Ambush on the Road: Discovering Natchez
I cannot believe that I have lived in the South all my life and never been to Natchez, Mississippi. It was one of the places on my bucket list and now that I have been there, I plan on traveling there much more. Less than three hours form NOLA, this picturesque city on the bluff just celebrated its tricentennial last year. I spent a few days exploring one of the most quaint and charming cities along the river.
Driving into the city the first thing we spotted was a large female structure that was a luncheon restaurant called Mammy’s Cupboard known for their homemade desserts, specialty sandwiches and lunch specials. Built in 1940 and continues to stand as a much loved landmark on Hwy 61, South of Natchez, Mississippi. She is visited annually by local patrons as well as visitors from all over the world. You actually eat lunch in her giant hoop skirt dress, very local funky.
We checked into our home for the next two days, the gorgeous Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens. The history is pretty impressive. According to Wikipedia The home was built by John Hankinson, a postmaster, lawyer and steamboat entrepreneur, during the depression that followed the War of 1812, and named after his home, Monmouth County, New Jersey. The mansion was a brick two-story in the Federal style, with a wide central hall with four rooms located off the hall on both floors. There was also a detached brick kitchen behind it, a garden house, and several outhouses. Hankinson began to have financial troubles in 1821 and borrowed heavily using the plantation as collateral. The loan was defaulted on in 1825 and the house was sold at a public auction to Calvin Smith, who one year later sold the property to John Anthony Quitman, the future Governor of Mississippi. John Quitman, originally of New York City, was a partner in a successful Natchez law firm and married Eliza Turner, a member of one of the most prominent families in the city. Quitman purchased Monmouth in 1826 for his wife and growing family. The house was extensively renovated by the Quitmans in 1853 in the fashionable Greek Revival style. After Quitman died at Monmouth in 1858, and his wife died a year later, their five daughters and one son inherited the plantation. In 1862, when Natchez was attacked by the Union army during the American Civil War, most of the slaves escaped, and some joined the Union forces. Most of Quitman’s original possessions were either stolen in 1863, when the house was occupied by Union soldiers, or sold by Quitman’s daughters in 1865 due to financial difficulty. The house was spared from further damage during the war, as the daughters befriended a Union general and pledged loyalty to the United States. In 1866, three of the daughters, Louisa, Annie Rosalie and Fredericka, purchased their siblings’ share of the property, and by 1890, Annie Rosalie was the sole owner of Monmouth. In 1914, when she died, the house was left to her nieces, who later sold it in 1924. For the next half century, the house was severely neglected with the house and other surviving structures filled with litter and the grounds overgrown until Ronald and Lani Riches of Los Angeles, California, purchased the property in 1978 and restored the property to its original condition. The restoration of the house and original brick kitchen took three years. In 1982, after archaeological research determined the location of two small houses used as slave quarters, the buildings were reconstructed on the original sites. Now Monmouth is under new ownership by New Orleans entrepreneurs Nancy and Warren Reuther. Monmouth is now a small luxury hotel with 30 rooms and suites throughout the house and grounds. There is a fine-dining restaurant on site, Restaurant 1818, as well as a casual dining in The Quitman Lounge. Tours of the mansion are offered daily at 10 am and 2pm, and a gift shop in open to the public 7 days a week from 8am until 9pm. There have been a number of notable guests including President and Hillary Clinton, Michael Eisner, Alec Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Sela Ward, James Woods, Rob Reiner, Connie Chung, Morley Safer, Debbie Gibson, Ruby Dee and Matthew McConnaughey.
FYI: I stayed in the Quitmen suite which has John Quitman;’s original bed in it and the one Matthew stayed in, so I slept in the same bed as he did, swoon!
We did Sunday brunch at the Dunleith Historic Antebellum Home circa 1858. It was a very nice buffet lunch that is very popular among both locals and tourists like. Afterwards we familiarized ourselves by driving around downtown and making a pit stop at the Magnolia Bluff Casino located at the base of the hill. Even though it is a small as casinos go, it is a very nice and clean place with great staff and an impressive view of the river.
That night I went for cocktails in the Quitman Lounge, a cute little bar on property before a candlelight dinner at their 1818 Restaurant. Dinner is served in what was once the gentlemen and ladies parlors. The room is illuminated by candles as is your table and the food is just splendid. This was most memorable dining experiences of the trip. From the appetizers to dessert, every dish was superb and their duck is to die for. After dinner I had a nightcap at the lounge which stays open till ten nightly.
The next day, I went to breakfast in their Garden Room on the grounds. The indoor/outdoor space is a charming cottage that was made toasty by a roaring replace. Breakfast is included with the price of the room. Before we headed out for the day, I took a nice relaxing stroll through their wooded nature trail and sat out by the small lake they have on the property. They even have fishing poles to catch the fully stocked lake, but it is a catch and a release system. I also took the one hour guided tour of the house. Our informative guide’s name was Ivory and she detailed every historic aspect of the home and the furnishings in it. I love a house with many stories.
Next was a day of shopping at the specialty boutiques, antique stores and even an old fashioned general store. They even have a David Bowie store for the hunter on your gift list. We went to lunch at this cool place located in the Natchez Under the Hill area called The Camp. This section of the city has music clubs restaurants and shops. The Camp is a rustic place with an outdoor beer garden and porch seating (both are dog friendly). Considered a sports bar and craft beer bar with 18 taps mostly dedicated to the beers of the South. Their menu is primarily specialty burgers, sandwiches and appetizers, with board specials mixed in. Their grilled cheese sandwiches are phenomenal. After lunch I toured more of the historical aspects of the city. Walking downtown each building has a history and their stories are in placards on every block. The African American Museum is found on Main Street which is also has a monument for the Natchez Burning, one of the deadliest fires in American history which took the lives of over 200 people, including bandleader Walter Barnes and nine members of his dance orchestra at the Rhythm Club in 1940. I also went to the Bridge of Sighs which has one of the best views of the Mississippi River from atop the bluff. My last stop was the Forks of the Road.
