When private supper clubs swept the Southeast in the first part of the twentieth century, the phenomenon was spurred by a lack of restaurants (or at least ones at which customers could openly and legally drink liquor.) Now, even with restaurants opening across the region at record pace, supper clubs are back.
This time around, patrons aren’t necessarily looking for chef-blessed food or stiff drinks, both of which they can easily find elsewhere. Instead, they’re seeking the kind of face-to-face camaraderie that hasn’t fared well in the Internet age.
Since last October, the chef Stewart Robinson (of Esperanza Outdoors) has injected a measure of culinary adventure into sleepy Mississippi with his own food upstart: the Delta Supper Club. The venture hosts casual dinners at historical Delta locations with out-of-state chefs who serve as many as nine haute courses — indicative of their style, but incorporating Mississippi ingredients.
This past weekend, for the fourth installment, the James Beard Award-winning featured chef Michelle Bernstein wove in her Latin heritage by pairing a charred salsa with fried sweetbreads dusted in cornmeal, a nod to the nearby corn crops. She nestled shrimp-stuffed squash blossoms into polenta made with shrimp stock — to evoke, she said, “sucking on the head of a Gulf shrimp.” Another highlight: whole red snapper, donated by the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources and filled with fennel fondue (find Bernstein’s recipe below).
The Mississippi Delta is known as the birthplace of The Blues, a muse for William Faulkner and a long-fading stretch of America’s most struggling communities. In the hopes of expanding the region’s reputation as a food destination and revitalizing it with tourism, The Delta Supper Club will host dinners at historic locations throughout The Delta. The inaugural dinner on October 30 will be conducted by chef Edward Lee, owner of 610 Magnolia in Louisville and known for his appearance on Season 9 of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” and Trey Zoeller, the master distiller of Jefferson’s Bourbon.
The Mississippi Delta is an area that arouses strong, if often contradictory emotions. Among the poorest regions of the country, it is still beloved by many for its rich cultural history, agricultural importance and hardscrabble residents. Love blues music? Thank generations of musicians, like B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, who grew up on and around the plantations near Greenwood, Greenville and Indianola. If you’ve ever enjoyed a crisp piece of fried catfish, there’s a good chance it came from the Delta. In fact, some of the best food of the region are homemade tamales that can be found sitting in jars on the counter of gas n’ go service stations at the same dirt crossroads where Robert Johnson legendarily made a deal with Ol’ Scratch to trade his soul for his immense guitar and singing talent.
Here in the South, one of our strong suits happens to be knowing how to gather ‘round a table. Whether in happy times, sad times or ordinary times, Southerners know the way to the heart is hands down through the belly. And, for those of us lucky enough to call this part of the country home, the food is about as good as it gets.
Mississippi native Stewart Robinson knew full well that good food, good stories and good people come out of the Mississippi Delta, as he grew up hearing stories about the mystic place from his grandfather, who called Holly Bluff home.
For one night, the Delta Supper Club transformed an airplane hangar on a private strip in Greenwood, Mississippi, into the most interesting restaurant in the Delta. That’s not a knock on standards like Doe’s, or Giardina’s, or any of the venerable catfish-aterias scattered across the region. No, a Delta Supper Club night is different. It’s a celebration of Delta culture that cannot be contained within the walls of a traditional “eat place.”
Had Edward Lee made a mistake? Amid the managed chaos-three sous chefs were rinsing pears and carting platters of raw marinated chicken and dredging thick slices of tomato through flour-Lee was not sure just what he'd dumped in the stockpot. He paused for a moment, holding the unlabeled, now-empty Mason jar. "I hope that was chicken stock," he said.
Robinson is eating breakfast with his best friend and business partner, Cameron Dinkins, at a gas station along Lake Washington, a large oxbow that sits three hours south of Memphis. A millennium ago, this was the main channel of the Mississippi; at its northern tip, the lake is just a mile from the big river. It was here that planters eventually made their way into the seemingly impenetrable Delta.
The name DELTA SUPPER CLUB conjures images of a socially elite gathering in fine homes across the Mississippi Delta with exquisitely designed tablescapes of fine china, sterling silver and fresh flowers, sport coated men shaking hands, and excessive drinking with passed hors d’oeuvres, followed by the blessing and the requisite Delta “cocktail buffet.” Well think again. This members-and-guests-only kind of club is all about locally sourced foods with guest chefs, an eclectic and diverse guest list and a let-loose, foodie vibe set in some authentic Delta place—the inaugural dinner in the fall inside the service station at Dockery Farms followed by a no-central heat, open-air wintertime soiree in a old dilapidated theatre in downtown Clarksdale.
It took only 83 minutes for the last Delta Supper Club event held at the New Roxy Theater in Clarksdale to sell out of 100 tickets. For only its second gathering, the flood of interest was a happy surprise for organizers Stewart Robinson of Oxford, Chef David Crews of Cleveland and Kimme Hargrove of Greenwood. “We didn’t realize it was going to build up as fast as this,” said Hargrove. “It was a little overwhelming how fast people jumped on, but it makes sense with the mystery of it all. ... That’s just as much fun for us seeing people’s excitement.”