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Tamales, gaming and music make Delta ‘unforgettable’

When USA Today unveiled its 15 Unforgettable Summer Vacations for 2007 in the Memorial Day weekend coverage, some folks were surprised to see the Mississippi Delta prominently featured in the special section.

But not Craig Ray.

“Not at all,” said Ray, state tourism director. “Between the nightlife in Tunica and the juke joints in Clarksdale, Greenwood and other towns, the Mississippi Delta offers a very eclectic, unique experience that travelers crave.”

Nor Webster Franklin.

“Nor any of us that live in the Delta,” said Franklin, CEO of the Tunica Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB). “The traveling public in America has seen all the high-profile tourist places, and is now looking for undiscovered places, and the Mississippi Delta is one of those true undiscovered places in the United States. The rise of our popularity through Tunica’s exposure in the gaming industry has played a big part in that. But also the Delta coming together as a tourism entity through Mississippi Delta Tourism Association marketing initiatives and other public relations efforts are increasing awareness of our unique market.”

Noting a trend in the embryonic outer space tourism market, USAT wine columnist Jerry Shriver started the holiday travel edition by saying “you don’t have to buy a $200,000 seat on a rocket ship to glimpse a separate universe. Just head south from Memphis on Highway 61 through the Mississippi Delta. Distinct from the rest of America and from the South itself, the Delta is a potent subculture shaped by misery and shrouded in mystery and mythology. Its legacy of slavery and poverty tears at your soul, its blues soundtrack toughens your hide, its hospitable citizens can restore your humanity.”

Even though some Southerners bristled at the unflattering part of Shriver’s description, Franklin said it was spot-on.

“That is our reputation, and the only way you begin to change that is to invite the traveling public to experience this place and see what we have,” he said. “Obviously, people are doing that, and they’re going home and telling their friends about us, and steering folks to our neck of the woods. I can tell you, when people get here, they’re impressed with what they find.”

This year, Mississippi is on target to hit the $3-billion mark in gaming revenue, excluding the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians’ lucrative casinos in Neshoba County. Tunica’s share is nearly half that, boosted 8% last year because of Mississippi Gulf Coast gaming market woes. Traffic was rerouted to Tunica after Hurricane Katrina devastated the coastal area.

“Synergies with companies like MGM and Harrah’s, which has properties in both locations, has helped keep the Delta’s economy strong,” said Franklin.

Tunica, the nation’s third-largest gaming market, draws more than 15 million visitors per year, or nearly 50,000 per day, many of whom wander throughout other parts of the Delta while on vacation here. In May alone, 6,277 people requested information on the area. “For that many people to still be inquiring about us shows our destination is thriving,” said Tunica CVB spokesperson Claire Pittman.

The Mississippi Blues Trail, newly unveiled by the Mississippi Development Authority’s Tourism Division, has piqued the interest of music lovers who pilgrimage to the legendary crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale to see the spot where Robert Johnson reportedly bartered with the devil for world renowned soulful “blues-ability.” Shriver pondered on that tale while licking spicy sauce off ribs at nearby Abe’s Barbecue.

“I haven’t brought myself to stay at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale, where the rooms are converted sharecropper shacks,” admitted Shriver, who has journeyed the 185-mile route between Tunica and Vicksburg many times.

Esquire magazine’s Colby Buzzell was also smitten by quirks of the distinct region, chronicling his adventures on Mississippi Delta’s Hot Tamale Trail in May’s “The Red-Hot, Pork-Stuffed, Corn-Wrapped, Blues-Flavored Enigma: An Esquire expedition to a most unexpected place for amazing Mexican food — Mississippi.”

“When I think tamales, I think Mexico and Mexicans,” he wrote. “I have yet to meet a Mexican with a Southern accent. So tamales in Mississippi to me sounds about as logical as pierogies at Benihana. But they’re on the menu at Bud’s Snack Bar in Tunica. And Stewart’s Quick Stop in Cleveland. And Teal’s Onward Store in Onward. Most of the tamales are stuffed with spicy beef or pork and corn dough. Some come wrapped up in corn shucks, some in wax or hot-tamale paper. Some are sold out of small wooden shacks the size of (portable toilets), some out of carts on the side of the road, some out of trailers, some out of cafés, some out of houses. They’re sold all over the Mississippi Delta, on what’s become known as the tamale trail.”

Franklin, who is ebullient about the Mississippi Delta’s recent national coverage, said “who’d of thought we’d be featured in Esquire?” adding that not many folks have discovered his personal favorite Delta eatery: Hollywood Café, home of the “best cheeseburgers and fried dill pickles you’ll find anywhere on Highway 61… the catfish isn’t bad either.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at Lynne.Jeter@gmail.com.

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