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History Runs Deep

Named after the Mississippi River, the Magnolia State is celebrating 200 years of its distinctive culture, food, and music.

If you were blindfolded and placed in any American city, it would probably take a while to figure out where you were. Apart from a few distinguishing landmarks, the homogenized modernity of many cities has stripped them of their character.

But if you peeled off the blindfold in Mississippi, you likely would know your destination, both by sight and by feel. An enduring sense of place and history exists in the Magnolia State because it embraces its landmarks, artifacts, culture, and history. And what a history there is in Mississippi, which is celebrating its bicentennial this year.

The state’s first inhabitants were Native Americans, including the Choctaw, Natchez, and Chickasaw. Spanish explorers arrived in the region in 1540, but it was the French who established the first permanent settlement there in 1699. Around the time that it became the 20th state in 1817, Mississippi began to rise to prominence as the top cotton producer in the country but then suffered terribly during the Civil War. Following the war, despite the abolition of slavery, Mississippi became a cauldron of strife during the Civil Rights Movement.

With such a rich – and oftentimes contentious – heritage, the state has much to commemorate during its 200th anniversary. Bicentennial events and exhibits are being planned throughout the year, with a centerpiece taking place next December with the opening of two new museums standing side-by-side in Jackson: the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, the nation’s first state-sponsored civil rights museum, and the Museum of Mississippi History.

As we look ahead to the bicentennial celebration, we thought it would be appropriate to take a look back at some of the most popular stories about the Magnolia State we’ve featured in AAA Southern Traveler over the years that highlight the food, music, and culture of Mississippi.

Come and get it

Contributor Carolyn Nation, herself a Mississippian, took us on a trek along the virtual Mississippi Culinary Trail in the March/April 2014 issue in which she explored favorites like tamales and catfish, plus regional delicacies such as slugburgers, and even a favorite of Elvis’ still served in Tupelo. Grab your fork and take a look.

Rowan Oak

Above: Deeply influenced by his Mississippi roots, William Faulkner wrote award-winning works from his antebellum home, which he called Rowan Oak, in Oxford. Visit Mississippi

Below: The Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale celebrates Mississippi’s role in the birth of the blues. Visit Mississippi

museum

Mississippi’s cultural food history is deep, fried, and truly Southern. Distinctive flavors and delicacies shine in big restaurants, small cafés, and festivals from the Gulf Coast to the northern hills.

Let’s take a foodie’s tour of Mississippi and hear about some of our favorite places to enjoy the best of the state.

In Tupelo, Elvis Presley’s hometown, dine like the King with a Blue Suede Grill – a grilled banana and peanut butter sandwich – at Café 212, a fun downtown lunch spot.

Get a Smash Burger with a side of fried black-eyed peas at The Blue Canoe bar and restaurant on North Gloster.

But maybe the most famous burger from this region is known as the slugburger. Made from a mixture of ground beef and usually cornmeal as filler, the patty is deep-fried instead of grilled. It’s usually garnished with mustard, pickles, and ample onions. The unusual name is thought to come from the fact that in years past, the burger was sold for about a nickel, and “slug” was a slang expression for the five-cent piece. This culinary invention is celebrated in Corinth each July with the Annual Slugburger Festival.

In the flat Delta region, catfish ponds fan out from Humphreys County, the self-titled Catfish Capital of the World. In the town of Belzoni, feast on catfish that’s fried, broiled, or served in salads, soups, and stews. The 42nd Annual World Catfish Festival will take place here on April 1.

And, shucks, you can follow the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Hot Tamale Trail that starts in the Delta and snakes through Mississippi. The trail will lead you to Clarksdale, a big Mississippi Blues Trail destination, and Ground Zero Blues Club. You’ll not only hear great blues here, but you can feast on tamales and a soul food plate lunch or dinner. Clarksdale is also home to the Delta Blues Museum, which explores this distinctive musical artform.

Wherever you travel along Mississippi’s Culinary Trail, you will not go home hungry. Pack your appetite and a sense of adventure, and dig in.

Click on visitmississippi.org to find details about the Mississippi Culinary Trail. Under the “see and do” tab, click on “food & drink.”

Nothin’ but the blues

Travelers from all over the world who have a love for America’s indigenous music, the blues, come to Mississippi’s Delta. Many follow the now famous Mississippi Blues Trail, which we’ve also featured in the magazine.

The ambassador of the blues, Riley B.B. King, hailed from Indianola, Miss. In his long, distinguished musical career, King never forgot his roots, and the Delta always called him its own.

Before he died at the age of 89 in May 2015, King was present to open the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in his hometown. Darlene Copp, another contributor from Mississippi, previewed the museum, which opened in 2008. Here’s an excerpt from the May/June 2008 issue.