According to Wikipedia this was the primary slave markets in Natchez located at the “Forks of the Road” about a mile east of downtown Natchez at a road juncture among the elite mansions of Monmouth, Melrose, and Linden. Most of the commercial marketing of slaves centered on this location. By the 1830’s the markets at the Forks of the Road in Natchez and the markets at Algiers in New Orleans were the two busiest slave markets in the entire South. Up to 32 dealers conducted store, courthouse, and river landing sales, or bargained with traders at Forks of the Road market. Groups of enslaved people would camp outside of Natchez for several days where they would bathe, be issued new clothes, and be lectured on how to conduct themselves in the market place. The Forks of the Road market was last used for slave trade in 1863. Union troops then used the market buildings as a refugee camp for newly freed slaves and as housing while occupying Natchez. By 1864, both of the market buildings were torn down. Although no remnants of the slave markets remain, the roads still fork at the site. Today, a Mississippi Department of Archives and History historical marker purchased by the Natchez Juneteenth Committee commemorates the site.
On a special note, a wonderful way of seeing all the sights in the city is to get a ticket and take the guided tour on the Hop On/Hop Off Bus, well worth the money.
That evening after drinks at the Quitman Lounge we went to dinner at Fat Mama’a Tamales which also has an interesting history. Fat Mama’s Tamales started to take form in the mid 1980’s when a local woman who had been making tamales for years in Natchez, Mississippi, passed away leaving a real need for a new source of homemade tamales in our area. Jimmy and Britton Gammill, two local residents that love to cook, began attempting to make tamales on Saturdays with the help of both friends and family. The children of Jimmy and Britton, had started a small joke between themselves that if mama and daddy keep messing up the tamale recipe, she is going to have to name the shop Fat Mama’s after eating all the mistakes, hence the name. On June 9, 1989, Fat Mama’s Tamales was opened offering tamales only.
In time, Fat Mama’s established itself as a “must see” attraction when you came to visit Natchez and at times, we would have customers lined out the door waiting to pick up tamales and get a “Knock-You-Naked” margarita and find a spot to sit on the patio and enjoy the meal. In August 2005, their son David Gammill graduated from college at Mississippi State University and returned to Natchez to run the day to day operations of the business so his parents could retire. They now have a new larger location at 303 South Canal Street in 2008. They have an expanded menu to include some regional and family favorite recipes and have lauded in Southern Living Magazine on many occasions as a must when in Natchez. I especially love their tamale pie, “Knock-You-Naked” margaritas and their “Fire & Ice” pickles. After dinner, we ended the night with a little more gambling at the casino.
The following day we had breakfast and was on the road stopping in St. Francisville’s downtown area for lunch and some more shopping at their boutique shops. I de nitely would recommend visiting Natchez for a quick relaxing getaway. We met so many people who travel there once a year. For more information, go to visitnatchez.org or www.monmouthhistoricinn.com.
My two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving were filled with trips, fundraisers, wine, art and the King of Siam. During my two weeks I traveled to Chicago and Natchez for Thanksgiving week. You will read about my exploits but for this article I will focus on NOLA events. I started my fun off with The King and I at the Saenger Theatre. I cannot believe I had not seen either the movie or this play before, but I was a King virgin. This production did not disappoint from the talented cast with powerful voices to the set and costumes. The opulent show is what people go to theatre for. It was pure enjoyment from start to finish. Jose Llana and Laura Michelle Kelley are spectacular in the title roles of the King and Anna respectively.
The Lords of Leather held their Evening of Art, Wine and Song on Thursday, November 16, at the gorgeous Harahan home of Cara and Dale Valez who are great supporters of the Krewe. There were lots of local artists on hand selling their work which ranged from sculptures and paintings to soap and sweets. The musical entertainment of the evening was provided by Vanessa Carr Kennedy who rocked the house. She performed some songs from all of my favorite artists. In addition to the good food and wine, the evening was everything the Lords always promise at their events, love, laughter and leather with the Krewe members.
The following day was the wildly (pun intended) successful NOAGE fundraiser at the Swamp Exhibit at the Audubon Zoo. Guests boarded a train at the front entrance and were whisked off to the swamp exhibit where they partied with the bears and otters, literally. The guests dressed in costume as everything from sexy animals to big game hunters. It was a festive night with beautiful weather. The evening consisted of delicious cuisine provided by the Audubon Institute, cocktails by Glazer, wine by Friday Night Before Mardi Gras and beer by Crescent Crown. There was a live auction done led by emcee Mark Romig and two awards were given out that night. The first was the Trailblazer Award bestowed upon Liz Simone who is a huge activist for LGBT issue and the second was the Community Impact Award given to Rip and Marsha Delain Naquin. There was a jazz band that kicked off the entertainment for the night followed by DJ Menace who had people on their feet till the very end.
Afterwards, I went out for a few cocktails and stopped at the Allways Lounge in the Marigny where they were holding their Jock Strap Lube Wrestling hosted by Neon Burgundy. It is quite the entertainment experience.
The following week in between trips I was able to attend the Christmas Queens show at the House of Blues. The group kicked off their tour in NOLA and it was fabulous. The queens sang Christmas carols and other festive holiday tunes backed up by hot male dancers. Peppermint did an incredible job of hosting the show that included Ivy Winters, Jiggly Caliente, Phi Phi O’Hara, Sharon Needles, Thorgy Thor and Ginger Minj. I highly recommend catching their show if you see it in another city before the holiday is over. Lots of fun and it even snows.