Meals in the Magnolia State: What to Eat in Mississippi

Dig into the best flavors of Mississippi, including soul food, biscuits, layer cakes and crawfish.

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More than Mud Pies

Travelers come to Mississippi to soak up history and bask in the blues. Mostly, though, they come to eat. From the Tennessee border to the Gulf Coast’s edge, cooks and award-winning chefs are eager to share a taste of their heritage, with an ample helping of hospitality. Authentic examples of all the Southern classics abound – often in unexpected settings, with at least a few memorable twists. Steak dinners begin with hot tamale appetizers inside a tumbledown grocery store. Kibbe, the national dish of Lebanon, appears on lunch plates alongside black-eyed peas and turnip greens in a small-town cafe. A beloved baker’s pound cake inspires a new flavor of artisanal gelato. More filling than fancy, with bold influences from Cajun country and the diverse cultures that have entered by way of the Mighty Mississippi, the Magnolia State’s iconic dishes — like the people who make them — have some stories to tell.

Abe’s Bar-B-Q

There’s plenty of barbecue in Mississippi, and most borrows from the styles that traveled downriver from Memphis and St. Louis. But Abe’s Bar-B-Q in Clarksdale has a style all its own. The pork butt isn’t pulled or shredded after smoking. It’s chilled overnight to congeal the fat, then sliced paper-thin and reheated on a griddle. The slices are chopped into slivers and doused with a tangy house barbecue sauce, then tucked into a grilled bun with a peppery oil-and-vinegar-dressed slaw rather than the mayonnaise-laden kind that typically prevails in smokehouses. Lebanese immigrant Abraham Davis learned to barbecue and roll tamales from his new neighbors before opening a tiny restaurant in 1924. Abe’s has remained a community favorite throughout its existence, and a landmark stop for travelers on the Blues Highway.

Go to: Abe's Bar-B-Q

Biscuits

Natchez is famous for its antebellum mansions and riverboats. It’s also the Biscuit Capital of the World. Regina Charboneau, a seventh-generation native daughter, helped her hometown earn the official designation in 2008 and launch a biscuit festival, with a cook-off, demos and a crowning of a biscuit queen. A Paris-trained chef, Charboneau prepares extra-buttery, flaky biscuits that have become legend. She refined the homespun recipe with puff-pastry skills and built a nightclub in San Francisco, Biscuits & Blues, around their reputation. Now she has one by the same name in Natchez. Guests at her bed and breakfast at the Twin Oaks plantation house get to sample her biscuits, as do passengers aboard the cruise steamboat The American Queen. Her thyme-flecked biscuit dough tops the pot pies on the menu at the historic King’s Tavern, which also serves a few cocktails made with the rum from her husband’s distillery next door. Her biscuit recipe is no secret. She’s shared the method in cookbooks and cooking classes, and with national press.

Go to: Biscuits & Blues

Soul Food

Soul food restaurants abound in Mississippi, and one of the best representations is the Senator’s Place in Cleveland. Its sign reads “Delicious Food for the Soul” and the offerings on the steam table buffet live up to the reputation. Farmers with muddy boots and lawyers in suits pile their plates with fried chicken, neck bones, candied sweet potatoes, turnip greens, macaroni and cheese, stewed okra and tomatoes and a litany of vegetables and meats that changes daily depending on season and availability. State Senator Willie Simmons opened the restaurant in 2003 and presides over the kitchen when the legislature’s out of session. He personally fries the catfish, and takes special pride in in his pecan-smoked chicken. The buttery corn muffins and hush puppies are mixed from scratch, like everything else on the menu.

