When I was a teenager, my grandfather gave me my first guitar, a cherry‐red, cheap but sturdy Fender Squier, which I promptly covered with punk rock stickers and, in sharpie, a depressingly short list of every girl’s phone number I could get. When I started lessons, I didn’t know much about anything, but I’d heard B. B. King, the Ambassador of the Blues, and so the blues is what I first learned to play.
As I was driving out of Buffalo to pay a quick visit to Niagara Falls, I heard the news over the radio that B. B. King had died. At the falls I parked my car and spent a while staring absentmindedly into the crashing field of white water. Then I took a nap, and as the sun went down, I bought a cup of coffee, set a B. B. King anthology playing on the car stereo, and hustled on down south to pay my respects in Memphis, B.B.’s adopted hometown and the spiritual headwaters of the Mississippi Delta.
The Delta is a seven‐thousand‐square‐mile alluvial plain between the Yazoo River and the Mississippi, beginning where the two waterways almost converge near Memphis, then fattening to the south until the rivers begin to draw closer once again and finally merge at Vicksburg. The soil is almost impossibly rich, owing to the sediment deposited while the two rivers periodically flooded and meandered back and forth over the millennia, like water hoses turned up high and let loose in slow motion. In fact, much of the Delta was unsuitable for permanent settlement until the nineteenth century, when its forests were cleared for timber, its rivers tamed by irrigation ditches, and levees constructed largely by black Americans, who were first transported to the region as slaves but who also settled there in large numbers after emancipation at the end of the Civil War. The Delta’s small towns are connected by long sections of two‐lane highway straight as pine trees and are entirely interdependent, making the whole of the Delta more like one vast city with widely spread out neighborhoods than a region with distinct municipalities. For the entire time humans have lived in the Delta, their communities and cultures have been inextricably linked to the land; sports fans at Delta State University today root unironically for their mascot, the fighting okra.
In his 1948 essay “Where I Was Born and Raised,” David Cohn famously declared that the Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends some two hundred miles south at Catfish Row in Vicksburg. The crux of his argument is that the opulent lobby of the Peabody, where could be seen “everybody who is anybody in the Delta” and where ducks still play in a fountain at the center of an enormous room with stained glass in a ceiling more than two stories high, was the “financial, social, and cultural capital” of the region, made so by the white moneymen who struck deals and loaned and borrowed between one another to reap the fiscal harvest from the Delta’s agricultural bounty. It ended down at Catfish Row in Vicksburg, where black residents got together to socialize, simply because that’s where the rivers converge. “Here are no marble fountains,” he wrote, “no orchestras playing at dinner, no movement of bell‐boys in bright uniforms. Tumble‐down shacks lean crazily over the Mississippi River far below. Inside them are dice games and ‘Georgia skin’; the music of guitars, the aroma of love, and the soul‐satisfying scent of catfish frying to luscious golden‐brown in sizzling skillets.”
Today there are no dice games at Catfish Row and no sultry blues cranking out of precariously perched shacks, just a charming little city park in a town struggling to maintain any economy at all, a sleepy shell of the southern powerhouse Vicksburg once was. And up in Memphis the Peabody is a sparkly but cloying bucket list line item for—there is simply no other way to put it—white retirees. The two endpoints still serve as good delineators of the scope of the Delta, but as to where it begins and ends Cohn had it all wrong in 1948 and wrong still today. Though the river and much of the Delta’s produce flowed south, much of the money, power, and cultural capital flowed north. If at either of the two points Cohn identified, life in the Delta began at Catfish Row, on the backs of poor black people who carved the landscape out of the wilderness and farmed its fields; it ended at the Peabody, where rich white men turned cotton into cash and cash into more of itself.
The significance of the difference is that life and culture in the Mississippi Delta issue most prominently from the black people who live there. This was true in 1948, when Cohn wrote that “the Negro completely dominates the Delta in numbers” and that “the one fact indispensable to an understanding of this society” is that black residents composed more than two‐thirds of the Delta’s population. And it remains true today, though since 1940 the region has lost more than half its population, owing to the flight of blacks in the Great Migration, whites in the wake of integration, and both races in the face of startlingly sheer economic decline. The culture of the Delta, whether it be the blues, the food, or the hot sauce, is largely, though by no means exclusively, a product of the culture of its black residents, like Argia B. Collins Sr. before he fled north to Chicago. It is for this reason—because Africans were some of the first people on earth to come into possession of the chili, because they helped bring chilies to the United States, usually by way of the Caribbean, and because they were first enslaved and later simply poor, and thus great stewards and innovators of the people’s condiment—that hot sauce has such a deeply anchored home in the Mississippi Delta.
