Southern Comforts; Amy Shindler Revels in Music, Food and History from New Orleans to Nashville (and Avoids the Lunatic with a Gun in His Truck)

Article excerpt

Byline: Amy Shindler

AFTER my best friend and writing partner Beth and I had a TV series commissioned, we realised we would be spending a lot of time together over the following six months.

But rather than seek some days apart before we started putting our ideas on to paper, we decided to pile into a car and travel from New Orleans to Nashville. It would be an adventure, we figured.

We'd be like Thelma and Louise. Or possibly Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street.

It was in the French Quarter of New Orleans that I realised just how starkly different our travel styles were. I had meticulously planned what we should eat (beignets at the Cafe du Monde and fresh oysters in the French Market), the music to check out (stirring Dixie jazz at Preservation Hall and a Cajun band at the Hermes Bar) and places to visit (St Louis Cemetery, then across the Mississippi River to Algiers Point to get a sense of Nawlins' troubled history).

And Beth? The sum total of her research was where to buy a piece of alligator jerky. Gently prising the spreadsheet from my hands, she informed me that this was not the way to do the Deep South. We should wing it.

So at our second stop, Lafayette, nestled in the heart of Louisiana's Cajun heartland, Beth persuaded me to indulge in a lazy breakfast.

I kicked back, swapping wild predictions about American football scores with other diners over andouille (local sausage) and gravy. I started to relax, Southern-style, until Beth returned from the bathroom muttering: 'We have to leave now. I seem to have met a lunatic and he has a rifle in his truck.' Jumping at the chance to revert to my original plan, I booked us on a boat tour of the Atchafalaya Basin. Within hours we were gliding through the alligator-infested, moss-carpeted swamp.

'It's gorgeous,' said Beth. 'Yes,' I beamed smugly, 'and if we hustle once we're off, we'll make it over to BJ's Diner for a catfish po'boy.' A moment later, our guide accidentally dropped his keychain into the water and grimly informed us that he was going to have to call his girlfriend to come and rescue us.

Fortunately, we managed a slow drift back to shore, and later we headed to a nearby plantation house. Many have been restored to their original glory and although we sometimes left with questions about slavery, we were entranced by enthusiastic guides in hoop skirts conjuring up the antebellum past with increasing levels of eccentricity. One such place, the wonderfully bizarre Houmas House on Louisiana's River Road, boasts a room where Bette Davis once stayed. The property has also been used as a wedding venue ... for dogs.

At the elegant Monmouth Historic Inn in Natchez, Mississippi, we were informed of the symbolic importance of a pineapple. If placed on the dining table, it might mean 'welcome, esteemed guest' - but if you discover one at the foot of your bed, it means 'we've enjoyed your company, now please go home.' IGNORING the pineapple Beth had put at the end of my bed, I suggested we follow Highway 61 to the heart of the Mississippi Delta, stopping off at the Civil War battle site of Vicksburg.

Afterwards, faint with hunger, we made our way to the Walnut Hill Restaurant for its famous fried chicken. A couple of musicians turned up and captivated us with mountain blues while we scoffed a dessert of coconut cream pie. It turned out the musicians had recently returned from a gig - at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Classy buskers.

Reaching the town of Clarksdale just after nightfall, we barely had time to put down our bags at Clark House, a plantation house hotel, before our host Billy whisked us off to Red's Juke Joint, where veteran blues master Robert 'Wolfman' Belfour was playing a two-hour set. …