Back in 2008, when I really began my love affair with New Orleans, the city was only three years past Hurricane Katrina, and signs of the devastation were everywhere. While everyone remembered the French Market, what a lot of people didn’t know is that there had once been numerous public markets in New Orleans….such as the St. Bernard Market which had become the Circle Food Store, and the St. Roch Market at the corner of St. Claude and St. Roch. The obviously-historic building stood in the middle of a neutral ground on St. Roch, but the market was boarded up and abandoned. I wasn’t sure, but I imagined that it had been boarded up before Katrina….the oil bust in the 1980’s had devastated the economy of New Orleans, and the city before Katrina was one of the poorest in the United States.
So I was amazed to see the St. Roch Market beautified, restored and opened for business on my recent trip to the city. My musician friend and I visited and found that, rather than a market, it has been turned into a food court, with many different food, dessert and drink options. After a chocolate cupcake from Bittersweet Confections, I had a breve mocha latte from Coast Roast, the New Orleans branch of a Long Beach, Mississippi coffee roastery. We had only recently eaten breakfast, but there were many food options, including both Thai and Haitian cuisine. The fact is, the St. Roch Market has something for nearly every palate, as long as you’re willing to be adventurous.
St. Roch Market
2381 St. Claude Avenue
New Orleans, LA 70117
Although Clarksdale’s Ground Zero Blues Club is not nearly the blues club it once was, booking a lot more rock and country these days, it still occasionally features blues, as on a Saturday night in June when the featured act was the Johnie B. Sanders blues band featuring Inetta. Sanders is from Chicago, but is currently based in Jackson, and his band has been building a following in Central Mississippi and the Delta. One of the things I have always liked about Ground Zero is its juke joint ambiance, and for the first time, I actually noticed the historic posters on the wall of Delta blues events from years gone by. These were so interesting, for mentioning long-forgotten venues like Mr. Fuji’s Ranch in Ruleville or Club Shatto in Renova, and forgotten artists like Arthneice “Gas Man” Jones. I also didn’t know that Hopson Plantation used to sponsor blues shows long before it became the Shack Up Inn. It’s also worth noting that Ground Zero has an excellent food menu as well, and irresistible desserts, so it’s still a must-visit on any road trip to the Delta.
While driving from Austin to Mississippi, a friend and I decided we wanted coffee when we got to Dallas. Since it was a Sunday, there was a risk that some coffee bars might not be open, so I looked at the Yelp app on my iPhone and saw a place called Cultivar, which was very close to the interstate, but in a most unlikely place, the old business district of Oak Cliff. It proved to be an inspired choice.
Cultivar is a micro-roaster, roasting small batches of some of the world’s best coffee, always ethically sourced. Although their main business is the sale of roasted beans for home brewing, their coffee shops carry the usual array of cappuccinos, lattes and espressos, along with a small selection of baked goods. After enjoying a breve latte, I purchased a bag of Salvadoran whole bean coffee to take home. I also have to mention the sleek, modernistic interior of the coffee bar, which is bright, cheerful and welcoming. Our visit to Cultivar was altogether pleasant.
313 W Jefferson Blvd
Dallas, TX 75208
For several years, Clarksdale has had a full-scale coffee bar called Yazoo Pass, but at this year’s Juke Joint Festival I was surprised to see that another coffee bar had opened, a place called Meraki Roasting Company. The space on Sunflower at Second next to the Delta Cinema is a spacious, bright and comfortable oasis away from the hustle and bustle of the Juke Joint Festival, which is Clarksdale’s biggest day. As it turns out, Meraki is an arm of the Griot Youth Program, a non-profit which seeks to intervene in Clarksdale by guiding young people into a number of worthwhile careers and pastimes, including, now, coffee-roasting. The shop has bean varieties from Ethiopia and Colombia, cups of coffee available by French Press or pour-over method, and a number of sweet and savory baked goods, as well as gelato from highly-acclaimed Sweet Magnolia which is also made in Clarksdale. What with the rainy weather this year, Meraki was a great place to get dry, unwind, relax, recharge our phones and ourselves, and enjoy exquisite coffees. And in the process, it’s cool to know that we were helping Clarksdale young people as well.
