About seven miles east of Greenwood, MS, the rolling hills suddenly go flat, a sure sign you are entering the Delta. We had driven to Greenwood via the leisurely Natchez Trace because we needed a short road trip and also because we wanted to spend the night at the luxurious Alluvian Hotel and dine at Doe's Eat Place in Greenville in the very heart of the Delta.
As soon as we arrived in Greenwood, we checked into the elegant Alluvian Hotel and then walked the two blocks to have lunch at the Delta Bistro. On the way to the bistro we passed what appeared to be a large colonial home under going renovation. Barricades and "No Entrance" signs dotted the property and a security guard sat in a folding chair under a small tree. I turned to Randy and my friends Susan and Paul Parker and said, "I wonder what is going on." Susan, who one of Alabama's public service commissioners and not someone to simply stand and wonder, asked the security guard what all the ruckus was about.
"That house is a movie set for The Help," the guard told Susan. "See those trailers over there." Sure enough, the vacant lot across the street was filled with trailers that had the word STARS embossed across them. We whipped out our cameras and began to behave like typical star-struck tourists. When we arrived at the Delta Bistro, there sat Emmy Award winning actor Leslie Jordan having his lunch like any average citizen of Greenwood, MS.
When Jordan had finished eating, we asked him what part he was playing in the movie. He responded that he was playing Mr. Blackly, the newspaper editor. To our complete surprise, Jordan then launched into one of the book's classic lines uttered by the newspaper editor to whom "Skeeter" has applied for a job: "I guess you'll do. Miss Myrna's gone shit-house crazy on us, drunk the hairspray or something." Needless, to say we were charmed.
Jordan's character, who called Mr. Golden in Kathryn Stockett's wildly successful novel The Help, is not much more than a cameo role. I suspect the character has been significantly expanded by director Taylor Tate in order to capitalize on the talents of Leslie Jordan. Taylor Tate who hails from Jackson, MS, is a childhood friend of Kathyrn Stockett. Stockett told the press that she is delighted that Tate is directing the film and pleased with the changes that he has made. Rather than filming the novel in Jackson, MS, where The Help is set, Tate has chosen to film the movie in Greenwood, MS, and the nearby towns of Greenville and Clarksdale. Since several of the cast members were staying at the Alluvian, we also got to meet Mike Vogel who is playing "Mister Johnny" in the film.
Greenwood, like Greenville, was once a thriving cotton town, but both towns fell into decay after cotton was no longer king. Eventually nearly all industry moved out of the Delta and secondary means of making ends meet had to be devised. Fortunately for Greenwood, Fred Carl, founder of the Viking Range Corporation, chose Greenwood as the Viking headquarters and built a luxury hotel and spa that would put any Ritz Carlton to shame. The Alluvian is all about exquisite decor, unique personality, personal service, and sense of place. Viking also offers a cooking school just across the street from the hotel. The cooking school holds regular cooking classes and can schedule a special event for groups wishing to have a hands-on experience.
Several of the sidewalks in downtown Greenwood are cobblestone or brick and there is literally no traffic. One can walk anywhere, even down to the Yazoo River which flows through the town. Just a few blocks from the Alluvian is a residential district that makes you feels as if you are in the Garden District of New Orleans. It's all got that Mississippi River feel. There is nothing else in the world like the Delta---unless it is Natchez or New Orleans.
Greenville which lies about fifty miles east of Greenwood practically on the Mississippi River was also hit hard by the fall of king cotton. However, rice is a lucrative crop in the rich alluvian soil of the Delta and gambling brings both money and tourism to Greenville. Casinos dot the waterway and the banks above the levees.
Doe's Eat Place, a nondescript frame house in a questionable section of town, is world renowned for its succulent steaks (grilled in a open gas oven that you pass within a few feet of as you walk in the front/kitchen door) as well as mouth-watering tamales. Greenville is one of the few places left on the historic "tamale trail" that keeps up the tradition. When migrant workers would make their way up to or down from Memphis, they would pass through small towns that offered sidewalk tamale stands, providing quick and inexpensive food for itinerant workers. A few years ago food expert Alton Brown featured the "tamale trail" and Doe's Eat Place in particular on his show "Feasting on Asphalt."
Food is just a small part of all that the Delta is about. As anyone old enough to have an iPod knows, the Delta is the home of the blues. Blues legend B.B. King was born in Itta Bena between Greenwood and Greenville, the late great Robert Johnson (who reportedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads near Dockery Plantation at Cleveland, MS) is buried in Greenwood, MS, and Charlie "Bird" Parker lived at Dockery Farms for years.
Just north of Greenville and Cleveland are the towns of Rosedale and Clarksdale. These little towns are so rich in blues culture that blues practically oozes from the trees like sap. Morgan Freeman's famous Ground Zero blues club is located in Clarksdale, and you can even rent an apartment for the night above the blues club. In the Delta, you can literally immerse yourself in the blues.
Speaking of blues, after we returned from dining at Doe's we went a few doors down from the Alluvian to the cozy TurnRow Book Store and Cafe where we sipped and sang with blues/bluegrass musician Jimbo Mathis until nearly midnight.Both the Parkers and Randy and I bought one of Mathis' cds.
My only regret was not getting to see Mississippi born poet Natashta Trethewey. Trethewey was scheduled to appear at TurnRow Bookstore on Thursday, September 9, to sign her most recent book, Beyond Katrina, a memoir of the post Katrina years. I had the good fortune of meeting Trethewey at Athens State University in Athens, AL, shortly after she received the Pulitzer prize for her poetry collection Native Guard.
Lagniappe (pronounced lan-yap) is a Cajun French word that means "a little something extra." Whenever one makes a trip to the Delta, one can always expect a little something extra. I can't wait for my next road trip!
Watch for a review of Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help on RiverVue.
---Penne J. Laubenthal
Natasha Trethewey: Pulitizer Prize Winning Poet