By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1995 Gourmet Magazine
Amazing meals are cooked and served in Mississippi grocery stores, where the bill of fare extends from spirited hot tamales to regal T-bone steak and from ingenuous macaroni and cheese to complicated crawfish gumbo. Some of them still function as small markets, their shelves scattered with cans and boxes of supplies and their wooden bins brimming with yams, onions, squash, and turnips. Others long ago gave up selling provisions but nonetheless maintain their old fixtures, butcher’s counter, and drop-in-and-say-hi-y’all attitude. To eat in one of these unconventional places is to savor a unique cultural experience that drips charm.
Lusco’s of Greenwood is as truly and deeply Southern as any place on earth: shabby, but unmistakably elegant in its well-tended decrepitude; maddeningly hidebound, yet surprisingly able to adopt modern conveniences—they now serve single portion plastic tubs of oleomargarine instead of pats of butter. Of course, there is a good reason why Lusco’s gave up butter. Nothing happens here by accident, explains Karen Pinkston, a fourth generation Lusco by marriage, who revealed that margarine is on the table to thwart “butter-flippers.” But before we get too deep into the butter-flipping issue, let us tell you why this unusual grocery-store-cum-restaurant is so beloved by citizens of the Delta. The place is old, which automatically makes it good in Mississippi. Cotton planters around Greenwood came to know Charles “Papa” Lusco in the 1920s when he drove a horse-drawn grocery wagon to their plantations, bringing supplies from the market he and Marie “Mama” Lusco ran. Mama sold plates of her spaghetti at the store, and Papa built secret dining rooms in back where customers could enjoy his home brew with their meals. Even after Prohibition the curtained booths remained, giving Lusco’s a seductively covert character that has endeared it to generations of local gentry. During World War II, the back rooms became a favorite haunt of soldiers stationed at nearby bases, who spread Lusco’s notoriety as a place to eat well, drink freely, and act rowdy in partial privacy.
Greenwood, “Cotton Capital of the World,” is itself a sight. At harvest time in fall, the roadsides all around are strewn with white fluff blown from trucks carrying just picked bales. Lusco’s is in a tumbledown part of town that brims with local color; its neighbors include an ancient, striped-pole barber shop where patriarchs in overalls philosophize on a bench just outside, dress shops selling ladies’ fashions that appear unchanged since 1961, used furniture stores with grandiose dining room suites from down-on-their-luck plantation homes, an aromatic catfish joint, and a couple of reupholstering shops. Lusco’s shares its storefront with the office of the L.C.M.C. Memorial Gardens Cemetery.
You might think you have entered the wrong place when you walk in the door, for Lusco’s does not look like it serves food. Nor does it look much like a grocery store or any other known type of business establishment. The walls of a big, wood floored vestibule are painted institutional green and festooned with small game trophies. In one corner some waiting room chairs and a couch are arranged around a television set and phone booth. At busy mealtimes, people sit around the TV and pay phone or on stools at a defunct short order counter until their table becomes available.
The private dining cubicles are arranged off dim hallways, where the decor includes a story written on a place mat by author Willie Morris, an autographed picture from the bearded boys of ZZ Top, and photographs of Art Linkletter and Paul Harvey when they came to dine. The interiors of the booths are concealed by curtains, so, although you can hear the other customers (the partitions don’t go all the way to the ceiling), you see no one but your dining companions across a field of luxurious white cotton cloth and thick folded napkins. These dimly lit eating areas might be fine lovers’ hideaways if not for the pastel walls that cast a pea-green hue on everyone’s face. The effect is more eerie than romantic, and there is something a little silly about those moments when the curtain is pulled aside and a member of the staff peers in to inquire if everything is satisfactory. (Each booth is equipped with a buzzer to summon help.)
