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We leave Little Rock no later than 8 a.m. for the Delta food tour. After all, the first barbecue stop is Jones Bar-B-Q Diner at Marianna, and James Harold Jones is known to run out of food early. It will be a 12-hour day. Come hungry because we'll eat at least five times to experience the three Delta food groups--barbecue, tamales and fried fish.

I'm sometimes asked to donate to charitable auctions, and I've found that the item I can contribute that will make the most money for the charity is a food tour for three. I hold it to three guests so everyone can fit in my car and hear the same stories. We combine Delta history with some of the region's iconic restaurants. You can come up with your own version of the trip.

Today's first stop is Mack's IGA at Biscoe for a cup of coffee and a sausage biscuit. When I worked for the Delta Regional Authority from 2005-09 and went to Clarksdale, Miss., on a weekly basis, this was a regular morning stop. It was Martin's IGA in those days, but the building is much the same. The store dates back to 1926. Country stores once were a staple of rural Arkansas, but we're losing them rapidly in the era of convenience stores. A visit to Mack's is a step back in time.

From there, it's on to Jones, the winner of a James Beard America's Classics Award in 2012. Beard Awards are to the food industry what Pulitzer Prizes are to journalism, Academy Awards are to film, Tony Awards are to the theater, Grammy Awards are to music, and Emmy Awards are to television. You won't guess that this was a Beard winner when you pull up beside the nondescript building in a residential area at 219 W. Louisiana St., but the award hangs just above the window where orders are placed. The Beard Foundation describes the America's Classics Award as an honor that goes to restaurants with "timeless appeal that are beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community."

The Jones family has been serving barbecue in Marianna for more than a century. Walter Jones, the grandfather of James Harold Jones, began dishing out barbecue in the early 1900s from the back porch of a dogtrot house. His son, Hubert Jones, would recall the setup as a "hole in the ground, some iron pipes and a piece of fence wire, and two pieces of tin." This is among the oldest black-owned restaurants in America. When the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame inducted its original class last year, Jones Bar-B-Q Diner was one of three restaurants honored along with Rhoda's Hot Tamales at Lake Village and the Lassis Inn at Little Rock. All three are black-owned businesses.

You'll be tempted to have a second sandwich at Jones, but pace yourself. Crowley's Ridge meets the Delta here, and it's worth a short side trip to the visitors' center at Mississippi River State Park to learn more about Delta and Crowley's Ridge history. It's also a chance to let that first sandwich settle before the second sandwich of the day at Cypress Corner Bar-B-Q, which is in an old country store near Lexa on Arkansas 1 south of Marianna. Though there are still a few items for sale, the store is mostly a restaurant these days due to the popularity of the barbecue. I'm tempted to have one of their bologna sandwiches but have never been able to bring myself to order one. That's because this ranks as one of my Top 10 Arkansas barbecue restaurants.

We proceed to Helena. These tours usually take place on a Friday or Saturday since those are the days that Joe St. Columbia sells tamales from a stand in a parking lot, which will be on your right as you head south into town on U.S. 49. St. Columbia, the grandson of Sicilian immigrant Pasquale St. Columbia, once shipped tamales across the country and operated a restaurant downtown. He has slowed down in recent years. You now have to go to Helena on Friday or Saturday and buy them from the trailer he operates.

After a sausage biscuit, barbecue sandwiches from two places, and tamales, it's time to let the food digest. That's why we spend several hours seeing the attractions in Helena--the Delta Cultural Center, the Phillips County Museum, Maple Hill Cemetery, Confederate Cemetery and a growing number of Civil War attractions such as Fort Curtis, Freedom Park and Battery C.

Leaving Helena and heading north on U.S. 49, we leave enough time to visit Louisiana Purchase State Park. This is one the most hauntingly beautiful places in the state. The National Historic Landmark just off U.S. 49 preserves the initial point from which all surveys of the Louisiana Purchase began in late 1815.

We reach U.S. 70 and turn west, stopping in DeValls Bluff for barbecue at Craig's. In 1947, Lawrence Craig and his brother Wes opened Craig Brothers Cafe in this historic community along the White River. Lawrence Craig learned to cook on a boat on the Mississippi River, and word of his skill at producing fine barbecue soon had people traveling to Craig's from as far away as Little Rock to the west and Memphis to the east. Famous food writer Michael Stern once said of Craig's sauce: "Even the mild stuff packs a pleasant punch; medium is very spicy, hot is diabolical, enough to set your tongue aglow for hours."

The final stop is Murry's for my favorite fried catfish in Arkansas. The restaurant, just west of Hazen on U.S. 70, was started by Olden Murry in DeValls Bluff. Like Craig's, folks would drive there from Little Rock and Memphis to eat. He's gone now, but Stanley and Becky Young carry on.

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Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 01/17/2018

Print Headline: The Delta food tour

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