In 1958, record store owner Joe Coughi of Poplar Tunes in Memphis decided to start a record label, and he named it Hi Records, with the name taken from the last two letters of his name. Purchasing the Royal Theater on South Lauderdale, he converted it into a recording studio (Jim Stewart would do the same thing a year later with the nearby Capitol Theater on McLemore Avenue in forming Stax Records), and began recording country and rockabilly records. When Ruben Cherry and Celia Hodge’s Home of the Blues family of labels collapsed in 1962, producer Willie Mitchell was briefly without a musical home, but he soon ended up producing for Coughi at the Royal Studios, which he eventually purchased. Hi Records soon moved from recording rockabilly and country to recording blues, soul and gospel, particularly the work of such greats as Al Green, O.V. Wright, Don Bryant, Ann Peebles, Otis Clay and Syl Johnson. The Hi label was eventually sold to Al Bennett in California, but the Royal Studios continued under Willie Mitchell. As Stax collapsed and the Memphis recording industry with it, Royal continued on, and today, under Willie Mitchell’s son Boo, has become a world-famous institution. So it was only fitting that Royal Sound Studios should celebrate with a block party for the surrounding South Memphis neighborhood on the street now called Willie Mitchell Boulevard, and all the more so as Boo Mitchell announces to the world the launch of Royal Records, a label based out of the venerable Memphis studios. The first act for the fledgling label is a rap duo called Lil Riah and Key Money, both of whom are members of the Mitchell family, and who were the featured performers at the block party. But attendees also enjoyed performances by Memphis veterans Al Kapone and Frayser Boy as well as the Royal Studio Band, and there was plenty of good food from local food trucks, including hand-crafted ice cream pops from the good folks at Mempops. Even Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland came to pay his respects.
When I saw that a place called the Dirty Crow Inn had opened in a former convenience store on Kentucky Street at Crump Boulevard in South Memphis, I was initially wary, as the menu out front was short on choices, with wings the most prominent feature (and I am not a huge fan of wings). But after reading a positive review of the burger there, I decided to make a special trip down on a Sunday evening to see what the fuss was about.
The Dirty Crow Inn is a “new” dive bar, if there can indeed be such a thing. It’s fairly small inside, with a quaint and homey feel, and posters all across the ceiling. There is also an outdoor deck with more tables and chairs, and a place for occasional live music. The primary difference from more traditional dive bars is the gourmet-leaning menu, with such things as soy-ginger wings and poutine fries. The rather simple burger is still a thing of beauty, with the buns toasted and buttered, and bacon and cheese added. If it isn’t the best in Memphis, it’s got to be in the top five, and the french fries that came with it were equally tasty. There are occasional special food features as well, of which the bacon-wrapped smoked shrimp was the most outstanding, and while there is no dessert menu, the Dirty Crow Inn has cupcakes from the nearby Pink Diva bakery. As if all that wasn’t cool enough, the kitchen stays open until 2 AM, so it is a perfect destination after the club, the theatre or the show. Here’s hoping that the Dirty Crow Inn will become another one of Memphis’ legendary hangouts.