In any event, for a journey through the Delta, Memphis is as good a place as any to start. In the city you can begin to feel the frayed and weathered cultural edges of the region. For one thing, the black population is higher than in any other sizable town in Tennessee, or in nearby Arkansas and Kentucky, for that matter. For another, the blues has an exalted place in Memphis’s concept of itself, on full display while I was in town as pilgrims flocked to the B.B. King Blues Club and Grill on Beale Street to pay homage to the fallen giant. It’s in the barbecue, and in the small‐town spirit that envelops barbecue culture wherever it thrives, also evident while I was in town as locals and restaurateurs banded together to keep the deeply loved family‐owned barbecue joint Cozy Corner afloat in the wake of a devastating fire. And did I mention it’s in the barbecue? Which can also reliably be had at lunch and well into the evening—a rarity among truly great barbecue places—at any of the three locations of the local chain Central BBQ, which has its own selection of delectable house‐made sauces, including a reasonably hot one.
A key difference between Memphis and the Delta it sits atop is that Memphis is a city on the up‐and‐up. After decades of economic rot, Memphis’s once skeletal downtown is fleshing out again. Business offices are returning, and entrepreneurs are launching new products, like the locally produced, small‐batch hot sauces from Crazy Good Specialty Foods, founded in Memphis in 2010. And if Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken is any indication, Memphis’s culinary traditions are alive and thriving.
The story goes like this: Long ago in the tiny town of Mason, Tennessee, about forty miles from Memphis, a man with the magnificent name of Napoleon Vanderbilt started experimenting with hot sauce and fried chicken at his small eatery that catered to black patrons. At white establishments in the segregated South, black customers, like Napoleon, had to order and collect their food at the back door. But Napoleon’s fried chicken flipped the script, delightfully illustrating how we are all reduced by racism and segregation. Just as blacks couldn’t eat at white restaurants, whites had to slink by the back door at Napoleon’s to order his spicy fried chicken to go.
Napoleon’s chicken became so loved by so many that in 1973, after the main legal buttresses of Jim Crow had been dismantled, according to the restaurant’s own account white citizens put the money together to buy materials for a new building at which all would be welcome. Napoleon named the new place Maggie’s Short Orders, after his wife, and business boomed for a decade until their deaths in 1983. Napoleon’s son Gus inherited his dad’s recipe and renamed the restaurant Gus’s World Famous Hot & Spicy Fried Chicken.
Today Gus’s has five locations across Tennessee, plus locations in Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, Kansas, Illinois, Georgia, and Missouri, with reports of new locations to come. If you go to the one in downtown Memphis, get there early because even with all his new locations Gus still can’t churn out his spicy fried chicken fast enough, and a rather long line tends to form outside (a line that, as I saw with my own eyes, does not disperse even in the event of a downpour).
Before I left Memphis, I texted my friend Matt Bengloff, a bona fide New York City Yankee who fell in love with the Delta and now lives in Cleveland, Mississippi, where he owns a home and frozen yogurt business called Delta Dairy (damn good ice cream sandwiches, by the way). I’ve been a blues fan a long time, and I was excited to be entering the heartland of that most American of all music genres. I was in search of spicy food, but there was one additional thing I hoped to find. I asked Matt if he could point me to the fabled crossroads where legendary bluesman Robert Johnson is supposed to have traded his soul to the devil in exchange for his otherworldly blues guitar chops.
“There are so many. I love it,” Matt wrote back. “All the blues historians fight about it. It’s funny.” He said I could spend a whole day just driving around to the different intersections that lay claim to the myth. So I did what any reasonable person in my situation would do and Googled it. Matt wasn’t wrong.
The Mississippi Delta Tourism Association lists a total of five crossroads in or near different towns that claim to be the one of legend (plus three separate towns that lay claim to Johnson’s burial site). The five intersections are in Cleveland, Tunica, Greenwood, Clarksdale, and Rosedale, the last two being the most often mentioned. Clarksdale’s claim seems based primarily on the town’s indisputably important place in blues history and the ostentatious and singularly unbluesy sign that demarcates the supposed spot. So I skipped it. Instead, from Memphis I drove south on Route 61 through Tunica and Clarksdale to Rosedale, a tiny town right by the Mississippi River in the heart of the Delta.
