We pulled out of blustery, chilly Evansville, Indiana just after 10 am on our way to St. Louis, Missouri. The drive was an uneventful pleasant trip along a two-laner through small towns. We crossed the state line into Illinois, the Land of Lincoln where the skies turned azure blue and highlighted the golden green late cornfields. Incredible colour.
We journeyed on through Amish country past horse and buggies and eventually past some vineyards and a camel or two. Yes camels.
After a 3 and a 1/2 hour road trip we could see the famous St. Louis arch in the distance. We enter through East St. Louis which is a very sketchy neighbourhood that I would not want to blow a tire in after dark. We cross over the Big Muddy for a third time this trip and enter Missouri and downtown St. Louis. It is immediately big-city impressive. Our hotel, The Moonrise is in the trendy west end so we travel through the core, past a beautiful park and inadvertently a Labour Day Weekend Greek Festival. Wow, does the grilled meat smell fantastic!
St. Louis is famous for BBQ so of course it is on the list for dinner as we regret that we only have one night in St. Louis. Rob chose C & K BBQ because a) it is iconic and b) it is open on the holiday. C & K is takeout only so we intend to bring it back to the hotel. The tiny store was established in the 1960’s just off the road. There is a lineup.
We arrive at C&K just as they are running out of food. Rib tips, “snoots” and potato salad are all that remain, which is fine because that’s what we were there for. Snouts are new for us and so we want to try them.
The rib tips are tender and juicy but very fatty. C&K’s sauce is tomato based, sweet and has a nice black pepper finish. Each order comes with white, squishy bread on top and on the bottom, which becomes completely absorbed by the sauce, not the other way around, leaving a yummy treat at the end. The potato salad doesn’t look like much but it is really good. The salad is whipped with a few chunks remaining and has a mild vinegar taste. Quite addictive especially with the sauce. OK I know you are waiting on the “snoots” as the locals call them. They are deep fried pig snout (the locals pronounce them “SNOOTS” but spell it correctly. They are crispy and a lot like pork rinds soaked in C&K’s awesome BBQ sauce. Crunchy, porky deliciousness. We can now say we are snoot-initiated.
Pecan pie for breakfast! We are in the deep South and that is what they do, right? Our hostess at The Pig Out Inn sent us on our way last night with two of their homemade mini pecan numbers. As we opened them this morning the wrapping released the sweet BBQ smoke adhering to it. Deep breath… aaahh! The pie is sweet and nutty and the perfect breakfast size.
As we walk to the river to embark on a horse drawn carriage ride through this genteel town, we sniff their wood smoke on the light breeze once again. Could get used to that. We are heading to Jackson, MS later today but first we want to see a little more of Natchez and we think a 45 minute tour by horse and carriage with a guide will be the best way to accomplish this.
Mike introduces himself as our driver and nods to his horse Mac. He tells us that if this is confusing we can have Jack and Jake instead. We are his only customers on this fine but very hot morning. As we head out at a very slow clop, Mike tells us to hold on because Mac has ” the pedal to the metal.” As we tour through this pretty southern town which has an incredible sense of civic pride, we are introduced to the homes of cotton barons, which are the founders of this town, Natchez, the oldest city on the Great River.
We meet William Johnston, a slave freed at the age of 11, who goes on to become a plantation owner… and owner of 23 slaves. We pass by enormous live oak trees and quaint home after quaint home. When we clop by the City Hall we ask Mike for Tripod’s story. We saw his headstone on the front lawn last evening. Tripod the cat had three legs and the run of City Hall. He attended council meetings and was featured on the TV show, “PM Magazine” at which point, he became a celebrity. People sent him money and food. Tripod died with $42 in the bank which was donated to the Humane Society.
We continue along the tour route and past Hotel Eola where we spent the night. Mike tells us this is where Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift stayed in 1953 while filming in town. Further along we see the grand house actor George Hamilton once owned and Magnolia House, the finest example of the Greek Revival style in town. After a delightful tour, Mike and Mac lead us back down to the river way station where Mac is very happy to join Jake and have a long drink in the shade.
Time to hit the road for Jackson. We have decided to stop by Fat Mama’s for tamales first. Yes, tamales. In Mississippi. These are rooted in the influx of Mexican migrant workers coming to work the cotton fields after the freeing of the slaves. Today, however, African Americans are the keepers of the tamale flame in Mississippi.
Fat Mamas is a pretty little spot with a beautiful outdoor patio, artfully planted up with Agave and an ornamental pear tree. Lights are strung and there is a glass bottle tree in the courtyard. Inside Mama’s is clean, colourful, and…empty, although we are through the door the minute they open. We order up a half dozen tamales and a gringo pie to share. Tamales are corn husks stuffed with a masa mixture and ground meat and spices, then steamed to cook the masa. These tamales are simple, flavourful, and of medium heat. They are unadorned with sour cream or guacamole. Hot sauce is not necessary. They are plenty spicy.
