Southern Foodways Alliance, Day Two

I could just not be any happier tonight. I have spent an entire day eating Lebanese food at the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Delta Divertissement. An entire day. Actually, some of the food was not at all Lebanese but it was made by Lebanese people and it is a very interesting story how they found their way to the Mississippi Delta.

It turns out they didn’t know they were coming here. When the Lebanese people fled Syria back at the turn of the last century, they just got on a boat headed all over the place. Some of them got dropped off in Australia, some of them got dropped off at Ellis Island and some of them got dropped off in New Orleans. Can you imagine what that must have been like? You speak no English and you’ve been dropped off in a place you’ve never heard of. Jimmy Thomas of the Southern Foodways Alliance, himself of Lebanese descent, said the first Lebanese immigrant to New Orleans got off the ship and just started yelling “Kibbe, kibbe, kibbe!,” correctly thinking that anyone who understood what he was saying would understand his language. And, as it turned out, somebody did.

But let’s just talk about the food. So we started out at lunch eating an authentic Lebanese meal made by noted cookbook author Anissa Helou. I must admit to you now that I had never heard of Anissa Helou so I looked her up when I got back to the room. She is fairly famous. She made this fabulous lamb dish with toasted pita chips, chick peas, the most tender lamb imaginable and a yogurt mint sauce accompanied by butter beans in a lemon vinaigrette and kale with a tahini dressing.  After lunch, I immediately went to the local bookstore and bought her book.

After a brief interlude, we head to Clarksdale, a mere hour away and home to more Lebanese food love. We meet Pat Davis of Abe’s BBQ, whose family has been in the BBQ business since 1924. But Abe’s also makes the famous Mississippi Delta tamales. I ask Mr. Davis why the Delta is so famous for tamales, thinking massive numbers of Mexican people moved there. No, not really. He said just a few Mexican people found their way to the Delta, but everybody liked their tamales and started making them, too.

Well, the tamales are damn good. They are moist and tender and redolent of cumin. They come with an extremely light cole slaw and, for reasons that I cannot fathom and did not ask about, soda crackers. I am tempted to eat all three tamales on my plate but stop at one and a half because next we are on our way to Chamoun’s Rest Haven for kibbe and pie. Nothing exceeds like excess and Mr. and Mrs. Chamoun happily oblige. When we arrive there is a feast of kibbe, stuffed grape leaves, pita and hummus.

And here is the wonderful thing about the South. Not only has the Chamoun family been waiting for us, but the members of the Clarksdale Cedars Club have as well. The Cedars Club is made up of what I suspect are entirely female Lebanese who keep their traditions alive in the Deep South. We are welcomed like royalty and we feast on their excellent food. And then we encounter something that makes the global South unique. Somehow, the Chamoun family have ventured off the Lebanese food grid to produce the most ambrosial pie imaginable.

Chocolate Cream and my favorite pie of all time Coconut Cream, completely made from scratch. Is that not a wonderful intersection of culture and climate? I am already comatose with over-eating and I manage to polish off an entire piece of Coconut Cream Pie.

Tomorrow, it’s on to Oxford for the actual symposium. But I am already missing the Mississippi Delta. It is a land of incongruities, of cultures who found their way here unknowingly and made their food integral to the South. It is a land of Lebanese immigrants with thick Southern accents. It is kibbe and pie. It is delicious.

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