I parked my car near the intersection of Routes 1 and 8 on the outskirts of town and walked to the crossroads. With the caveat that I do not, on principle, believe in the devil and more importantly that were I to encounter the devil, I would have been in no way prepared to sell him my soul in exchange for any skills, guitar‐related or otherwise, I waited to see if he’d appear. It was quiet. Now and then people drove by waving, smiling, and laughing. They knew exactly what I was up to.
Rosedale’s claim to the infamous intersection stems in part from the lyrics of Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” (“Lord, I’m goin’ to Rosedale, gon’ take my rider by my side”), as well as from the testimony of bluesman Son House, one of the few sources close to the action who has been quoted asserting that Johnson “sold his soul to the devil to get to play like that,” and who claimed to know for certain that Johnson did the deed at Routes 1 and 8. Additionally, according to the now defunct Crossroads Blues Society based in Rosedale, a bluesman named Henry Goodman claimed to have had a vision in which he saw what Johnson had done. A transcript of Goodman’s account was obtained by the Crossroads Blues Society. In the vision, Goodman saw Johnson encounter a figure, the devil, at the intersection. The devil had a howling dog at his side and told Johnson that he could turn east on Route 8 toward Cleveland or head south on Route 1 back to Beulah, but if he meant to go to Rosedale, then he’d be making a pact with the Prince of Darkness. “My left hand will be forever wrapped around your soul, and your music will possess all who hear it,” the devil is supposed to have said. Johnson thought it over. “Step back, Devil‐Man,” he said. “I’m going to Rosedale. I am the Blues.”
So the devil moved aside. “Go on, Robert Johnson,” he said. “You the King of the Delta Blues. Go on home to Rosedale. And when you get on up in town, you get you a plate of hot tamales because you going to be needing something on your stomach where you’re headed.”
I suppose it’s no secret why Rosedale’s claim is my favorite.
The Mississippi Delta hot tamale is a delicious gustatory tradition as shrouded in mystery as Johnson’s supernatural contract. Usually served with hot sauce and made of cornmeal and spicy beef, pork, or even chicken or turkey, the Delta hot tamale is basically the same as any tamale one might find south of the border. Historians dispute how the hot tamale came to be a Delta staple. Some say American soldiers brought the tamale tradition back from the Mexican‐American War; others say the hot tamale has always been in the Delta as a food traditionally eaten by indigenous people in the area, but most people seem to agree that Mexican migrant workers in the Delta introduced hot tamales.
Wherever they came from, it’s obvious why hot tamales caught on in the Delta: in addition to being inexpensive to make and calorie dense, their capsaicin content would have been all too familiar to the people there, especially the ones of African descent.
Blanche Turnage was born and raised in Rosedale and still lives there today.
“My earliest memory of hot tamales is when my family would make them and sell them when I was a girl,” she told me. I asked her if hot tamales are always by definition spicy. It may seem a stupid question, but I wanted to clarify that the hot in hot tamales was in reference to chilies, not temperature.
“Oh yeah, they are,” she said. “I never even put hot sauce on hot tamales. If you just use enough pepper, that does it every time.” Today you can get great hot tamales throughout the Delta; in Rosedale at the White Front Cafe or TJ’s Wild Wings & Things. The Gin Mill Gallery restaurant adjacent the B.B. King Museum in Indianola does a fantastic tamale. My favorite hot tamales were had at Solly’s in Vicksburg, where a recipe nearly a century old is still being prepared with love four generations on, though the original Henry “Papa” Solly—who, for what it’s worth, said he learned to make hot tamales in California—long ago passed away.
Delta tamales tend to be served with all kinds of hot sauces. The White Front Cafe offers its tasty tamales with a depressingly boring, generic hot sauce packet (something like Taco Bell’s hot sauce). Solly’s serves its tamales with Cajun Chef hot sauce. Most often you’ll find tamales, like every other savory meal in the Delta, served at a table with Louisiana hot sauce, the hands‐down regional favorite, and possibly with a bottle of clear, spicy vinegar with chilies soaking in it, a homemade concoction folks in the Delta tend to call “pepper sauce.”