The Gringo Pie is basically three tamales unwrapped and smothered in beef chili, cheddar, onions and jalapenos. The chili is a nice saucy accompaniment to the tamales. Here is where we run into some technical difficulties. Rob took most of the photos at this stop and they disappeared somewhere, somehow between a fancy camera and powerful software and an operator who is neither fancy nor powerful.
We get back in the car and allow Stella 3000 to take us to the Natchez Trace, a 444-mile road that will take us to Jackson, then on to Tupelo and then into Nashville, Tennessee, where it terminates by the Loveless Cafe. The Trace is an ancient trail over 1,000 years old and rife with history. It was walked by Indians, trod by horses, followed by armies, and terrorized by bandits. In modern times, it has become a lovely way to get from here to there. The National Parks Service maintains it. Never have we seen such a pristine roadway. In the 100 miles we covered today, we saw not one piece of trash. The restrooms are near spotless.
The Trace is a two lane road, paved in the reddish-peach asphalt you see through out the state. Well maintained grass butts up to the road. Pines and other forest greenery travel along side. Each mile is marked and when sites of historical importance or natural beauty are approaching, you are warned by a sign a half-mile in advance. We have a detailed book about the road and decided to stop at two places of interest, the Springfield Plantation and the Windsor Ruins.
We chose the Springfield Plantation because we had not yet visited and toured a real Southern Plantation home. Springfield boasts original interiors. After a false start due to poor signage and directions in our guide book, we find the Plantation. The gates are closed. The sign tells us the plantation is open Mondays and Wednesdays on the first Sunday of any month with a J in it and the moon is in its crescent phase, or some such nonsense. Oh well, back on the road.
Our next stop will be the Windsor Ruins. We leave the Trace at the appointed mile marker and travel through 11 miles of Mississippi back roads, just long enough to start to get creeped out. We almost stumble upon it. Windsor Ruins are basically what’s left of a gigantic antebellum mansion destroyed by a devastating fire in 1890 – 23 columns and a balustrade remain. A house guest accidentally burned the place to the ground. A Union army soldier sketched the place at one time and it is the only visual record of this grand home. The columns, nestled among stately trees are truly magnificent and the setting eerily quiet but for the occasional bird call. Worth visiting.
The Trace is hardly traveled this day. We see seven fellow travelers, two ladies on horseback picking muscadines, three maintenance workers, one cyclist, perhaps thirty cars passing in the other direction and possibly one Sasquatch. Rob thinks it was a deer… a verrrry big deer. There are no cars in our field of view, front or rear, for the majority of our trip. At last we have to pop onto US 80 for 20 minutes to take us into Jackson. Back into big box territory. Very jarring after the peaceful solitude of the Natchez Trace.
We roll into Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi around 3 pm. We settle into our hotel and are happy to be greeted once again by Antonio, our bellman from our last trip to Jackson, and BBQ connoisseur who put us on to E & L BBQ, still our favorite reason to be in Jackson. We have planned this ahead of time. We wish to be in Jackson early in daylight so we can grab dinner at E & L which resides in a rough section of town and bring it back to the hotel. We order the exact same things as last time: Rib tips with sauce on the fries, wings, dipped, and links. Everything comes with fries so we end up with three orders of fries.
For more detail on E&L, refer to our Happy Mouth Classic review here.
We rush back to our hotel room, with our precious cargo in the back seat. We scurry up to our room and lay out the spread. Wow. I’m almost scared to dig in – sometimes the memory is better. Nope…exactly as I remember. Fabulous. The link is coarse-ground and spicy. Chunks of pepper are visible. We roll it in the soft, squishy, utilitarian white bread and chow down. The beefeater cut fries are smothered in sweet bbq sauce that has little or no smoke. The rib tips are meaty, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth succulent. The chicken wings? I do not know where they get wings this size. They are deep fried and then dipped in bbq sauce which just soaks in. Luscious. AND there are leftovers in the hotel fridge ;). Well played.
It’s Monday and our Road trip hits the highway today. We check out of the Monteleone at 11-ish and spend some time getting the car wired….GPS (here on in referred to as Stella 3000 as it’s a significant upgrade from GPS models used on previous trips) and iPod. Warren Zevon comes on and we are off. We hope to be in Baton Rouge for lunch and in Natchez before dinner. It is already 93 degrees.
Rob made some executive decisions last evening while programing Stella 3000 for today’s trip. He opted to not take the Great River Road because it is massively circuitous and would add half again as much time to the trip. Other roadies recommended Highway 61. Stella is optimized for scenic routes and she does take us briefly off 61 to the River Road.
