Jackson, Mississippi Skyline

photo by: Visit Mississippi, Flickr

December 3, 2015

A Road Trip Through the South: Part 2

  • By: Mary Welch

The distance between Memphis and New Orleans is less than 400 miles, but in between those miles are some of the country’s most important culinary, musical, and historic influences. All of which is a fancy way of saying that driving between those two cities is an adventure in good food, amazing music, and sites that will make you stop and ponder life. (Review Part 1 of our road trip to see how we got here.)

In Memphis, it’s hard to beat the iconic Peabody Hotel, a Historic Hotel of America and home of the legendary ducks and their twice-daily walk to the magnificent lobby fountain. The walk has so much pomp and circumstance, you’d think they were waddling for the Queen of England.

The Peabody fits the bill of a five-star historic hotel with beautiful moldings, rich woods, and the quality of service from a staff that still consider it their pleasure—and honor—to serve. While the hotel has a dramatic indoor pool, luxurious spa, acclaimed dining, and a gallery of shops, my favorite spot is on the roof watching the sun set over the Mississippi River.

When one thinks of Memphis, two things pop up—barbecue and the blues. Locals are as passionate and loyal to their barbecue restaurant as they are to their football team, which says a lot. The two best-known spots are Rendezvous and Corky’s. Rendezvous is downtown and has been famous for its dry rubbed ribs since 1948. Corky’s, which has several locations, is famous for its pulled pork.

Peabody Hotel

photo by: Reading Tom, Flickr

The Peabody Hotel, a Historic Hotel of America.

STAX Museum

photo by: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

The STAX Museum of American Soul Music.

Other notable places are A&R Bar-B-Que for ribs, the Cozy Corner for Cornish hens, and Central BBQ for a pork plate with extra bark, which is the dark smoked crust. Huey’s on 2nd Street is not a ‘cue restaurant; it’s more like your local diner/bar/hamburger joint. While there, shoot your sandwich toothpicks through your straw and try to embed them in the ceiling. Hundreds of toothpicks dot the ceiling and you can’t say that about too many places.

Memphis is known for the blues, but the city’s slogan is “Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock ’n Roll.” When the music of the Mississippi Delta was mixed with the Memphis sound, the roots of American music were birthed. Along the way this sound absorbed urban blues, jazz, a rock ‘n roll, rockabilly, R&B, and soul.

Go to the STAX Museum of American Soul, the Rock ’N Soul Museum, and Sun Studio, where Elvis Presley recorded and the first rock ’n roll song—Rocket 88 by Ike Turner—was recorded. And, of course, who could forget Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. (Yes, it’s worth the visit, and yes, it’s smaller than you imagined.)

Lorraine Motel

photo by: Grady McGill

Lorraine Motel.

Civil Rights Museum

photo by: Carl Wycoff, Flickr

Gate at the Civil Rights Museum.

Other musts are a paddle boat ride down the mighty Mississippi and visits to the Cotton Museum, the Mud Island River Park & Mississippi River Museum, and Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum where you can go down into a damp cellar and see how the escaped slaves were hidden on their way to freedom. There, you can feel the fear and hope to your bones.

Of course, no trip to Memphis is complete without visiting the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The self-guided tour has exhibits such as the Culture of the Slavery Resistance, the Freedom Rides, the March on Washington, the Voting Rights Act, and Dr. King’s final hours. The most chilling exhibit is the actual rifle that killed Dr. King.

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken

photo by: Thomas Hawk, Flickr

Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken.

After your visit, walk a few blocks to decompress and refuel at another Memphis institution, Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken. There is always a crowd but don’t worry—if you have to wait outside, Gus’ staff brings out welcomed iced water.

Once you leave Memphis, you’ll discover how rich the drive through the state of Mississippi is, with wonderful towns, museums, scenery and history to experience.

This beautiful, lush Delta Region is dubbed the “Birthplace of the Blues,” and it’s where pure blues can be heard in juke joints like Po-Monkey’s and Red’s Lounge. It’s also an area of abject poverty with a history of absence of rights for blacks and other minorities.

Delta Blues Museum

photo by: Visit Mississippi, Flickr

Delta Blues Museum.

Take a quick side trip to Clarksdale to view the Delta Blues Museum and hear some music at the Ground Zero Blues Club where you might see the owner, actor Morgan Freeman.

Clarksdale is also home to some of the best tamales in the state. Try Larry’s Hot Tamales, Hicks, or Oxbow. No one knows quite why tamales are popular here; some say it goes all the way back to Native Americans who grew maize in the area, while others speculate Mexican laborers brought it and the sharecroppers had easy access to its two main ingredients—pork and corn meal. Regardless, tamale shacks are just as prevalent as barbecue ones.

Once you leave Memphis, you’ll discover how rich the drive through the state of Mississippi is, with wonderful towns, museums, scenery, and history to experience.

Down the interstate is Grenada, which calls itself the “City that Smiles,” but wasn’t so friendly when civil rights activist James Meredith came to register African-Americans to vote. Town officials protected marchers and hired six black registrars who registered more than 1,000 blacks. However, as soon as the marchers left, the registrars were fired and the new voters were not added to the registration rolls. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dick Gregory spent about a week protesting in the town, with Dr. King’s headquarters in the Vincent United Methodist Church.

Next stop is to the state capital, Jackson, where fried chicken restaurants such as Two Sister's Kitchen and Julep routinely make national best chicken lists—and the history has even greater national significance.

Vicksburg National Cemetery

photo by: John W. Iwanski, Flickr

Vicksburg National Cemetery.

Nearby is Vicksburg, home of the Vicksburg National Cemetery where more than 17,000 Union soldiers (75 percent of whom are unknown) from the Battle of Vicksburg are buried. Nearby is the Cedar Hill Cemetery where the last remains of more than 5,000 Confederate soldiers are buried.

If you want to learn why these young men died, spend a couple of hours at the Vicksburg National Military Park that commemorates the campaign, siege and defense of Vicksburg in 1863. On the 16-mile tour, you can view more than 1,340 monuments, markers, and plaques.

With all these new sights, sounds, tastes, and thoughts in mind, let’s get back in the car and start the third leg of our road trip—the one that takes us to none other than New Orleans.

By: Mary Welch

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