After waiting around for some time at the crossroads in Rosedale, getting laughs and encouraging thumbs‐up from passersby, I finally gave up on the devil. I returned to the car, pulled out my phone, and called Eustace Harold Winn IV, who is something of an angel to all who know him and lives in a town not far down the road.
The interrobang is a little‐used punctuation mark (I promise I’m going somewhere with this—stick with me) designed to exclaim a question. Usually in informal English prose we represent this idea with an exclamation point followed by a question mark (like so: !?), but in its perfect oneness the interrobang, to me, flawlessly expresses the surprise, the sudden, delighted excitement, and the sincerity implicit in the statement it punctuates. Most of us exchange rote pleasantries like “how are you?” multiple times a day without even reflecting on what we’re saying, but we generally don’t shout such questions, nor do we ask them with delighted surprise. This is all to explain why I will now violate mainstream grammatical convention and deploy an interrobang, in an effort to more perfectly portray Eustace. I’d met him at Matt Bengloff’s wedding years earlier, and we hadn’t spoken since. He had no warning I’d be calling.
“Hi, Eustace? This is Denver Ni—”
“Hey, Denver! How you doin’ man‽ ”
Eustace is tall, gregarious, and something of a living legend, seemingly on a first‐name basis with the entire Mississippi Delta. His open‐heartedness reflects the rich, homespun goodness still present in the Delta. “Come on to Benoit!” he said. “Meet me at the gas station.”
Eustace grew up in Greenville, Mississippi, and farms about seven hundred acres—sometimes more depending on what fields he’s renting—near the tiny town of Benoit. He lives at Hollywood Plantation, so named because of an abundance of holly trees on the land, and is caretaker of a regal old plantation house on the property recently rescued from ruin and lovingly restored. The house was constructed by Eustace’s ancestor Judge J. C. Burrus and completed just before the outbreak of the Civil War; it’s thought to have been spared being torched by Union troops simply because the Yankees liked and respected Judge Burrus, perhaps because a former classmate of his at the University of Virginia was in command of Union forces in the area. It’s the only antebellum house in Bolivar County. Today it’s known as the Baby Doll House, having been used as the set of the 1956 blockbuster film Baby Doll, a scandalous movie in its time coproduced by Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. The film won Kazan a Golden Globe award for best director, despite (or because of) attempts to censor it for its highly sexualized content; the movie is credited with popularizing the baby doll nightgown.
I left my car at the gas station and jumped into Eustace’s truck. We drove south out of town to go fishing, but as we neared the lake, an army of rain clouds formed over the horizon and a foreboding drizzle quickly became a downpour. We doubled back to Eustace’s place at Hollywood Plantation, cracked open a couple of beers, and stood on the porch to watch the sky drench the fields.
“Isn’t this fun? Denver’s adventures in the Delta,” Eustace remarked. “We didn’t go fishing, but we had an adventure. Old B.B. sent the rain down to the dry Delta this weekend, I’m telling you. He wanted us farmers to do good. I mean it has been dumping.” He was quiet for a minute, and we let the sound of rain on the roof fill the silence with eyes locked on the wet earth. Then Eustace turned to me and grinned, hugely. “Hanging out in a place where things are growing because it’s raining—it makes you feel good!”
Eustace’s earliest recollection of hot sauce is one of those all‐too‐common traumatic memories. A little kid on a church trip—his parents were chaperoning, so he came along even though he was a lot younger than the others on the trip—he was asleep on the bus when the older kids doused his lips in hot sauce. He woke up screaming bloody murder. His mom was furious at the older kids, etcetera. Eustace said it seems just about everyone in the Delta likes hot sauce, but he didn’t eat it for years after that.
“I finally started putting it on my deer meat, with the ketchup. Then I started putting it on my fish. I like Louisiana hot sauce and Tabasco on fried fish,” he said. “And then there’s the Grazi sauce. I’ve always known about that.”
I’d never heard the word before—Grazi (rhymes with Ozzy). It would turn out to be one of the more unique sauces I’ve encountered, a dark, thick, and creamy sauce, with exotic tones of cinnamon, mildly spicy but not unnoticeably so, and significantly different from both the Louisiana hot sauce and the homemade spicy vinegar pepper sauces so common throughout the Delta. And thanks to the story behind it, Grazi sauce is a delicious reminder that while the Mississippi Delta may be a region steeped in black history and a vital center for African American culture, like the rest of America it’s also a melting pot. Yes, it’s the blues. But it’s also jazz. Which is a nice thought, since as I would come to learn, Grazi hasn’t always rhymed with Ozzy—the way Miss Grazi pronounced her own name rhymes with jazzy.
