Like our story, "Georgia Gilmore and The Club From Nowhere," this hidden kitchen came to us from John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance. We were headed to Oxford, Miss., to interview Alice Waters and Scott Peacock for the SFA's 10th Annual Symposium.
We asked Edge for a suggestion of a hidden kitchen in the Delta. "Kibbe," he said.
He began to tell of Lebanese people who migrated to Mississippi in waves beginning in the late 1870s through the 1920s, and even into the 1960s. Many of the early Lebanese first worked as peddlers and went on to become the grocers and restaurateurs of the region.
Edge pointed us down the road and said to be sure to read down the menus. There, nestled between the fried chicken and barbecue, we would find tabouleh, grape leaves, stuffed cabbage, and kibbe, fried, baked or raw — sort of the national food of Lebanon, a meatloaf of sorts.
Most of the Arabic-speaking immigrants who came to the United States at the turn of the century were from the Mount Lebanon region of greater Syria.
Jimmy Thomas, managing editor for The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, whose family came to the Delta from Syria, wrote a dissertation on the history of the Lebanese in the region. He told us that before there was an actual Lebanon, people called themselves Syrian. To say you were Lebanese meant you came from a very specific region of Syria. It's not so much a national label as a cultural label.
Conflict, war, religious persecution and the promise of economic opportunities in America all led immigrants into the Mississippi Delta. Many went to Michigan and New Orleans and heard about the "gold mine" of work available in the Delta.
When they arrived, one Lebanese man after another found their niche as peddlers — solitary men, traveling alone for days on end, on the trails and roads that led from one black sharecropper's farm to another, carrying suitcases weighed down with pots and pans and dry goods.
The Intersection of Culture, Cooking, and the Blues
Pat Davis owns Abe's BAR-B-Q at the intersection of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Miss., the famed crossroads where, legend has it, blues icon Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil to play guitar better than anybody.
Davis makes Lebanese food every Sunday.
"I make kibbe, cabbage rolls," he says. "When I get depressed, I make grape leaves. We've been in business since 1924. My father was from Zahale, Lebanon. Came to America in the early 1900s. They moved to Clarksdale. They were doing good peddling. Back then, the Lebanese mostly were peddlers.
"[In] 1924, my father opened up a barbecue restaurant," Davis says. "Robert Johnson used to sit around where those sycamore trees were, playing his blues guitar, drinking a Bud and eating one of our barbecues. And we think that's where Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil to play good blues music."
Chafik Chamoun, owner of Chamoun's Rest Haven, arrived in Clarksdale from Lebanon in 1954.
Over a plate of kibbe and cabbage rolls, Chafik told us, "When I came here in 1954, this Italian fellow, we go to the same church, he said, 'I'm going to tell you something. Your people done real good going out selling dry goods, peddling stuff. Why don't you go ahead and try it?'"
So Chamoun bought about two dozen ladies slips and nylon stockings and sold them "from house to house."
"The poor people ... knew I was trying to make a living and they buy something just to help me," he says.
In 1960, Chamoun opened a grocery store which later became a restaurant, Chamoun's Rest Haven on Highway 61, that features Southern, Lebanese and Italian food. They are best known for their kibbe.
Early on, Sammy Ray, professor emeritus at Texas A&M University Galveston, decided he wasn't going to be a peddler. His father, who immigrated at age 14 to avoid serving in the Turkish army, was a peddler, walking some 20 miles a day, with a "grip" on his back selling bloomers, cheap dresses, work clothes and something he called Persian bedspreads. He and the hundreds of other Lebanese peddlers carried whole stores on their backs, or their horses, and later on in their Model A's and trucks, throughout the farmlands and hinterlands of the Delta. His father was peddling dry goods to the black sharecroppers. Ray said he was very dependent on the black community — that's how he made a living.
Many Italians and Jews also immigrated to the Delta region, along with the Lebanese, and in the earlier years, all lived in a kind of "in-between place" in the culture of the South.
Ray grew up living in a barbecue shack that his mother ran on the edge of what was then called "Black Town."
"In the early days, I had problems because of my color," Ray says. "I got beat up, called a dago and a wop. I was too dark to play with the white folks, and too white to play with the black folks."
Davis, owner of Abe's BAR-B-Q, grew up in Riverton, a small town next to Clarksdale.
"A lot of Italian American and Lebanese Americans lived in Riverton, along with African Americans back then," Davis says. "Tina Turner and Ike Turner worked for my uncle at the grocery store. We knew all these people. And to be honest with you, we were all in that category of not a real citizen, I guess."
During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, Abe's BAR-B-Q and Chamoun's Rest Haven were some of the only restaurants in the area that would serve blacks.
"We were tested in 1965," Davis remembers. "A bunch of black kids went to all the restaurants on the highway and every one refused them except Chamoun's Rest Haven and my place. And everybody else got lawsuits against them."