Go to: Senator's Place

Hot Tamales

Once a culinary oddity barely known outside the state, the Mississippi hot tamale has been getting lots of attention lately. Moister and often spicier than their Mexican ancestors, these savory, oily treats comprise cornmeal dough encasing ribbons of well-seasoned meat, which are then wrapped in corn husks or parchment, tied in bundles and simmered — rather than steamed — in savory broth. Typically, they are served with Saltines and small cups of chili on the side. Most of the tamale makers today are descendants of African-American sharecroppers who likely got their first taste from Mexican laborers working beside them in the cotton fields more than a century ago, and then improvised the technique. Doe’s Eat Place, the nationally celebrated steak house run by an Italian family in a proudly shabby former grocery store in Greenville, has been serving parchment-wrapped tamales as an appetizer for generations based on their own hand-me-down recipe. Each year, vendors from all over the region gather in Greenville for the annual Delta Hot Tamale Festival to compete for trophies and invite visitors to taste their creations.

Go to: Doe's Eat Place

Caramel Cake

In the South, nothing says I love you like a baked-from-scratch caramel cake. Their finicky frostings are as daunting to make as they are decadent to eat, and many people turn to pros like Mary Jennifer Russell of Sugaree’s Bakery in New Albany. Her cakes, pies and cookies have brought national acclaim to the small storefront she named for a Grateful Dead song when she opened in 1997. Classic layer cakes account for most of her business, with the strawberry and caramel varieties leading the pack. For caramel cakes, Russell browns sugar in a black skillet the old-fashioned way for frosting she slathers on her famously moist, triple-layered wonders.

Go to: Sugaree's Bakery

Catfish and Hush Puppies

Catfish is as synonymous with Mississippi as cotton. Much of what’s served today, in fact, is produced in raised ponds where cotton once grew. Mild, clean-tasting farm-raised catfish has been vital to Mississippi’s economy since the 1960s, when locals pioneered the industry. But catfish fries have always been fun family entertainment for Mississippians, even when all they had to work with were the bottom-feeding river dwellers caught on a cane pole. Old-time catfish houses are scattered throughout the Mississippi landscape, serving heaping platters of whole fish and fillets — fried the traditional way in cornmeal jackets and sometimes grilled with Cajun seasonings. All come with the traditional trappings: crispy balls of onion-flecked cornbread batter called hush puppies, as well as French fries, coleslaw and tiny paper cups of tartar sauce and ketchup. One of the most-popular places to experience an old-school Mississippi catfish fry is Taylor Grocery, a ramshackle building at the end of a dirt road in the north Mississippi village of Taylor, near Oxford. People come from miles around for expertly prepared examples of the classic feast, often set to local live music and always served with heaps of authentic down-home atmosphere.

Go to: Taylor Grocery

Charcuterie

Butchering and sausage-making come naturally to serious hunters, who make up a significant segment of Mississippi’s population. A few homegrown chefs trained in high-end kitchens elsewhere and returned home to serve sophisticated charcuterie inspired by local tradition. At Delta Meat Market in Cleveland, Cole Ellis sells meat cuts and sausages including venison kielbasa and pastrami, along with imported cheeses and other makings for a superior charcuterie board. His efforts snagged a nomination for Best Chef in the South from the James Beard Foundation.

Go to: Delta Meat Market

Comeback Sauce and Salad Dressing

This spicy, creamy concoction — a cross between Thousand Island dressing and remoulade — is a menu mainstay at restaurants across the state, as a salad dressing and a dipping sauce for everything from fried green tomatoes to crab cakes. Most recipes call for a combination of mayonnaise, chile sauce, ketchup, Worcestershire, grated onion, garlic and often a hit of Tabasco. It was born in the 1920s at the Rotisserie, a now defunct Greek restaurant in Jackson, which set out to create a sauce so tantalizing customers would “come back” for more. Mayflower Cafe, another Greek seafood restaurant that’s been a fixture in Jackson’s downtown since 1935, serves their own interpretation in the old-school dining room and sells it by the bottle as well. Cat Cora slathered it on everything growing up in Jackson’s Greek community, and once featured it on The Best Thing I Ever Ate.

