Mississippi Turning

Mississippi Turning

Jürgen Frank
Jürgen Frank
A down-at-the-heels Delta town begins to bounce back, thanks to prestige stoves, Southern-cooking classes, and a modern hotel.

Even allowing for style being where you find it (to paraphrase Madonna), downtown Greenwood, Mississippi, seems like an odd place for a $10 million-plus luxury boutique hotel.

Although Greenwood—located 110 miles south of Memphis—was the cotton capital of the world in the 1930's and still has the largest cotton exchange in the United States, many of its 19,000 residents live in poverty. Try as you may to see only the beauty of the Renaissance Revival county courthouse, or the stocky dignity of the town's old-fashioned main street, it's a useless exercise. There are just too many rain-soaked love seats in the front yards of rotting houses for Greenwood to claim, as it does in its chirpy pitch to visitors, All we need is you.

Against this beleaguered backdrop the 50-room Alluvian holds itself up as the future of deep-Delta tourism, swishy taffeta curtains and all. If the hotel's owner Fred Carl Jr. turns out to be right, the future lies at that uncharted crossroads on the floodplains where uptown meets down home. For while the Alluvian romances guests with five-pound chenille throws, stainless-steel fireplaces, and something called mattress enhancers, it is also firmly hitched to local culture and history. Comprehensive packages ferry hotel guests into the Delta, offering lightly spooky moonlit rambles to blues legend Robert Johnson's probable grave site, Fear of Frying cooking classes, juke-joint forays, and stops at civil rights landmarks.

Not that hard-bitten world travelers will be an easy sell for the Alluvian. When I returned home to Manhattan, friends rolled their eyes at my enthusiasm for the hotel, but for them I have seven words: Leave your big-city chauvinism at reception. Designed with brio by ForrestPerkins, the Dallas/D.C.-based team that did the Ritz-Carlton Montreal and Fairmont Hamilton Princess in Bermuda, the Alluvian is no impostor—though management might want to rethink the unctuous brochure blurb ("Enter..., and one will be stunned by the posh nouveau..."). With luminous bamboo floors and slick bathrooms cocooned in faux sharkskin, the Alluvian is that rare thing, the provincial boutique hotel that gets it right. Service is briskly professional. Guests can even request in-residence business cards, though you have to wonder what kind of person might need them out here in the boonies. And how about those Aveda toiletries!

The Alluvian isn't the only success Carl has scored in Greenwood. The town is also home to Carl's Viking Range Corp., which famously gave America its taste for industrial-style stoves in the early 1990's, and whose Toyota Production System last year turned out many thousands of those high-powered, sealed-burner beauties. Part of Carl's motivation in opening the Alluvian, and his safety net, was to house Viking dealers who come to Greenwood for training. For years the firm put them up in budget motels, but as the brand rocketed and its ranges became one of the surefire "ultra-premium" accessories a baby boomer could acquire to announce he'd made it, these accommodations became an embarrassment. You don't spend all day drilling people on the fine points of selling $9,000 fully loaded 48-inch stoves, then send them to bed with polyester sheets.

The kind of CEO who wears rumpled khakis and carries a pen in his shirt pocket, Carl moved manufacturing in 1990 from Tennessee to his hometown, positing that what's good for Viking is good for Greenwood. Mayor Harry Smith says the company's remake of the abandoned 1917 Hotel Irving, which had been on Mississippi's Top 10 list of endangered historic buildings, has been a boon to the commercial district. According to the town's chamber of commerce, the Alluvian has "cranked up" the excitement of retailers all over town. Spurred on by the hotel, a bridal boutique, a home-furnishings shop, and a toy store all opened downtown in the same six-week period late last year.

It was Carl's plan from the beginning to use the hotel as a platform for his twin passions: the blues and Southern cooking. If as a marketing tool the Alluvian also helped him sell more stoves and pans and mixers, that would be okay, too. To help develop the hotel's Delta Discovery packages, he enlisted Amy Evans, a photography professor known for her work documenting Tennessee barbecue. Evans first came to Viking in 2003 to help produce an oral history of Greenwood restaurants—a joint project with the Southern Foodways Alliance, part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where Evans now teaches. The project got to the bottom of such questions as where the recipe for the yeast rolls at the Crystal Grill came from. (Answer: the home economics teacher at Greenwood High School.)