If you are a customer of Lusco’s returning after several years away, you will be shocked by two changes. First, you’ll get a menu: The kitchen’s repertoire is no longer called out by a waiter. And that’s too bad, because it used to be a thrill when one of the old-timers swept back the curtain and began to rhapsodize about “T-bone steak, tender as a mother’s love” and broiled shrimp with sauce available in degrees of spiciness described as “hot or hot-eee!” These venerable gentlemen, who had worked at Lusco’s for decades, are now mostly retired, their places taken by a younger, more pert waitstaff. The new servers are pleasant and helpful, but they lack their predecessors’ showmanship, as well as the facility for memorizing daily offerings.
The other big change at Lusco’s is the ceiling: It is clean. Butter pats aren’t stuck there anymore. For many regular customers, the Lusco’s dining experience once included not only eating and drinking but also using flatware to catapult pats of butter upward to make them stick. “You’d be surprised who used to do that,” Karen Pinkston confides. “It wasn’t the children; it wasn’t teenagers or drunken sailors. It was well-bred Southern ladies and gentlemen. It really became a problem in winter when we turned on the furnace. Heat rises, so the butter melted. I paid many dry-cleaning bills.”
In 1989 the health department insisted something be done. “The older butter had been up there for years,” Karen admitted. “It took teams of men on scaffolds scraping hard for two weeks to clean the ceiling, and the painter said, ”Please, don’t ever call me again!’ ” A sign in the waiting area now warns that butter-throwing is classified by law as malicious mischief—a moot point, considering butter pats are no longer served.
Even with its butterless ceiling, Lusco’s is a bit odd. “People who come here, regardless of where they have lived, have never seen anything like it,” Karen Pinkston says. No doubt, strangeness has enhanced its reputation, particularly here in the heart of Mississippi, where eccentricity is treasured; but the main reason for its renown is its deluxe Delta food. Mama and Papa Lusco were Italian by way of Louisiana, and the flavors of the kitchen they established are as much Creole as they are Southern or Italian. Gumbo, crab, and shrimp are always on the menu, and oysters are a specialty when in season—either on the half shell or baked with bacon. Because so many of the regular patrons have been big spenders from well-to-do cotton families, the menu is best known among the local gentry for its high-end items. Lusco’s T-bone steaks are some of the finest anywhere: sumptuous cuts brought raw to the table for your approval, then broiled to pillowy succulence. Pompano has for years been a house trademark, broiled and served whole, bathed in a magical sauce made of butter, lemon, and secret spices.
Getting good pompano is a constant challenge for Andy Pinkston, Papa Lusco’s great-grandson and inheritor of the kitchen. He explains that pompano from the East or West Coast simply isn’t as fine as that from the Gulf, the meat of which is delicate-textured, pearly white, and sweet. When he cannot get the best pompano, he sells none at all. February through May are the months the Pinkstons are most likely to obtain a supply of the aristocratic fish; the rest of the year they frequently compensate for its absence by serving small trout, prepared whole with the bones removed and swimming in the tasty fish sauce.
The sauce for Lusco’s broiled shrimp is nearly as famed as that used on pompano and trout. Firm, plump crescents are presented in a silky translucent bath of buttery juice that has the zing of vinegar and pepper and a fusillade of strange yet beguiling spices (was that cardamom we tasted?). Whatever the ingredients are, Karen and Andy Pinkston won’t tell a soul. Mystery is a byword in this part of the world and fundamental to the character of Lusco’s. The broiled shrimp sauce is available in hot or mild variations, and it is possible to get the shrimp either plain or heaped with hunks of crab meat; or you can have crab meat alone, served in the fish sauce or shrimp sauce. Lusco’s menu always lists gumbo, usually a gallimaufry of different seafoods. Last time we visited, though, Andy Pinkston had made an authoritative crawfish gumbo: peppery and perfumed with a deep smoky character, loaded with crawfish and spoonfuls of slippery okra.
Ordinary spaghetti is no longer regularly made at Lusco’s; instead, the kitchen offers more interesting pastas. One night angel’s hair noodles may be available with shrimp and crab meat and a measure of piquant shrimp sauce, or there will be the rigatoni—stout, round noodles in red meat sauce. The sauce, which is here referred to by its old Italian-American name, gravy, is a sweet, chunky brew with savory shreds of well-cooked steak that Andy Pinkston puts aside when he trims his rib eyes and T-bones.