Go to: Mayflower Cafe

Deviled Eggs

Attend any cocktail party in Mississippi, and there's bound to be a platter of deviled eggs — likely somewhere between the cheese straws and the spiced pecans. In recent years, top restaurants have started putting their own spin on the bite-sized halves. The critically acclaimed Parlor Market in Jackson fills the hard-boiled divots with house-smoked catfish puree, then garnishes them with pickled onions and smoked comeback sauce, the house dressing of Mississippi. They are a big hit during happy hour to pair with adult slushies, creative cocktails and other classic Southern nibbles like pimento cheese and oysters Rockefeller.

Go to: Parlor Market

Slugburgers

Slugburgers are a source of hometown pride in Corinth and other northeast Mississippi towns near the Tennessee border. Created during the Depression, when meat had to be stretched with a starchy filler, they used to sell for a nickel, sometimes called a slug. The mix may contain pork or beef, soy or potato flour. They’re pressed thin and deep-fried until crispy, but still soft in the middle, and served hot on a grilled soft bun with mustard, pickles, onions and sometimes standard burger adornments. Order one at Borroum’s Drug Store in Corinth, an artifact-filled landmark where a soda fountain dispenses handmade cokes and milkshakes.

Go to: Borroum's Drug Store

Crawfish

Like their Cajun neighbors, Mississippians are skilled in the art of crawfish-eating: Pinch the tails, suck the heads, pop the spicy, briny morsels in your mouth, then chase with beer. Though most commercial supplies come from Louisiana, the crimson crustaceans also grow in the Delta rice fields. During crawfish season in the winter and spring, seafood houses like Taranto's along the Gulf serve crawfish by the pound in spicy seasonings, with corn on the cob, sausages and plenty of paper towels. In the Delta town of Merigold, Crawdad's doles out its namesake specialty — plus steaks — in a sprawling lodge where taxidermy covers every wall.

Go to: Crawdad's

Fried Chicken

Fried chicken could well be the Mississippi state bird. It’s served in every environment, and most of it is excellent. At the Four Corners Chevron Service Station in Oxford, Ole Miss students stand up to eat deep-fried chicken on a stick after a night of drinking. In Vicksburg, the after-church crowd sits down to dine at Walnut Hills, a 19th-century antiques-furnished house where lazy Susans — a throw-back to boarding house days — groan with platters of golden birds, country-style vegetables, hot rolls and bottomless pitchers of sweet tea. Most folks enjoy socializing on the rocking chair–filled porch until their table is ready.

Go to: Walnut Hills

Black Bottom Pie

Though often considered a classic Southern dessert, black bottom pie has also been attributed to a chef in California in the 1940s. Whatever its origins, Mississippians have long associated it with Weidmann’s, a Continental-style restaurant with a heavy Creole accent in downtown Meridian. Their recipe, which has appeared in countless community cookbooks, features a gingersnap crust topped with two custards — one chocolate and the other spiked with bourbon — crowned with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. The restaurant’s menu and décor have evolved over the years but the signature pie remains constant.

Go to: Weidmann's Restaurant

Fried Dill Pickles

The Hollywood Café, a former mercantile near Tunica Resorts, has two claims to fame. Singer Marc Cohn was inspired to write his 1991 hit Walking in Memphis after watching a gospel singer perform there. The Hollywood also claims to be “home of the fried dill pickle,” created in the mid-1980s when a customer asked for food but the kitchen was practically bare. The cook dipped dill pickle slices in catfish batter and tossed them into the deep fryer, and the tangy, crunchy snack was born. Now a menu fixture across the South, they’re best served with ranch dressing for dipping.

Go to: The Hollywood Cafe

Fried Okra

Mississippians consume huge amounts of these tough-skinned pods, usually when they’ve been sliced into rounds, dredged in cornmeal and fried into crunchy nuggets. Vishwesh Bhatt, executive chef at Snackbar in Oxford, earned a James Beard Foundation Award nomination by fusing Southern ingredients and techniques from his native India, including his okra chaat: thin lengthwise slices of flash-fried okra, tossed with a melange of chopped tomatoes, peanuts, cilantro, chiles, lime juice and Indian spices. On the entrée side, he simmers okra in a skillet with corn to go with fried catfish and basil chutney.

