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A Highway Runs Through it

“There’s America, there’s the South, then there’s Mississippi.” So said President Lyndon Johnson. He might have added, “And then there’s the Mississippi Delta.” The Delta is a strange, strange world indeed, where guns, booze, racism, religion, music, farming and deep-fried food are the staples of life. The Mississippi Delta is not to be confused with the Mississippi River Delta which is further south in coastal Louisiana where the river drains into the Gulf. The place known as the Mississippi Delta is 300 miles upriver, located on an alluvial floodplain between the Mississippi River and the Yazoo River. Two hundred miles long and seventy miles across at its widest, it begins just south of Memphis and ends at Vicksburg. Highway 61 runs through it, a.k.a. the Blues Highway. Bob Dylan named an album after it—the legendary “Highway 61 Revisited.”

When people speak of Mississippi Delta Blues, this is where it began, by the likes of famed Blues artists Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. The Delta also has produced a number of famous writers, including Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, and William Faulkner. “There’s an intangible, mysterious quality to life here that Mississippi writers have felt compelled to tackle,” says an English writer who makes his home there. “(It has) a kind of magical realism that comes out of the state’s long insularity, the urge to mythologize its history of defeat and oppression, the deep influence of the Old Testament and faith-based thinking, and perhaps the drama of the natural landscape.”

And the food? “The first rule of Delta cuisine: if it can’t be battered and fried, cook it with fatty pig meat,” he says. “Down at Clancy’s in Yazoo City, the house speciality was a battered deep-fried hamburger. That horrified us, but we’d grown to love the battered deep-fried pickle slices, and what they call ‘Mexican okra,’ which was pickled jalapeño slices given the same treatment, and excellent with cold beer.”

The author is Richard Grant who wrote about his experiences in a recent book entitled, “Dispatches From Pluto.” He was seduced by the Delta upon his first visit. It took some doing, but he talked his New York girlfriend into moving there. They purchased a grand plantation House on the cheap (in Pluto) and underwent a harrowing acclimation that included inadequate heating and cooling, roof leaks, and all manner of spiders, mosquitos, fire ants, raccoons, possums, snakes, stray dogs, wild hogs, foxes, and alligators.

“You need a dog and a gun,” he was told. He had a dog but buying a gun was another issue entirely. Both he and his girlfriend abhorred guns—at first. The instinct to survive—and the omnipresent gun culture—soon changed their minds. This was the Deep South after all, where hunting doves in Summer and deer in the Fall was a part of the culture, a social occasion, where men bonded over guns and women prepared heaps of food. The author learned to appreciate guns and became an adequate sharpshooter. Along the way, he and his girlfriend learned to love eating whatever was in season—or crawling in the backyard. Much of the story revolves around people, good-hearted people mostly, generous to a fault, white and black, and how they manage to enjoy the same things (hunting and fishing, drinking and deep-fried food) and co-exist peacefully despite centuries of deep-rooted prejudice. How an Englishman and his urbane girlfriend managed to navigate among the southern culture and social dos and don’ts makes for a fascinating and often hilarious story.

The book includes a tour of the Delta (farms, swamps, forests, and depressed towns), nights in various blues clubs (including Po Monkey’s, shown on the book’s jacket) meeting the likes of octogenarian blues legend T Model Ford, a visit to the South’s most infamous prison, a round of golf with actor Morgan Freeman (who owns a blues club called Ground Zero and still keeps a house in the Delta despite acting fame), hunting trips, a funeral, a wedding, and near the end of the book, a big party blow-out. Grant supplies laughs by the score but spares us not the underlying Delta sadness, much like the morning fog that lurks in the boggy hollows.

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