Lusco’s has long been known for its New Orleans—style salad of iceberg lettuce dolled up with anchovies, capers, and olives and sopped in a fragrant vinaigrette; but Karen Pinkston is a serious salad buff who has made it her business to concoct more contemporary alternatives. The evening’s choices might include a Mediterranean salad, made with feta cheese; traditional Caesar salad; and a salad of arugula, radicchio, endive, red leaf lettuce, and spinach. “Andy likes to tease me about that one,” Karen says about the last of these. “He tells me it’s just weeds I’ve picked by the side of the highway. The fact is that the Delta is different now than it used to be, and the new people here have more educated palates. Even this place has to change with the times.”
Karen allows that there is one thing that will never change about the old dowager of a restaurant she and her husband tend: “No one does the cooking but Andy and me. This is Lusco’s, after all, and, when people come to dine with us, they have a right to expect only Luscos in the kitchen.”
East of the Delta in Mississippi’s Hill Country, RUTH & JIMMIE’S is a place that never had any butter pats on its ceiling. The two charming ladies who cook the food and serve customers in this grocery store cafe would ring your neck for flipping butter. Their eatery is immaculate, old but strikingly tidy, and polite to a degree found only in the Deep South. It is located at the back of a big one room market and consists of nothing more than a few booths and a counter that provides a clear view of the small, open kitchen area, where splendid lunches are cooked every day.
Ruth & Jimmie’s is off Highway 7 in the quiet crossroads known as Abbeville. A sign outside sums it up pretty well: RUTH & JIMMIE’S SPORTING GOODS AND CAFE, HUNTING AND FISHING SUPPLIES, LIVE BAITS AND LICENSES. Up front, shelves are stocked with food and equipment—not necessarily the kinds of things you’d buy for home. These are roughing-it provisions, i.e., bullets and orange safety vests, Spam and mackerel in cans, boxes of wooden matches, canisters of instant grits, a packet of Hav-A-Hanks, fly paper and bug spray, outboard-motor oil and Think-Safe flotation devices.
There isn’t a more appetizing perch anywhere than a stool at Ruth & Jimmie’s counter at about 11 A.M. any day of the week. Here you have a view of the stove and cutting blocks and can watch the cooks’ last minute preparations for the midday meal. This is plate-lunch heaven, a place to marvel at vistas of vegetables steaming in their stockpots, to sniff gold-domed rolls emerging from the oven, to listen to crisp fried chicken being lifted from its bubbling oil, and to lick your chops over an immense pan of steaming hot peach cobbler ready to be spooned into a dish. Silverware is doled out wrapped inside a paper napkin. Choose from one meat with three vegetables or a four vegetable meal. Either is accompanied by a fluffy yeast roll or a triangular slice of moist and creamy textured cornbread.
The fried chicken, country-fried steak, and ham are all just dandy, but the truly grand dishes are the vegetables. They are all Southern-kitchen paradigms cooked with easygoing expertise, including syrupy candied yams, turnip greens in porky potlikker, and pearly little reddish field peas with an earthy savor. Macaroni and cheese is tender and extravagantly comfortable; apples are cooked until they are soft and sugary; and bite-size fried okra emerge from the kettle with a lacy web of crust. There are slaws and salads and pickled beets, sweet corn and limp-cooked cabbage, and pure white mashed potatoes whipped up just before lunch begins.
In fact, we got to Ruth & Jimmie’s early one day, about 10:30, and, though the ladies were happy to provide us with something to eat, they fretted that neither the yeast rolls nor the potatoes were scheduled to be ready until 11 on the dot. No problem—we were happy to wait and watch them create delicious food—but another customer who arrived at 10:45 and needed to eat fast was a little disturbed by the fact that he couldn’t have mashed potatoes and a roll with his smothered chicken and dressing. “This is just like McDonald’s,” he griped. “Won’t serve you a hamburger until they say it’s time for lunch!”