When she was eighteen years old, a young woman named Antonia moved from Alessandria in northern Italy to Rosedale, Mississippi, where she married fellow Italian immigrant Augusto Graziosi. Together they operated a farm off Route 1 just south of town (not far from the famed intersection) until Augusto’s death in 1940. At under five feet tall, Graziosi, or “Miss Grazi,” as people tended to call her, was described as a “dynamo” by her grandson, the now‐deceased Delta journalist Leroy Morganti, in a charming remembrance written about his grandmother for the small journal USA Deep South. She continued to run the farm by herself for the rest of her life, keeping milk cows and chickens and raising enough vegetables to sell at the local grocery store. A row of three white pet ducks followed her around the farm morning to night. She liked to finish the day with a thumb or two of bourbon. She also grew the chilies she used in the concoction that came eventually to be called Miz Grazi’s Hot Stuff, known colloquially today as Grazi sauce.
It can be hard to find Grazi sauce these days. Miss Grazi has long since left us, and the sauce is now prepared and bottled by the Louisiana‐based hot sauce company Panola. It’s rumored to be available for retail sale sometimes at various locations—at the grocery store in Rosedale, for example, though when I went, floor clerks hadn’t a clue what I was talking about—but the place Grazi sauce can most reliably be found is Backyard Burgers, a regional burger chain founded by the family in Cleveland, Mississippi, where you can order a good‐for‐fast‐food burger with Grazi sauce dripping from between the buns or on the side. If they’ve enough on hand, they’ll sometimes even sell you a bottle.
The hot sauce scene in Mississippi today is about as lively as anything can be in that deepest reach of the sultry Deep South. At the Delta Meat Market in Cleveland you can usually find a nameless pureed hot sauce made by the vat that is leaps and bounds hotter than most hot sauces in the area. Mississippi Comeback Sauce, a kind of rémoulade with the tiniest bit of a kick, is still a statewide favorite used as a salad dressing, as a sandwich spread, or as a dipping sauce for fried everything. In 2014 downriver from Vicksburg, in Natchez, the oldest permanent European settlement on the Mississippi River, the Aldridge family launched a line of small‐batch hot sauces under the name D’Evereux Foods. (Like some other companies in the region they call them pepper sauces but, you know, “tomato tomahto.”) The company name pays homage to D’Evereux, the appellation given the antebellum plantation home with an iconic red roof where family patriarch Courtney Aldridge first concocted the recipe. If D’Evereux Foods’ early efforts are any indication, Mississippi’s hot sauce tradition is in good hands.
This living tradition came to Mississippi with its immigrants, like the Italian teenager and her cinnamon hot sauce, Mexican migrants and their hot tamales, and the many descendants of enslaved Africans, who tamed the wilderness, spiced up their humble cuisine, and invented the blues. Like the blues, it’s a tradition created and introduced to the United States by people all too familiar with struggle, with suffering, with pain. And like the blues, it’s a tradition that followed the original great American highway, the Mississippi River, to the industrial northern cities like Chicago, Washington, DC, and Buffalo. And its roots go deeper still.
The word mambo, which other than lots of sugar seems to be about the only commonality—slight spelling variations notwithstanding—among the different sauces that share the moniker, is also the word in Haitian Vodou for a female priestess, like Rose, who introduced Baron Ambrosia to her religion and its spicy spiritual cuisine. One has nothing to lean on but conjecture, that ricketiest of foundations, but one still guesses that a linguistic lineage back to Africa is buried deep within mambo sauce DNA.
Also, in Vodou, crossroads have a special significance as a portal between worlds. They are particularly important for Baron Samedi, who, as the Loa responsible for shepherding souls between the lands of the living and the dead, is the guardian of the crossroads. Like other aspects of ancient African culture, the symbolism of the crossroads echoes through African American folklore and in the blues fables we still tell each other today. Robert Johnson didn’t just sell his soul to the devil—he sold it to the most hot sauce–loving Loa of all.
This essay was originally published in Hot Sauce Nation: America’s Burning Obsession, published in 2016 by Chicago Review Press.