The first part of 61 or Airport Rd is a dusty, haze covered, divided highway, lined with billboards for hurricane shutters, seafood and po’boy vendors, gas stations, food marts, storage units, motels and fast food. After leaving the city the road runs alongside algae coated swamps filled with elegant ibis.
Stella 3000 takes us on a scenic detour at this point, past neat little homes and more seafood and BBQ shacks. We avoid another stretch of strip malls. We are on the River Road now but the river is hidden by huge levees. The detour is only a few miles long and she returns us to 61. We stop at a Roadrunner for drinks, ice and a cooler. A sign in the window advertizes “Hot Boudin,” a cajun sausage specialty. Boudin is a white sausage made with pork and rice. We order one to go to share. It is hot, medium spicy, course ground in texture, and loosely packed. Very tasty and holds us over until lunch. We wonder at the advisability of buying a home-made hot meat product at a gas station, but it is true road food. We’ll let you know in about 12 hours if it was a huge lapse of judgement.
Back on 61 we pass oil refineries dotting the shores of the Mississippi and field after field of sugar cane, much like the corn fields back home at this time of year. Entering Baton Rouge we come into a sea of box stores, fast food outlets, auto malls and drive-thru daiquiri joints. Only in the South: Drive-thru liquor and road pops on ice.
We don’t enter Baton Rouge downtown but remain on the outskirts where we have chosen Chimes East for lunch. Foodie buzz from a variety of sources rates it one of the top three lunch spots in the city.
Chimes is large and typical of a chain resto in decor. There are a couple locations in Baton Rouge but no where else apparently. The beer menu is extensive and we order small Blue Moons. They are refreshing in the now 100 degree heat of the day. We order up crawfish mac and cheese to share and a po’boy each. Rob gets shrimp and I choose catfish. The mac arrives nicely blistered and bubbling. The loose sauce is garlicky, cheesy and has a medium spice heat that is soaked up by large shell pasta. AND there is lots of crawfish.
Our dressed po’boys arrive with good fries. Rob’s shrimp has a very light crisp batter which allows the delicate taste of the gulf shrimp to shine through. A previous complaint with other po’boys containing fried shrimp was the heavy handed batter treatment. Rob douses his liberally with Tabasco sauce, which results basically in Tabasco-infused mayo. My catfish po’boy contains a nice sized fillet and is also lightly battered. The bun is good, slightly crispy and chewy. The ridged pickles really make this sandwich. The only downside to Chimes is the water they serve. It tastes and smells chemically. Buy a drink (we’re sure that was the plan all along).
Back on the road which is now being called Scenic Highway 61. This is pretty much a joke until about 25 miles from the Mississippi border, when the highway becomes peach coloured, the landscape turns to gently rolling grassy hills lined with soft pines and deciduous trees, and we start passing the entries to Antebellum homes. Last time we drove from New Orleans straight north to Jackson on a dull interstate which revealed none of Mississippi’s character or charm.
Highway 61 lead us directly into Natchez, one of the most adorable towns in the United States. We will explore it a little more this evening and tomorrow before heading up the Natchez Trace to Jackson.
We walk to dinner at “Pig Out Inn“, a BBQ joint on Canal Street, a stones throw from the Mississippi, and not far from the Eola Hotel where we are staying overnight. The streets of Natchez are deserted of both cars and pedestrians due to the stifling heat. We can walk in the middle of the downtown streets. It is almost eerie. The walk gives us a chance to see a little of this pretty Southern town, which imparts the slight scent of mildew on the still hot evening air. I would imagine that this place never quite dries and that is carried in the breeze. No matter, as we approach our destination the scent turns intoxicating: woodsmoke from a BBQ pit…aaahhhh.
The Pig Out Inn which advertises itself as “Swine Dining at it’s Finest” is all but empty as is the whole town it seems. The decor is an eclectic mix of old doors serving as table tops, junkyard finds, coke paraphernalia, a tag cloud on one wall about “Why I Love The South” and Elvis presiding over the whole place from a corner. While we’re there, a trickle of take-out and dine-in customers flow through the place.
We chat with one of the folks behind the counter about the town and what to see. She explains that it is a very slow time of the year due to the heat. As we are ordering at the counter, she tells us that everything is made in house. We both ordered a two meat combo so we could share a bit of everything. The dinners also included two sides. We shared a large orders of ribs, smoked chicken, beef brisket, hot sausage, beans, potato salad, coleslaw and of course soft, squishy white bread.
The Pig offers some of the best BBQ we have had in the South. We both agreed that the sausage and beans were right up there with Austin’s Green Mesquite (sausage) and Famous Dave’s (beans). The sausage was firm and juicy and hotly spiced. You could see the chunks of red pepper. Excellent. The beans are of the sweet variety which are my personal preference, but at the Pig they smoke them along with the meat. These beans would be overly sweet if not for the smoke. The smoke cuts the sugar and creates a perfect balance in flavour. The potato salad was creamy with large chunks of potato and green onion. It was nicely dressed and not too vinegary. The coleslaw was perfectly serviceable and not overdressed. It was quite fine coleslaw by any standard but it was just outclassed by the quality of everything else on the plate.