Slackers should think twice about signing up for the Foodways program, which has a highly caloric 18-part itinerary covered in just 2 1/2 days. Included is the inevitable factory tour, which sounds hard-sell but is actually totally sexy for anyone who cooks on a Viking or longs to. Balancing the tour are visits to many of the restaurants in Evans's history, such as the Crystal Grill. To the sweet tea and "mile-high" coconut meringue pie that had been prearranged for my group, I added deep-fried quail, which I do not suggest missing. Diners here choose how they want to bless their food from a "four faiths" prayer menu.

Lusco's, Mattie's, and Giardina's, we learned, all share the Crystal's institution status. The deliciously shabby curtained dining boothswired with buzzers for summoning your waiter are reason enough to reserve at Lusco's, though the onion rings and butter-drowned shrimp are pretty sensational, too. Across town, a steam table fogs the windows at Mattie's, the raggedy soul-food hangout where we convened for ham and biscuits, the best in town, one morning. Giardina's, in the Alluvian, is a loving remake of a late-thirties Greenwood fixture. The broiled catfish at this Italian-Southern hybrid is vividly sauced with a reverse vinaigrette—i.e., twice as much vinegar as oil. Per Carl's orders, handmade tamales at Giardina's are brought in from the Reno Café on McLaurin Street.

Tamales and catfish were subjects we never quite seemed to escape. At a tamale talk and tasting at the Viking Cooking School, for which Duff Dorrough, of the noted Delta R&B band the Tangents, supplied the live, loping sound track, Evans explained that while Mexicans were the first to enclose spicy ground meat in cornmeal mush, tamales have been a Delta specialty since at least the thirties, when Robert Johnson invoked them in the song "They're Red Hot."

Along with chicken, french fries, and beignets, catfish was part of an exhaustive class devoted to the fraught Southern art of frying. According to instructor Martha Foose—who lives on the oldest catfish farm in Mississippiand ought to know—a catfish fryer's best friend is a thermometer; you don't mess around with any coating except Zatarain's corn-flour Fish-Fri; and you never double-dredge your fillets without drying them out in the refrigerator between dredgings (unless you like gummy fillets). As Foose talked and we heated our canola oil to not a hair under 350 degrees Fahrenheit, Dorrough sang and strummed "Fry Me a River."

The breakneck program also made time for a rousing gospel brunch with the Little Zion M.B. Church choir, held at the Alluvian; a tour of the hotel's collection of works by contemporary Delta artists; and a guided walk through the town's historic district. At a second cooking class, devoted to unreconstructed regional classics like hoppin' John (black-eyed peas and rice), Dorrough sang blues that use food as a salty metaphor for sex ("Your biscuits are big enough..."). Blues scholar and guitarist Steve Cheseborough played and lectured at a beer, barbecue, and beans supper prepared by Leroy "Spooney" Kenter Jr., a.k.a. the Rib Doctor, then led us to the unmarked spot beside the Little Zion Church where his idol Robert Johnson is most likely buried.

One afternoon we funneled into a minivan and drove far into plantation country, with Luther Brown, director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University, as our commentator. At Dockery Farms in Dockery, Brown laid out the facts that allow the 1895 estate to call itself the birthplace of the blues. In Ruleville he led a freedom song, "I'm Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired," at the grave of leading black suffragist Fanny Lou Hamer. In Money we stopped in front of a dilapidated building, which Brown identified as the grocery store where, in 1955, the "reckless eyeballing" of a white woman by Emmett Till, a young black man, led to his lynching. The event helped galvanize the civil rights movement. It takes guts to bundle the Delta's heavy past with five-pound chenille throws, but I have to say, the Alluvian pulls it off.

The Alluvian, 318 Howard St., Greenwood, Miss.; 866/600-5201; www.thealluvian.com; doubles from $185; with two-night Delta Discovery Package: from $725 for one, $1,199 for two based on double occupancy.

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