Food and memories on a visit to Jackson, Mississippi

I never lived in Mississippi, but I am just two generations removed from calling it home. My ancestry is firmly rooted in the South, the sweet Southern drawl of my grandmother served as a constant reminder of where we came from, reinforced by holiday tables graced with traditional dishes. Creamy hominy casserole, slow-cooked barbecue ribs, crispy-on-the-outside-but-fluffy-on-the-inside biscuits, and cheese grits were among my favorites. I remember my visits back to Mississippi as highlight reels of warm, lightning-bug-catching summer nights, and friendly “Hey y’all’s” from strangers and relatives alike.

When my grandmother passed away three years ago, some of that Southern magic faded from my life. Occasionally over the next couple of years, I tried explaining to my fiancé, Alex, my need to be connected to that culture, though I didn’t fully understand it myself. I felt a tug to return and immerse myself in it once more. Months had gone by since I’d mentioned it to Alex, so his announcement felt out of the blue a week before my birthday—he bought tickets for us to take a Jackson, Mississippi, getaway just two weeks later.

Time for some good eating

Upon our arrival, based on posters, guides, and restaurant signs, Alex happily pointed out that good food was going to be the focus of our trip. I spent all of two minutes admiring the hotel room before announcing that I was famished. After slipping into a sundress, and pulling my unruly curls up into a bun—the humidity of the South seemed to have sparked a frizz party—we were off for a late lunch at the famous Brent’s Drugs and Soda Fountain.

Opened in 1946 by Dr. Alvin Brent, Brent’s Drugs is every bit the retro Americana soda shop and feels like a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. While the pharmacy it’s named for no longer exists—the owners converted it to restaurant space in 2009—the original soda fountain and counter stools remain. It even served as a favorite hangout in 2011’s award-winning film The Help.

But it was the heaping plates of food that captured my attention. While the pimento cheese sandwich—a creamy Southern favorite served at events ranging from picnics to weddings—tempted me, the chicken and waffles called my name loudest. My dad once told me that one bite of fried chicken can tell you everything you need to know about a Southern chef’s culinary capabilities, and Brent’s Drugs did not disappoint. The breading on the chicken was perfectly crispy and beyond flavorful. Their secret spice blend sang with notes of garlic, mustard, and even a hint of paprika that paired beautifully with the maple syrup I poured across my waffles.

While I dug into my feast, Alex had chosen a different route. A self-professed ice cream connoisseur, he was determined to down not just one but two ice cream sodas.

“The Ray au lait shake is vanilla ice cream and Mississippi cold drip coffee…” he mused, scanning the menu. “Do you think if I drink that first, it’ll power me through the sugar coma?”

Forty minutes later, Alex tested the hypothesis. Upon our server’s recommendation, Alex had picked the Maltdown as his second option, a frosty malted vanilla shake that was thick with crushed chocolate Whoppers. While it was delicious (I had selflessly volunteered to sample a few bites, for quality assurance purposes) it looked like the ice cream may have overpowered him.

“I’m ridiculously stuffed,” He said, observing the last melting spoonful in front of him.

An expression from deep in my memory sprang to mind, in a cheerful drawl I immediately recognized as my grandmothers.

“You mean: you’re full as a tick,” I said. “You’re in the South, honey.”

It’s all coming back

We walked around Fondren—Jackson’s historic art district—as we plotted out our next moves. It was a sunny Saturday in April, and the people of Jackson were out in force. Their friendly chatter sent a happy buzz through me.

“I feel like I’ve been here before,” I said, squeezing Alex’s hand. “This exact street, a long time ago.”

It was that Southern magic, creeping back into my mind. I had forgotten that Mississippi offers up a sort of timelessness, where the decades seem to overlap and blur together. As we spent the afternoon perusing local shops filled with homemade goods and funky antiques, I half expected to see long-lost relatives appear.

By suppertime, we had passed by dozens of tantalizing restaurants and were eager for our next meal. Our goal was “true soul food,” and we had been pointed in the right direction by an enthusiastic local.

Nourish your soul

“Bully’s restaurant is where you gotta go!” the woman had insisted. “It’s almost better than my mama’s cooking.”

The small brick restaurant was unassuming, though the sign did promise “Bully’s Restaurant: Great Soul Food.” If we had any doubts, they disappeared when we opened the door, and the thick, sweet, and meaty scent of barbecue greeted us.

Casual yet cozy, Bully’s opened by the Bully family in 1982 as a snack shop for nearby factory workers. It quickly blossomed into a full-service restaurant when Mr. Bully Sr. declared that hard-working workers deserved a hot meal.

A longstanding local favorite, Bully’s gained national acclaim when the James Beard Foundation named it as an American Classic in 2016. I was eager to judge it for myself.

Beef tips, ham hocks, Southern fried catfish, chitterlings, and barbecue ribs were among their entrées, each of which came with a choice of two sides. My mouth watered as I tried to make up my mind. Black-eyed peas, fried okra, sweet potato yams, golden cornbread, macaroni and cheese, potato salad….

“Is it possible to get a small serving of each side?” I asked the man behind the counter.

We sat down and watched how the employees interacted with the clientele—regulars and newcomers alike—and it was clear that a lot of love went into this business.

A few bites in to our catfish and ribs meal, I decided that it was also in the food. Bully’s makes everything in-house, and hours of seasoning and basting prep goes into barbecue favorites like the pork ribs. The result is meat so tender and flavorful that it practically falls off the bone if you even look at it. The fried catfish was fresh and delicious, and my mountain of sides delivered on every front.

The only complaint we had at the end of our meal was that we were once again uncomfortably full! Not wanting to miss out on dessert, we ordered a peach cobbler to go. While it may not have been good for my waistline, it was undoubtedly good for my soul.

The good kind of blues

At this point, the food and the day were starting to catch up to us, but I felt like I had one more stop left in me before hitting the hay.

“Feeling blue?” Alex teased me as we walked into The Iron Horse Grill. I could feel the deep vibrations of the bass guitar and wailing saxophone wash through me as we grabbed a seat at the bar. The stage took up a big corner of the restaurant. Above them was a colorful mural with the restaurant’s slogan proclaiming “Birthplace of America’s Music.” The band seemed utterly at ease, taking swigs from drinks, and chatting with the audience and staff between numbers.

“You know,” Alex said, reaching for the drink menu. “There’s nothing else quite like the blues.”

I ordered a Cat Daddy Mule, a twist on a Moscow mule that includes Cathead and sour mix. Alex got the locally brewed Mississippi Fire Ant red ale.

I complimented the bartender on the restaurant’s vibe and music.

“You should check out our museum sometime,” he said, gesturing toward the stairs. “You’ll learn why we claim Mississippi as the birthplace of America’s music.”

It was tempting. I had read the signs advertising it on our way in, and I knew that stories and wax figurines of musical legends such as Elvis and BB King awaited. But at that moment, I was content to stay where I was. I watched Alex tap his foot to the beat, and I leaned up against him, listening to the band. He kissed my forehead.

“Was this Mississippi getaway a good surprise?”

Was it a surprise? I considered it for a minute. I had always known that I would be back. But what did surprise me was how quickly I felt at home. I had been here less than 24 hours, and the trickle of childhood memories rapidly turned into a flood. Maybe that was the real Southern magic—although the South is a vibrant and dynamically evolving place, some things remain a staple: locals share “Hey y’alls” with genuine warmth. Southern cooking deserves its moniker as food for the soul. And even for two outsiders like us, we would always be welcomed back with open arms.

“This was a great surprise,” I answered sincerely. “Like the whole thing was good for the soul.”

Discover more ways to satisfy the soul in the City with Soul.

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