The list of famous Lebanese Americans is long and impressive. Ralph Nader, Paul Anka, Casey Kasem, Khalil Gibran and Vince Vaughn, to name a few. But the one most people talked about on our trip was Danny Thomas. Davis took us out in the parking lot to listen to a CD that he just happened to have in his car of Danny Thomas singing in Arabic.
"We called ourselves Syrians when we first came here," Davis says. "And until Danny came and said he was Lebanese then we all began to realize we really are Lebanese and Danny Thomas can say it. So we're Lebanese now."
The Fellowship of Kibbe
Kibbe — a word and a recipe with so many variations we don't know where to start. Many love it raw. Ground lamb or beef mixed with bulgur wheat, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Everyone we interviewed for this story eats it or makes it — often on Sunday. However it's made, it's part of the glue that holds the Lebanese family culture together in the Mississippi Delta and beyond.
Jimmy Thomas of the University of Mississippi told us the story of a man who arrived through the port of New Orleans and spoke no English. He knew there were other Syrian immigrants there, so he stood on the dock and screamed, "kibbe, kibbe, kibbe," until someone came.
Joe Sherman, whose grandfather's name was changed from Chamoun to Sherman when he crossed the border from Mexico into the United States, talks about kibbe with so much heart.
"Sunday was always, 'Help me make the kibbe.'" Sherman says. "We'd make a big pan of raw kibbe shaped in a mound about an inch and a half high. Somebody would take the palm of their hand, turn it up and make a cross in the raw meat. Then they'd put olive oil in it. We'd bless the kibbe, which kind of blessed the family."
Robert Gordon: Sea of Cotton
Robert Gordon carries the history of Memphis and the Mississippi Delta inside of him. He grew up there, and has been writing about the musicians and culture of the place for years.
Maybe you saw the recent PBS documentary chronicling the history of Stax Records in Memphis. Or read It Came From Memphis or Can't Be Satisfied: The Story of Muddy Waters. Writer and producer Robert Gordon is the visionary behind all these projects.
From him we learned that Muddy Waters grew up in Clarksdale on the Stovall Plantation, and traveled up Highway 61, passing Abe's Bar-B-Q, as he left the Delta for Chicago.
We were thinking about the Crossroads, its history and how that region was first developed. We were looking at the Mississippi River and thinking of how the river took its current shape, how it came to be cleared of its impassable woods and mangroves swamps and turned into a sea of cotton. After a plate of kibbe at the crossroads, we headed up Highway 61 to Memphis to talk with Robert Gordon. He sketched the history of Clarksdale as the crossroads — of old Indian trails, railroad lines, immigrant cultures and the blues. Listen to a little of what he had to say.
Maude Schuyler Clay
On our way to Clarksdale we stopped in Greenwood, Miss., with Alice Waters to go visit the Viking Range plant, and the new school the company was building in town. We were exploring the possibilities of an edible schoolyard becoming part of the school's design and curriculum in a state with such a low rate of literacy and high rate of obesity. At Turnrow Books in Greenwood we met Mississippi photographer Maude Schuyler Clay, who grew up in the area and has captured its crumbling and beautiful soul in hundreds of haunting black and white photographs. In her book, Delta Land she documents collapsing churches and farmhouses, delta dogs, river beds and woods. She graciously shares a few of her images. Maude is also the niece of famed Memphis color photographer, William Eggleston.
We heard about bluesman James "Super Chikan" Johnson and his homemade custom guitars when we visited the Delta Blues Museum by the tracks in Clarksdale. Super Chikan can make a guitar out of anything — old Army gas cans, hub caps, cigar boxes, motorcycles gas tanks, a Black & Decker tool box. He calls them "Chik-can-tars." We stopped later to buy some music at Cat Head Delta Blues & Folk Art store on Delta Ave and there was the man in the flesh, bringing in a fresh crop of new CDs. We talked, we snapped, he told us how influenced he is by chickens. We love his recent CD, Sum 'Mo Chikan.
Famous Lebanese Americans
During our research we discovered that there were a great many famous musicians with Lebanese backgrounds including Frank Zappa, Paul Anka, and Dick Dale. That suddenly rang a deep bell when we realized Pat Davis, of Abe's BAR-B-Q had described his father listening to "The Miseries" and dancing the Dabke, the national dance of Lebanon. "Miserlou" suddenly leapt to mind. Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, the Ventures, and the Beach Boys made recordings of it. A sort of Middle Eastern bit of surf guitar from the early '60s. The connection revealed itself. We looked it up and learned that it was written as a Greek dance song in the 1920s about an Egyptian Muslim woman. The song was performed and rearranged multiple times before Dick Dale recorded his version in the 1960s. Because of Dale's Lebanese heritage, many believed the song to be a Lebanese folk song. In fact, the song's popularity and reach have caused many people throughout the Middle East to claim it as a folk song from their own country.