“No,” said a cook as she dipped a spoon into the butter-bean pot for a taste to determine whether they were seasoned just right, “We are not like McDonald’s. I guarantee you that!”
Another culinary gem that is not a bit like McDonald’s—but also renowned for hamburgers—is PHILLIPS GROCERY, by the railroad tracks in Holly Springs. Located in a two-story wood frame house, originally built as a saloon in 1882, Phillips became a grocery store in 1919 and has fashioned a reputation on hamburgers since the 1940s. Some customers buy them to go, though there are comfy seats here, too: a short counter with stools, a handful of old wooden school desks, and a few odd tables (including one truly odd one made from the cross section of a huge tree trunk); plus, outside on the front porch, a couple of picnic tables providing a view of the railroad depot.
The selection of groceries is minimal—little more than a few bags of potato chips, some cookies, and stacks of that beloved Southern sweet snack sandwich, Moon Pie (marshmallow filling surrounded by rounds of chocolate-covered graham cracker). Below the junk food the old onion bins are full, but these bulbs are not for sale. Look in the kitchen window behind what used to be the grocer’s counter and you see members of the staff peeling and slicing them for hamburgers.
The menu is written on a blackboard that lists side dishes including fresh-from-the-freezer Tater Tots. Corn nuggets are something special—fritters with lots of kernels packed inside a sweet hush puppy—like jacket. Onion rings are thick circles with a nice crunch. You can get spicy or regular French fries. And if Moon Pie isn’t your dish for dessert, Phillips also offers fried pies for a dollar apiece. These pies are another regional preference: folded-over half-circles of dough fried until they are lightly brown and chewy, each enclosing a heavy dollop of sugary peach or apple filling.
Hamburgers come in various sizes and with any kind of topping you want, including cheese, of course. They are presented wrapped in yellow wax paper inside a bag for easy toting, and when you peel back the wrapping (particularly on a half-pound “super deluxe”) you discover a vision of beauty-in-a-bun. Cooked on a hot grill, the burger is a thick patty with a wickedly good crunch to its nearly blackened skin. Inside, the meat is moist enough to drip juice when the soft bun wrapped around it is gently squeezed. The flavor is fresh, beefy, and sumptuous: an American classic, on a par with the esteemed hamburgers of Cassell’s in Los Angeles, Louis Lunch in New Haven, and Kincaid’s in Fort Worth.
Over the last several decades there has been much speculation about why Phillips’s burgers are especially delicious, but when asked for details the cooks say only that the recipe has been handed down from the time when Mr. and Mrs. Phillips took over the grocery store in the late 1940s. Some time ago a rumor went around Holly Springs that Phillips’s trick was to mix the meat with peanut butter, which was categorically denied. To us, the burgers taste simply of high-quality, freshly-ground meat with enough seasoning to bring out its natural relish. Our honest suspicion is that the mystery is not any stealthy spice or condiment at all but every Mississippian’s favorite ingredient—tradition. Phillips’s hamburgers are cooked on the same grill that has been used since 1948. Nearly half a century of sizzling meat has seasoned that grill with a character no mere foodstuff could beget.
Here are two other Mississippi grocery store cafes that adventurous travelers will want to know about:
At TAYLOR GRO. & RESTAURANT in the town of Taylor, the walls are covered with years of Ole Miss graffiti and on football weekends the place is a madhouse. Taylor’s specialty is fried catfish supper with all the trimmings, including French fries, hush puppies, and coleslaw. The catfish is sandy-crusted and usually comes whole (but fillets are available); its meat is heavy, sweet, and luscious.
There are many people who believe that DOE’S EAT PLACE of Greenville serves the best steaks in America. We would not dispute this assertion, except to add that everything else Doe’s serves is wonderful, too. The French fries are sizzled to a golden perfection in a deep iron skillet, and the spicy hot tamales could be a meal unto themselves. Part of the fun of Doe’s is its extreme informality: Customers are seated at mismatched tables in the kitchen and in other miscellaneous rooms where the proprietors used to live.
Ruth & Jimmie’s Business (permanently closed)