“Grits Ain’t Groceries”: A Semi-Definitive Guide to Food at Blues Festivals Everywhere

Sorry but I couldn’t find a video of Little Milton doing his signature tune (don’t worry he takes his well-deserved bow later anyway). So you go to a blues festival for the music and ‘cuz you’re some kind of purist, right? Don’t think you’re totally fessin’ up now, are you? Good I knew you’d agree! Of course, summer blues festivals (they’re seldom anytime else except in the deepest darkest South) provide culinary delights, but also a babble of possibilities from which one needs to choose wisely. I, a native Southerner, doyenne of the Starkville “slow jam” food scene, long time host of “One Bourbon, One Sotch, One Beer” on WMSV’s The Juke Sunday blues programming, and general know-it-all wiseacre, am happy to guide your Northern, Midwestern, Western and/or Foreign asses through the best and wurst (sorry Wisconsin so much to answer for) of Blues Festival Food.

We start with the simplest of non-Einsteinian equations: Blues=Bar-B-CUE or something like Q=ps2 where Q is the end product; p is the pork input and s is the appropriate sauce squared. Really it’s all about the sauce Almost anybody can grill meat, but only a master can slow grill it over hickory in a pine bark pit for a day until the meat sloughs from the bone of its own lazy accord. Re: Bar-B-Que, just don’t ask too many questions about the main product, where it comes from, and how it is prepped pre-pit.

Howlin’ Wolf, “Killing Floor”

But when it’s done well it is delicious. Generally at a blues show stick with the pulled pork plate or sandwich, especially in MS. If in MS and they don’t offer to put your slaw on top of the sandwich meat, run real fast to another vendor; dem’s damn interlopers from who knows where: Bammy, Louisianee, or hell even the dread Memphis.

Struttin’ w/Some BBQ:

Don’t buy into Memphis in May BS about spare ribs and dry rub; any good and true southern boy loves his country ribs (less gnawin’ more swallowin’) wallowin’ in extreme amounts of supreme hot sauce. Oh yeah and for all you Yankees if they offer you any free carb side to go with your meat + 2 other than plain Wonder Bread, you’ve been had. Here’s what a prize-winning plate of BBQ and properly cooked ribs look like:

Morris BBQ and Steakhouse, 16th Section Road, Oktibbeha County, Mississippi

Best of Show, Cotton District Arts Festival 2009, Starkville, Mississippi

So BBQ might not be your bag, maybe you want Fried chicken or biscuits and gravy, especially if you happen to be in Helena, Arkansas at the famous King Biscuit Flower Hour Blues Festival. All I can say is enjoy!

The White Stripes, “Ball and Biscuit”:

Southern folks have sweet teeth. They like their BBQ sauce seasoned with local honey. They’ll also eat a churro or almost anything else with what Van once crooned about, that’s right Elvis’s “Tupelo Honey” Here’s the Grits-master himself Little Milton to entertain us as sweetly as possible

Little Milton, “Tupelo Honey”:

One of the curiosities of the Delta is the preponderance of Tamale stands. In Rising Tide, suggests a few answers as does John Edge. Don’t Ask No questions is our motto. After all I am a native North Floridian who came of age in the early ’70s. Instead just enjoy Doug and mason’s culinary offerings after the legendary Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues Guitarists!

Doug & Mason Hot Tamales and Red Hots:

Want some natural sugar, stop on the side of the road and get you some fruit from the back of a nicely beat–up F-150. It’s summertime and the Watermelon man is live.

Herbie Hancock + Miles Davis “Watermelon Man” Live:

But let’s face it you don’t to a blues festival for the food.

John Lee Hooker, “One Bourbon One Scotch One Beer” at Montreal Jazz Festival 1980:

Trust me, if you attend a blues festival and eat poorly now; it’s yo own damn fault, suckah!

For further reading and contemplation

  • W J Cash, The Mind of the South

  • John T. Edge, Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to the South

  • Robert Gordon, It Came from Memphis

  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

  • Frank Stitt, Frank Stitt’s Southern Table: Recipes and Gracious Traditions from Highlands Bar and Grill

  • Jean Toomer, Cane

  • Elijah Wald, Escaping the Delta: Robert Johnson and the Invention of the Blues