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Mississippi Turning

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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