The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center fulfills a small town’s dream to honor a great Mississippian and to reveal his regional roots to the world. King also wants the museum to fulfill a greater purpose.

“I want them to learn about the world, the music – American music, the Delta, Mississippi, and the people who made the music,” King said.

King was born some 15 miles away, but after losing his mother and grandmother by age 14, he settled in Indianola as a young man.

Indianola’s dream began in 2000 when a few leading citizens wrote King a letter to propose a museum in his honor. After he readily agreed, a site had to be chosen, and in 2002, an unlikely but perfect place was selected.

On 2.3 acres, skirted by railroad tracks that once carried bluesmen in and out of the Delta, stands the state’s only surviving brick cotton gin. When organizers showed the location to King, he told them he worked in the gin, which dates to 1914, as a young man. Donated by the City of Indianola, the gin was designated a Mississippi Landmark and restored in 2006. It connects with the main exhibit hall to provide space for temporary exhibits and special events.

By preserving and sharing the lifetime accomplishments and values of King, it is the museum’s mission to enrich and empower the lives of young people and to unite and heal all people through music, art and education.

“There’s a sense of place that’s very powerful, and I hope it can make a difference for the children of the Mississippi Delta,” King said.

The B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center is at 400 Second St. in Indianola, Miss. It is open daily, but from Nov. 1–March 31, it’s closed on Mondays. The annual homecoming festival is held in late May; check the museum calendar for updates.

For hours and details, call (662) 887-9539 or visit bbkingmuseum.org. For details on Mississippi’s Blues Trail, visit msbluestrail.org. You can request a map or download an app for your smartphone.

Literary glitterati

Music isn’t the only cultural offering for which Mississippi is well known. The state has a string of literary greats who called Mississippi home. In 2004, contributor Patrick Martin looked at Mississippi’s fertile ground for the written word. Here’s an excerpt from the January/February issue of that year.

Any budding writer who believes in the powers of osmosis could do worse than to spend a few days traveling the back roads and small towns of Mississippi.

If there is a center to the Mississippi literary universe, a good argument can be made that it is Greenville. William Alexander Percy was a lawyer, planter, and poet whose best-known work is his autobiography, Lanterns on the Levee, a reflection on a half century of Southern social evolution.

Late in his life, Percy became the guardian to a cousin, Walker Percy, who flourished in the literary and intellectual world of his older cousin and became a noted author.

Walker Percy, who died in 1990, was a lifelong friend of another Greenville literary notable, Shelby Foote, who spent 20 years writing the trilogy, The Civil War: A Narrative. Finished in 1974, Foote was catapulted into the spotlight in 1990 at age 74 when his work became the foundation for the Ken Burns series on PBS.

Eudora Welty lived in a simple but elegant Tudor-style home in Jackson until her death in 2001 at 92. Welty’s main métier was the short story, of which she wrote four volumes. She also wrote novels and non-fiction works, and published five volumes of photographs.

Today, the Eudora Welty House and Garden is a museum to celebrate the Pulitzer Prize-winning author. It is open by reservation for tours Tuesday–Friday and on the second Saturday of each month.

William Faulkner went to the University of Mississippi before setting out to make his name as a writer. His first novel attempts met with middling success until The Sound and the Fury was published in 1929. He followed it in 1930 with As I Lay Dying.

That same year, he purchased a run-down antebellum mansion to which he gave the grandiose name of Rowan Oak. The home sits on 29 acres just south of downtown Oxford. The mansion became his refuge and writing place. From there, and out of his rural Mississippi consciousness, came the novels that won Faulkner the Pulitizer and Nobel prizes.

Rowan Oak was sold to the University of Mississippi a decade after Faulkner’s death in 1962. Visitors can tour the grounds at no charge from dawn to dusk; admission to the home is $5.

At Clarksdale, Tennessee Williams’ boyhood home, walking tours can be made of the old neighborhoods that Williams haunted when he and his mother and sister lived with his grandparents. Clarksdale celebrates its connection each October with a Tennessee Williams Festival.

Honoring the memory of poet and writer Margaret Walker, the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University in Jackson is an archive and museum dedicated to the preservation, interpretation, and dissemination of African-American history and culture.

Also in Jackson, readers can appreciate all writers, especially those from Mississippi, at the annual Mississippi Book Festival held on the grounds of the Capitol. This year’s event on Aug. 19 will feature authors, book signings, panel discussions, and more.

Make history of your own with a getaway to celebrate Mississippi’s 200th birthday this year.

Whether you appreciate literary figures, food, history, or music, you’ll find it all in Mississippi.

January/February 2017 Issue

BEFORE YOU GO

Mississippi’s Bicentennial events weren’t finalized at press time for this issue. For details, visit ms200.org.

Before you visit Mississippi, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTik® Travel Planners and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Mississippi through the Free Travel Information Card found online.


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