Greenwood MS is where “The Help” was filmed.
By Chris Chamberlain
The Mississippi Delta is a region that often gets overlooked by vacation planners, but it warrants grownups’ attention. Bounded by the Mississippi River on the west and Interstate 55 on the east, the Delta may not necessarily rank among the United States’ easiest areas to reach, but that drive through the cotton fields and rolling hills and quaint little towns is a trip through history.
The Delta is awash in history and culture: musical, culinary, Civil War, plantations and sharecroppers. The cradle of the blues and home to amazing foods like rice, tamales, catfish and barbecue, this area of Mississippi is pleasingly greasy and down-home. The people are friendly and authentic, and there’s a new discovery around every turn.
Greenwood, Mississippi is actually one of the easier spots to reach in the Delta, only about a 30-minute drive away from the interstate. Another novel way to get to Greenwood is by riding Amtrak’s “City of New Orleans” train, which runs the rails between New Orleans and Chicago with two stops each day in Greenwood. The southbound train arrives in the morning in time for breakfast, and you can catch an early dinner before boarding the northbound train in the evening. The historic Greenwood depot was built in 1917 and has been memorialized in song several times over the years, including a famous hit by Little Richard. If you’re traveling from or near stops along the train route (including Chicago, Champaign-Urbana, Memphis, Jackson, or New Orleans), the nostalgic train ride to Greenwood is a worthwhile way to travel.
The clear choice for lodging in Greenwood is the stately Alluvian Hotel & Spa. The boutique property offers 45 comfortable rooms plus five luxurious suites. For longer stays, larger lofts with one or two bedrooms are also available. If you don’t believe that rural Mississippi can cater to guests used to high-end accommodations, you haven’t been to The Alluvian!
From the moment you walk through the door, you’ll be greeted with friendly Southern hospitality. Common spaces are decorated in warm tones with modern touches juxtaposed with the classic look of a merchant hotel that catered to businessmen during the agriculturally focused economy of the region in the past century. Cocktail hours in the lobby lounge feature live music, and the performers are more likely to be Delta blues players as opposed the sort of dull instrumental background musicians you’d expect in a less exciting property. A library filled with Southern literature is another cozy invitation to relax by getting lost in a good book.
Guest rooms are filled with modern amenities like luxury linens, comfortable beds, and marble bathrooms. The Alluvian also features free internet access, a business center, and a fitness center to burn off calories you devour while visiting Greenwood.
Oh yeah, you’re gonna eat well in Greenwood! The Alluvian’s on-site restaurant is Giardina’s, and if you want to sound like a local, pronounce it “Gar-DEEN-az,” closer to the name of the flower. The dark wood bar is a popular gathering spot for visitors and locals alike, and the dining space is a throwback to the early 20th century when Greenwood was a center of commerce in the Delta. The room is divided into 14 booths which can be curtained off for extra privacy, like when the cotton traders of yore needed to talk business without being overheard or wanted to nip on a little bootleg hooch without alerting prying eyes. Today, the restaurant is happy to serve you a legal cocktail or something from its voluminous wine list. The dinner menu features modern interpretations of seafood dishes and steaks with some really nice Italian options that are also a historical nod to the Italians and Sicilians who were early settlers of the downtown area.
Another excellent dining option in town is Fan and Johnny’s, the latest project from local chef favorite and James Beard Award semifinalist Taylor Bowen Ricketts. Named after her Louisiana grandparents, Ricketts’ restaurant features food that draws inspiration from both Mississippi and Louisiana. The menu changes frequently based on the chef’s whims and the freshest available ingredients, but you can expect small plates and shareable entrees featuring rich sauces and unexpected combinations of flavors. Fried black-eyed pea cakes drizzled with tangy “comeback sauce” are a great starter and combine two of the iconic ingredients of the region. For the main plates, the daily specials are always a good bet since that the chance for Ricketts to really show off her creative chops.
The interior of Fan and Johnny’s features stylized versions of the traditional Delta booths with attractive mismatched tables and chairs to add a quirky touch. The exposed brick walls are covered with folksy art, much of it created by Taylor and her husband Darby. When the lights are turned down low for evening service, the space feels like a dining inside a dreamy gallery of primitive art or like being invited to visit the private collection of the coolest collector you know.
With its rich history, Greenwood offers all sorts of opportunities to explore during the day. The city’s connection to the blues and the myths that surround the genre are exemplified by the fact that there are three different churches in the area that are reputed to be the final resting spot of the legendary father of the Delta blues, Robert Johnson. Visit the Mississippi Blues Trail website to help plan an itinerary of stops and attractions in the area, including eight in Leflore County. Country music has a connection to Greenwood as well. It’s home to the Tallahatchie Bridge that Greenwood resident Bobbie Gentry made famous as the site of the tragic denouement of her 1967 classic, “Ode to Billie Joe.”
For shoppers, the quaint strip of downtown along Howard Street boasts several cute shops and boutiques. For a variety of Mississippi-made crafts and food products, check out The MS Gift Company at 300 Howard. From William Alexander Percy to Willie Morris, the Delta has a long literary history, and Turnrow Book Company at 304 Howard is a throwback to the days when a bookstore was the sort of place where you’d spend all day browsing shelves and enjoying a good read in the bright airy environment of the store. Be sure to check out upstairs to see local art displayed and to grab something from the cute little cafe up there.
If you watched the popular 2011 movie “The Help,” you’ve already seen a lot of Greenwood, since it was the site of much of the filming. VisitGreenwood.com is an excellent resource for planning a trip, and also offers an online Google Map of a self-guided driving tour of significant sites from the movie. A delicious way to connect to the movie is by taking the special “The Help” cooking class at the modern Viking Cooking School right across the street from the Alluvian.
A variety of different classes is offered in the modern well-equipped kitchens at Viking, but “The Help” is a favorite. Led by a trained culinary instructor, you’ll divide into teams to prepare a full menu of dishes featured in the movie. (Not that pie, though. The instructor will whip up a legit version for you.) You can take on as much work as you’d like or just sit back and enjoy some beer or wine while your teammates handle most of the cooking. Either way, you’ll get to use some of Viking’s amazing cooking tools and learn new techniques along the way. At the end of the class, feast on the fruits of your labors around a communal table with your fellow classmates. Shop at the Viking Store afterwards and take advantage of a discount on any purchase since you took the class. It’s a delicious evening of fun!
Greenwood is a delightful introduction to the culture of the Delta.
– Photo Credits: Giardina’s and river courtesy Visit Greenwood MS; remainder by Chris Chamberlain
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.