In the early days, when Tennessee was just becoming a state, Memphis had two rivals for dominance of the trade on the Mississippi River. Randolph, on a bluff some 30 miles north of Memphis, was the county seat of Tipton County, and about 30 miles north of Randolph was Fulton, in Lauderdale County. Since I had never been to Fulton, nor to Fort Pillow State Park, I decided to head out there one afternoon after a day of substitute teaching at Arlington Elementary. So I grabbed a late lunch at Bozo’s Bar-B-Q in Mason and then headed out through Covington to Henning, and from there out to where Google Maps told me Fulton should be. Unfortunately, I was quite disappointed, as there is really no trace of the town of Fulton. There is a Baptist church, although the building looks fairly recent, and a few houses, all of which also look fairly recent. If there was a business district once, there is no trace of it now. But I did enter Fort Pillow State Park, and got a beautiful view of the Mississippi River from a bluff inside the park. From there, I headed north through the Wildlife Management Area until I got to the beginning of Highway 19, and a community called Ashport. While Ashport is never mentioned as a rival river port to Memphis, it must have had some significance, as it was on the river, and there was an Old Ashport Road that clearly ran from Jackson, Tennessee to the area. But there was little trace of Ashport, just as there was little trace of Fulton, with one exception- an amazing, monstrous ruin of a building on Highway 19. Covered with soft drink and beer signs, it appears that the building was most recently called Pop’s Place, and must have been either a beer joint or a grocery store, or perhaps some sort of combination of both. But the old brick two-story building with a wide set of steps in the center was clearly built to be something else, perhaps a school, although a check of the internet yielded little information, and it is hard to imagine the need for a school that big in the sparsely-populated flatlands near the river. Just beyond the ruin, the road climbed a fairly steep cliff on its way toward Ripley, and the view back toward the river in the sunset was beautiful. Unfortunately, there was no good place to pull over and try to grab a photograph of what I was seeing, and no guarantee that my camera could capture it either. So I headed on into Ripley, grabbed a blizzard from the Dairy Queen, and hit the road back to Memphis.
People who know me know that I’m not a huge fan of modern-day Beale Street. In its current garish, Disneyland-like iteration, it seems like a travesty upon the street where blues became famous rather than a tribute to it, and bad cover bands seem to be the order of the day, along with mostly mediocre food and plenty of alcohol. So I was less than thrilled when my musician friend Otis Logan suggested that we go to B. B. King’s on Beale Street, but I like going out with friends, and he was supposed to sit in, so I agreed to go. Beale at this time of year is pretty much a ghost town, even on weekends. Winter is the off-season in Memphis, as we get weather every bit as cold as St. Louis or Cincinnati, and people wanting great music and a warmer climate are heading further south to New Orleans, not shivering here. But there was a decent-sized crowd in B. B. King’s, all the more amazing since it was a Thursday night. I ordered a fudge brownie, which was actually delicious, and sat down at a table as the band was walking up on the stage. The band this particular night was known as the B. B. King’s All-Stars, and an impressive bunch of Memphis musicians they were. They were tight and together as a unit, and they played a couple of funky instrumentals before bringing up their vocalist, a soul singer named Rodney Tate whom I had never heard of, and he was also quite good. One of my bigger complaints about Beale Street in recent years has been how little of the music heard on the street is actually classic Memphis blues or soul, but the music at B. B. King’s on this particular night was exactly that, and it was thrilling to hear. Due to a late start, the Memphis musicians who had gathered in the club hoping to sit in did not get to, but it was altogether a fun and exhilarating experience. Perhaps I’ll venture there more often.
On the last Saturday in January, there was a kickoff party for the new year to call attention to the On Location: Memphis International Film and Music Festival, which will be held on Labor Day weekend this year. The party was held at Phillip Ashley Chocolates in the Cooper-Young neighborhood, and guests had an opportunity to sample the world-famous chocolates, as well as gourmet coffee from Memphis’ own Ugly Mug Coffee roasters. A few guests won free tickets to the festival screenings of Oscar shorts held at the Hard Rock Cafe. The excellent music was provided by renowned singer-songwriter Juju Bushman.
I was looking for a frozen yogurt place (and Atlanta is full of them) but they all seemed to have closed already, as it was a weeknight. So when I saw Jeni’s Ice Cream in the Westside Atlanta area, the first thing I noticed was that it was open, and even crowded. And the second thing I recalled was that I had eaten Jeni’s Ice Cream once before, from a food truck on a South by Southwest parking lot in Austin. But the permanent stores have far more flavor choices (such as the peanut-buttery Buckeye State which I ordered) than the trucks, and the all-natural ingredients make for great flavor and texture. I also have to notice and appreciate the later hours than most other Atlanta frozen dessert shops, which means that when most places are closed, Jeni’s is likely still open. The Ohio-based company makes its ice creams with only natural ingredients and flavors, and is definitely worth a visit. In addition to the Atlanta store, Jeni’s can be found across Ohio and in Nashville, Tennessee. When all else fails, it can also be ordered online and shipped to you where you live.