Go to: Snackbar

Catfish Allison

Frying is by far the most-popular way Mississippians cook catfish, but it’s by no means the only way. Since the 1980s, The Crown in Indianola has made a name for itself serving catfish “any way but fried.” The author of several cookbooks, including one devoted to catfish, proprietor Evelyn Roughton invites visitors to sample her luxurious-tasting award-winning smoked catfish pate before sitting down to a home-cooked lunch. The menu is ever-changing, but always features Catfish Allison, a cheesy baked casserole especially popular with women’s groups who come to The Crown weekly to dine, play bridge and catch up on the latest gossip. Blues travelers are often advised to plan a lunch visit to The Crown around a tour of the impressive B.B. King Museum and Interpretative Center a few blocks away.

Go to: The Crown

Katrina Pieces

The crudely shaped doughnuts called Katrina Pieces at The TatoNut Donut Shop in Ocean Springs aren’t the prettiest pastries in the case, but they do tell a story. The doughnut shop, a morning gathering spot in this coastal town since 1960, survived Hurricane Katrina, but supplies were scarce. They tossed dough scraps left over from cinnamon-infused Persian doughnuts into the fryer. Customers loved the freeform doughnuts and kept asking for them after business returned to normal. Katrina Pieces are sold glazed, or frosted with chocolate. Potato flour is key to all TatoNut doughnuts’ exceptional fluffiness.

Go to: The Tato-Nut Donut Shop

Kibbe

Lebanese immigrants settled in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1800s, first as peddlers and later as shop owners and restaurateurs. Rest Haven, an old Clarksdale diner, offers a taste of both worlds, with a menu featuring Southern classics alongside Middle Eastern mainstays — most notably kibbe, sometimes called Lebanon’s national dish. Made of ground beef, cracked wheat, onion and spices, kibbe may be formed into patties and served raw, stuffed with pine nuts and baked, stuffed into grape leaves or shaped into mini torpedoes and deep-fried like croquettes. At the Rest Haven, you can order it Lebanese-style with hummus or tabouli, or local-style, with black-eyed peas and turnip greens.

Go to: Rest Haven

Kool-Aid Pickles

The Kool-Aid Pickle — sometimes called a “Koolickle” — is a Mississippi Delta creation gone viral. Decades ago, kids bought jumbo dills from the convenience store and sprinkled them with dry Kool-Aid for extra zing. A store owner started brining the dills in Kool-Aid and sugar to sell and now you can find these laughably colorful cukes, which people either love or hate, floating in giant mayonnaise jars on counters throughout the Delta, especially at Double Quick convenience stores. Walmart now sells their version, the Tropickle: pickle spears infused with fruit punch powdered drink mix. Those who love them can also make them at home.

Mile-High Meringue Pies

When it comes to pie, Mississippians lean toward the dense custard varieties buried under avalanches of airy whipped egg whites. At The Crystal Grill in Greenwood, these meringues soar at about-to-topple heights over slices of chocolate and coconut cream fillings. The Ballas family, which has run the restaurant since the 1930s, serves a vast menu of made-from-scratch fare rooted in the Deep South, with touches of their Greek heritage and Italian-American influences. But the pies, you might say, take the cake.

Go to: The Crystal Grill

Mississippi-Inspired Gelato and Sorbet

Sweet tea, pecan pie, banana pudding, watermelon: Name an iconic Mississippi flavor on the sweet spectrum, and chances are Hugh Balthrop of Sweet Magnolia Gelato has captured its essence in a frozen treat. The former Washington, D.C., art gallery owner followed his wife to Clarksdale, her hometown, so she could set up a medical practice. He studied gelato-making and began crafting flavors with ingredients produced within easy driving distance: eggs, dairy, honey, blueberries and even chunks of leftover pound cake from a home baker. His gelatos and sorbets now turn up on dessert menus and freezer cases around the South.

