Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Natchez

For years, everything I knew about Natchez I learned from James Garner.

    Natchez to New Orleans
    Livin' on jacks and queens
    Maverick is a legend of the West


The Rosalee Mansion
That's it, just a name in a TV Western theme song. I'm not sure I could have even told you what state it was in. I probably would have guessed Texas or Colorado, you know, some place out in the wild West. After all, the show was a western and the name sounds vaguely Mexicanish. (It's not. It was named after the local Indians by Frenchmen, who founded the town in the 18th century.)  Well, it turns out Natchez is in Mississippi. Who knew? In the early days of the Mississippi River trade it was an important landing point for goods coming down the river. The Delta area around Natchez was also where the cotton agricultural boom started. The stuff would not grow farther east until the farmers in southern Mississippi created some hybrids that were more tolerant. Then South Carolina and Alabama and Georgia became the cotton Kings. In the meantime, cotton grown with slave labor made many a fortune in the Delta and a lot of those wealthy planters chose to have
St. Mary's Basilica
managers work their slaves while they built their primary residences in Natchez. In the early 19th century Natchez had more millionaires per capita than any other city in America. And that's back when a million bucks was real money.


Early on in the Civil War, after Adm. Farragut took New Orleans, the city fathers in Natchez had the good sense to surrender without a fight, so many of those old mansions remain intact. People still live in a lot of them. Having seen our share of old houses in the last few months, we chose to just admire them from the outside. The city also has a very nice former Cathedral. After over 150 years of service, St. Mary's Basilica got demoted when the diocese put up a new Cathedral in Jackson in 1977.


The Natchez Trace - 444 miles of this.
Natchez is the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace, a trail that was originally blazed by bison traveling north to the salt licks in Tennessee. The Indians followed the buffalo trails and the Europeans followed the Indians and by the early 19th century the trail had been widened out into a wagon track and was the primary north-south road up the Mississippi (mostly north.. all you had to do was float a few logs to get south). After the invention of the steamboat made upstream river travel more practical, the Natchez trace became much less used and fell into disrepair except for short stretches that still functioned as local roads. One of the projects of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s was to build a parkway that more or less follows the course of the old Natchez Trace for 444 miles from Natchez to Nashville. It is a limited access road with no commercial traffic allowed and the speed limit is only 50 miles an hour the whole way. We had originally intended to drive the whole thing but after talking to some people who had actually done it, we decided it might get boring after the first 100 or 200 miles, so we took the US Highway 61 instead. Then from Natchez, we drove the parkway back north a ways just to get a feel for it.

Emerald Mound
The road is mostly forested but not nearly as dense and claustrophobic as the Edge of the Wilderness Road we talked about back in Minnesota. Periodically there are pullouts to see various creeks and bayous and other local sites. For example, we walked around the Emerald Mound, an old Indian temple site that now looks mostly like a big grassy hill. After a number of stops and about 70 miles of road, we turned around and went back to Natchez.


Old Country Store
About 30 miles north of Natchez on Highway 61 is the tiny town of Lorman. By tiny I mean the visible extent of the town is only about four or five buildings. But one of those buildings is the Lorman Old Country Store which isn't really a general store anymore, it is a restaurant. Alton Brown visited the Old Country Store while filming "Feasting on Asphalt" several years ago and declared that they made, you guessed it, the best fried chicken on the planet. According to Alton "Whatever the voodoo is, that makes that chicken the way it is, I don't possess. It was like Colonel Sanders pole dancing. There was something real sexy going on with that chicken. I don't want to have any more chicken. I'm gonna have that chicken or no chicken at all, no fried chicken at all."

Dining room with the old store shelves still stocked
The restaurant is owned and operated by a gentleman named Arthur Davis who insists that everyone call him Mister D. The restaurant is actually an all-you-can-eat buffet. In addition to the fried chicken, which he makes daily by popular demand, there will also be, on any given day, a variety of other meats, side dishes and salads. I don't know that Mister D does all of the cooking but he is most certainly personally in charge of the kitchen. The day we were there he had ribs and sausages and some kind of chicken in a sauce that I bypassed in favor
Meet Mister D
of the fried stuff. In addition to managing all the food, Mister D strolls through the dining room about every 10 min. telling people to eat as much as they want. "Now yall bring yuh best appetite and don' feel sorry for the cook."  He also apparently frequently sings about biscuits but we did not get serenaded while we were there. The Lorman Old Country Store is open from 10 AM to 5 PM seven days per week. If you are anywhere within 100 miles of this place, make it a point to have a meal there and meet Mister D. I guarantee you will not regret it. Just be careful not to blink or you'll miss the whole town.

So this is now the fourth place that we have had "the best fried chicken on the planet". Which is really the best? Well, for my money it would be Gus's fried chicken in Memphis because they're chicken has just a touch of cayenne kick to it, but Mr. D would certainly run a very close second and at the Old Country Store I got spare ribs and some really superior coleslaw and potato salad as well, which puts them pretty much neck and neck. You won't go wrong either way.
Don't feel sorry for the cook.

Remains of the Windsor mansion
After we shook hands and parted from Mister D, we drove out and visited the ruins of the old Windsor mansion. This was a huge plantation house that survived the Civil War only to be reduced to ashes fifteen years later due to the careless disposal of a cigar. You see, it's true. Smoking is bad for you. Like many of the mansions of that era, the house had Corinthian columns but instead of just the front fa├žade, they went all the way around the house supporting a completely circumferential balcony. Instead of making faux columns of wood, they made the columns out of brick and then covered them with plaster, the result being that after the rest of the house was gone, the columns remained giving the impression that you are visiting the ruins of an old Greek temple. The columns sit basically out in the middle of nowhere and it frankly astonishes me that they haven't suffered more vandalism over the past hundred years. They make for a pleasant 15 min. stroll and can give you some interesting photographs.

Kudzu
On the way out to the ruins we went through a fair amount of landscape that looks like this. Trees and bushes and fences all covered with what looks like ivy. This is kudzu, the shrub that ate the South. Throughout much of the southeastern United States this plant has been gradually taking over for 100 years. In ideal conditions, it can grow several centimeters a day and just covers everything. Competing plants eventually die for lack of sunlight. I first heard about kudzu when I was in college and knew that it was imported from Asia. What I did not know is that it was intentionally planted all over the South to help with soil conservation. Much of the current problem stems from tens of thousands of acres planted by Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps. They didn't get everything right.

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