The brisket was succulent and tender with a dark black bark and a rosy smoke ring that exceeded a 1/4 inch. The house BBQ sauce comes warm and is smoky sweet with a spicy finish which complimented the strong flavours of the brisket. The ribs were also excellent, meaty, juicy and with a nice amount of smoke. The smoked chicken was flavourful but slightly on the dry side. The BBQ sauce corrected that. After an extremely satisfying meal that found us picking at leftovers on our plates, our server brought us over a cob of corn to try. It is also cooked in the smoker along with the meat. I don’t order corn in a BBQ joint and if it comes with the meal I generally discard it after a bite. It’s the one thing BBQ places cannot cook. It sits in a pot all day, and is overcooked, mushy and waterlogged. Not so at the Pig. The corn is actually a treat here. It is toothsome, bursting with flavour and a delicate smokiness. Well done!
As we finished up dinner she also presented us with two of their homemade mini pecan pies which I cannot wait to try but am too full of excellent BBQ to contemplate right now.
Here’s a sampling of reasons why we like the genteel charm of Natchez.
Along with the greening trees and putting away the parkas and boots for the season, there’s nothing that makes me happier for change in seasons than getting to work with the BBQ. Don’t get me wrong, we use the BBQ year-round (heck, the only thing I shovel in Winter is the path to the BBQ out back), but that’s usually for grilling. I’m talking about BBQ (you know, as a noun) — low and slow over smoke.
This year on Mother’s Day, Maureen requested BBQ ribs and I was very happy to oblige. I was looking forward to trying out a new gadget: an iGrill. A temperature probe that works with an accompanying app that gets real-time temperature info transmitted to your iPhone or iPad. This enables less direct fussing over consistent heat as you can tell the heat at all times wherever you are and an alarm will sound if temperature gets to high or low. It certainly reduces the babysitting that real BBQ sometimes demands. I really only tended the BBQ all day for adding wood chips to my smoker drawer and spritzing the ribs with a mop mixture to keep them from drying out.
For this recipe, I used trimmed baby back ribs and a clean-out-the-cupboard rub composed mostly of Renee’s Desert Rub (a southwestern favourite of ours made with ancho chiles, spices and brown sugar). Also used was a clean-out-the-fridge-BBQ sauce with two main components, Piggy Market‘s Happy Goat Pig Slathering Sauce, made with Happy Goat coffee which added an earthy quality and Renee’s Desert Glaze, made with their rub mixture suspended in a thick prickly pear syrup.
While the rub is important and so is the sauce, neither come close to the technique in influencing the outcome: Tender, BBQ ribs that have sweetened with smoke and heat. This time around I used a mixture of cherry wood and alder wood smoke.
There’s no recipe here, but this is the basic technique:
Trim the ribs to clean up any loose flesh or fat.
Apply rub liberally and yes, RUB IT IN. it’s this action that helps to break down the tissue of the meat to soak in the flavour and smoke. I like to let the meat sit after applying rub for at least 30-60 minutes. It helps it to soak into the meat and ensures that there’s not a powdery coating on the meat.
I set the BBQ for approximately 275 degrees F and start the smoking process. I soak about 2/3 of the chips in water and mix them with dry chips in the smoker drawer of the BBQ. This ensures that they just don’t catch fire and burn up. It also lets them provide smoke for a longer period of time. I replenish the chips about once every 40 minutes or so, as they reduce to ash.
I place the ribs, bone side down on the grill, on the opposite side of the heat source to ensure indirect heat only. I make sure to put my temperature probe on the side of the meat for accurate readings.
Whenever I replace wood chips I lift the BBQ lid and spray it with the mop liquid, made from cider vinegar, a little ketchup, some rub spices and some bread and butter pickle juice (yes, really!).
There’s no hard and fast rule here. The longer you do this, the more tender the meat will be, as long as the heat is maintained and kept from drying out. This time I let them smoke for about 4 hours, which is about an hour more than what I would consider the minimum.
Just when they are about ready, I use the sauce I prepared, and brush it on. I avoid the overly thick, strong and smoky BBQ sauces as the flavour should come from the meat and the sauce only embellishes it. I always favour a light glaze-style sauce.
I turn up the BBQ to high and get some grill marks on the racks and then bring them inside. I always cut them and serve individual ribs. They’re messy enough to eat without having the diners wrangle sharp knives with saucy fingers.
This time I served them with a red cabbage coleslaw and a fresh corn salad, made with scallions, red pepper and pickled jalapeno with an agave nectar and lime vinaigrette.