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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Abe's Bar-B-Q -- at the Crossroads in Clarksdale, Miss.

Many believe Clarksdale, Miss., is the birthplace of the blues. It was the first stop on the "chitlin' circuit," a route through the Delta traveled by many bluesmen performing in juke joints starting in the 1920s. 

This town of 17,600 also was home to W.C. Handy, Son House, Charlie Patton, John Lee Hooker and many others.

Muddy Waters labored at the nearby Stovall Plantation before being discovered in 1941 by Alan Lomax, and then travelled to Chicago like so many other blues greats. Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues," died in 1937 at Clarksville's black hospital -- today the Riverside Hotel -- after an auto accident on Highway 61.

Part of this history is Abe's Bar-B-Q, located near the legendary crossroads for Robert Johnson, at old U.S. 61 and U.S. 49. Since 1924, locals and blues pilgrims have stopped in for Abe's basic menu of pork and beef barbecue, hamburgers and southern-style tamales.

Lebanese immigrant Abraham Davis founded Abe's. His father, who allegedly had a vision that he would be struck and killed by a large block of iron if he came to this country, sent him to America at the age of 13.

Not fond of the family business selling clothes, Abe went to work for a Greek restaurateur before opening his own place, The Bungalow Inn. In 1937, the business was moved to its present location and was renamed by his sons Pat and Abe Jr. for their father in 1959.

Abe's pigs wear a bowtie
In a nod to their Mediterranean heritage, they sell stuffed grape leaves by the tray.

But most people come for the barbecue, which is prepared differently than other places across the Delta. At Abe's, they slow cook Boston butt roasts over hickory and pecan wood and then refrigerate them overnight, slice the meat cold and then warm it on a grill after the order is received. The meat is not pulled.

Abe's also serves pork tamales, which have become as much a part of the Delta as cotton and the blues, as attested by the lyrics of Johnson's song, They’re Red Hot." The recipe was developed with help from Mexican migrants who traveled to Clarksville to join sharecroppers in the fields.

Today, an outside company makes Abe's tamales, using the family recipe.

Michael and Jane Stern included Abe's in their paean to American cuisine, "Road Food." Greg Johnson and Vince Staten, in their book, "Real Barbecue," rated it "real good." The Travel Channel included Abe's in its list of "America's 101 Tastiest Places to Chow Down." David Gelin included Abe's in his guide, "BBQ Joints: Stories and Secret Recipes from the Barbeque Belt."

Rock legends have followed bluesmen to Abe's, including Paul Simon and ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, who asked Davis for an autograph. There's a photo in the dining room of Elvis Presley hanging out with one of the Davis boys. Country legends Conway Twitty and Charlie Pride came here too.

A "Tamaco" and "Big Abe"
Like so many others, the folks at Abe's have embraced the legend of Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil.

"It's very possible that Robert Johnson, while sitting on a Coca-Cola case under one of the sycamore trees that was prominent at that corner back then, eating an Abe's Bar-B-Q made that legendary deal," they speculate on their menu. "It is a fact that Abraham Davis surrendered his soul to God and his family business still prospers even today."

During our visit to Abe's in late November, we tried the "Big Abe" -- a double decker sandwich consisting of sliced pork dressed with a basic vinegar-based sauce and cole slaw -- and a "Tamaco" -- tamales dressed with lettuce, tomatoes and chili and cheese. Their "The Come Back Sauce" is served at the table.

We found our food to be good, but not legendary. But we also came later in the day. Judging from the crowd we observed at Abe's closer to lunchtime, we figure another visit may be in order.

Location we visited:
Abe's Bar-B-Q

616 State St.

Clarksdale, Miss.


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