be safer than it looks.” The interior is a collage of old wood, mirrored double bar and Christmas lights reflecting off whisky bottles. Modest but sturdy eight-top tables surround an “un-caged” stage, and every flat surface is unmercifully graffitied. Lunch was a smackin’ good barbecue with potato salad, slaw, and a perfectly chilled and decanted Latour Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru… I’m joking people!

  Over the last five days we visit Memphis and Nashville, and there’s probably nothing I can add to what you already know. However, on our last night in Nashville we dined at the 120 year old Hermitage Hotel. It’s the longest running southern style restaurant in the state, and boasts a spectacular 130 bottle bourbon library. Another meal stone!

   Dinner was sumptuous, excellent, and fully priced. We lingered over dessert and more drinks, getting an earful of hotel history from Susan, our waitress. And as we moved into the bewitching hour, Susan began describing what she called the hotel’s “crown jewel” – the men’s restroom.

 “It’s outrageous! Art deco-style, floor to ceiling black and lime-green leaded glass tiles, terrazzo flooring, and a two seat shoe shine station.” Our wives guffawed as Susan exclaimed, “Hey, everyone’s gone for the night. Come on, I’ll show it to you.” So, in they went while their champions guarded the door. From inside the “jewel” I heard D.D. remark, sotto voce… “My, my.”

  • ­Bill Dudley is a columnist living at Lake Oconee with his wife, Linda. They survived the Natchez Trace along with the rest of the “Crazy Eight” – Tito, Val, Martin, Mo, Page and D.D.

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