Southern hospitality, history and heart run deep through the region

Where’s the chicken?

Irene Lechowitzky
August 15, 2004

A trip to the Deep South is more than the mere sum of its air mileage points: It’s a journey of the heart.

There’s the tug on the heartstrings from the ghosts of the Civil War, there’s the heartbeat of the Delta blues, snatches of which are in the air everywhere, there’s the heartburn from eating too much, too often, because the food is so darn good.

Before visiting, my sole experience of the South was through such works as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and, of course, "Gone With the Wind." Then I found out that I could stay in pre-Civil War mansions that rivaled Tara – each lavishly furnished with period antiques and each with its own amazing history.

First stop, Vicksburg, Miss., a city of charming, 19th-century mansions and Civil War battle sites. We had reservations at Cedar Grove Mansion Inn, an antebellum jewel on four acres of gardens overlooking the Mississippi River.

Guests can stay in the mansion, in cottages or the carriage house. Our Confederate Suite in the carriage house had fine period antiques and opened onto a Tara-columned porch with white wicker furniture and twirling fans.

The rooftop bar is a nice place to sip mint juleps while listening to the sounds of passing tugboats.

Where’s the chicken?

A craving for a plate piled high with Southern fried chicken drove us downstairs for dinner at Andre’s, the inn’s restaurant. Surely, the dish was a staple and would be easy to find.

Despite the 1860s ambience, the fare was Southern California trendy, and we wound up eating – brace yourself – roasted free-range birds. "I’ll think about fried chicken tomorrow," I sighed, doing my best Scarlet imitation.

Breakfast the next day was a masterpiece with eggs, handmade sausage, grits and buttery biscuits that sang their own song of the South.

Breakfast was followed by a tour, led by a young man named Ed. Built by John Alexander Klein, the mansion was presented to his bride, Elizabeth, Gen. Sherman’s cousin, in 1840. One of the most popular rooms is the Grant Room, where you can sleep in the same canopy bed that the general did.

During the war, the house was under attack by Union troops, and there’s still a cannonball embedded in the parlor wall. Elizabeth liked to add rooms while her husband was out of town; since John was gone a lot, she added quite a few rooms, and the mansion maxed out at 50 rooms 18 years later.

It was in Vicksburg National Military Park that Union and Confederate forces, both wanting control of the Mississippi, fought for 47 days. Gen. Pemberton’s troops surrendered to Gen. Grant’s forces on July 4, 1863; militarily, the Confederacy had been split in half. It was a somber experience to walk the grounds where so many had died.

All to ourselves

Natchez, Miss., is an otherwise scruffy town famous for its antebellum architectural gems. The cotton trade made many here rich, giving rise to dozens of lavish pre-Civil War homes. We had reservations at one of the nicest.

Situated high on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi, the Briars is a classic antebellum mansion, built in 1814 and resting smack in the middle of 19 acres of ponds, gardens and aged trees. Talk about Southern heritage credentials: Confederate President Jefferson Davis married Varina Howell there in 1845.

The big surprise was not the majesty of the drawing room with Palladian arches and twin staircases nor the parlor with carved mantel and elegant furnishings but that we had the place all to ourselves – a large tour group had canceled.

Steve, the manager, handed us the keys and said, "Oh, and if you get locked out, you’re on your own – there’s no one else here but you tonight."

Steve gave us a tour of the 15 bedrooms, each one more charming than the previous. The inn is owned by a pair of retired interior designers, Robert Canon and Newton Wilds, and they have painstakingly restored it. Our room was enormous, with two bathrooms and antiques to die for.

A walk through the magnificent grounds, designed by Canon and Wilds, and gardens was like peeling a beautiful onion, uncovering layer after layer of hidden treasure: brickwork, gazebos, ponds, statuary, topiary and, always in the distance, the mighty river.

Dinner that night was in a Gothic carriage house dating from the 1790s when it was part of Routhland Plantation; it’s been recently updated and converted into the Castle Restaurant. Still no fried chicken. Castle’s chef, John Terranova, preferred Nouveau Southern.

The next morning, we felt like royalty walking into the elegant Briars dining room for breakfast. We were the only customers, and our server couldn’t stop fussing over us.

After breakfast, we spoke to Newton Wilds in the gift shop. He introduced us to Emily and Winston, his Saint Bernards. "They have the run of the place and even have their own pool." He said that he had bought the inn in 1975 when it was in poor condition.

"You should return for the Pilgrimage tours," he continued. "They’re held a few times a year. Ladies in hoopskirts give tours of 18 of the most beautiful antebellum mansions, including ours."

On Wild’s advice, we took a tour of a couple of Natchez’s other restored gems, Stanton Hall and Rosalie. Both were magnificent examples of the architecture and style of the Old South.

The South left me with memories of grand homes, painful history and good food. I never did find that fried chicken, but that’s OK. As Scarlett O’Hara was known to say, tomorrow is another day.

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