Crabmeat Po' Boys

Of all the New Orleans creations to migrate across the Mississippi border, the po’ boy may be the most-prevalent, especially along the Gulf Coast. In the 1940s, a Biloxi restaurateur put his spin on this sandwich by toasting and pressing the bread on a grill after assembling the sandwich. When a customer from Vancleave asked for one with a fried crab patty and melted cheese, the combo now known by locals as the Vancleave Special was born. Though not necessarily mentioned by name, versions and adaptations can be found throughout the region, including at the The Po-Boy Express in Ocean Springs (theirs are toasted but not pressed). For a full Gulf Coast experience, wash it down with an ice-cold Barq’s Root Beer, the hometown soft drink of Biloxi, bottled there for a century.

Go to: Po-Boy Express

Bloody Marys

Mississippians may like their bourbon neat, but when it comes to mixing Bloody Marys, there's no end to embellishments. Elizabeth Heiskell, an Oxford-based caterer, cookbook author and culinary personality, uses ripe tomatoes from her farm to make Debutante Farmer Bloody Mary Mix, which is sold throughout the state. When preparing a batch, she invites guests to garnish with olives, pickled okra, jalapenos, bacon strips and whatever else she sets out. Fresh lime juice and Tabasco add zip to her all-natural mix. To add an extra dose of state spirit, pair it with Cathead Vodka, produced at Mississippi's first legal distillery.

Pompano

A delicate-tasting fish often found on menus near the Gulf, pompano is a specialty of Lusco’s, in the Delta town of Greenwood. The story goes that during Prohibition, Charles “Papa” Lusco, a Sicilian immigrant, sold home-brewed hooch out of his grocery store to cotton barons, who came to drink and dine in the privacy of curtained booths. One patron brought back a whole pompano from a trip to New Orleans, which the cook broiled and served in a spicy, vinegar-laced butter sauce. It’s still served that way at Lusco’s, in private curtained booths. Hooch is BYOB.

Go to: Lusco's

Smash Burgers

The Neon Pig is a farm-to-table café, pub and grocery started in Tupelo by Mitch McCamey, Seth Copeland and Trish McCluney. Whole-animal butchery is their specialty, and so is one of its byproducts: the Smash Burger. They make the “smash” by grinding scraps from their aged steaks and artisanal bacon, which they flavor with hoisin and comeback sauce and pile into a ciabatta bun with melted cheddar, pickled onions, pickles and more bacon. Their creation went over so well with customers that in 2015, the duo entered their signature burger in a contest for top burger in the country — and won. The Smash Burger continues to win fans at both the original and new Oxford Neon Pig location, and they also sell the custom-ground meat in the grocery for those who prefer to do their own flipping.

Go to: Neon Pig

Tamale Pie

Given this state’s obsession with hot tamales, you might expect a casserole that captures those textures and flavors for a fraction of the labor would also take off. Most of the versions of tamale pie that turn up in old community cookbooks feature layers of cornbread batter and chili. Some Mississippi cafés have their own takes. At Ajax Diner, a meat-and-three on Oxford’s square that’s a hit with the university crowd, proprietor Randy Yates enriches locally ground Grit Girl grits with cheese and layers the mixture with smoked pork, green chiles, tomatoes and corn — a change of pace from the more predictable meaty entrees that come with classic plate-lunch vegetable sides.

Go to: Ajax Diner

Smokes and Ears

Adventurous eaters often make pilgrimages to Big Apple Inn on Jackson’s historic Farish Street to sample a pig ear sandwich. The first batch came about when a butcher gave pig parts he wasn’t using to the cafe’s first proprietor, Juan “Big John” Mora, a Mexican who began selling tamales on Jackson street corners in the 1930s. Today, his great-grandson, Geno Lee, carries on this thrifty tradition, cooking the ears until tender (but still undeniably chewy) and serving them on soft, square buns with slaw, mustard and homemade hot sauce. Anthony Bourdain bit into one, as did Andrew Zimmern. Both raved about the house specialties, as well as the ground smoked sausage sandwiches, or “smokes.”

Go to: Big Apple Inn