By Mark H. Stowers • Photography by Austin Britt
There’s no doubt about it, hard work makes a man hungry. Farmers across the Delta have been working to find ways to effectively take a lunch break but maximize the time slot to keep things moving. Farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature and when there’s a small window to plant or harvest or get anything else done, a quick yet hearty lunch is always welcome. And during normal weather, hungry men and women working the turnrows need something satisfying, delicious but yet won’t take a lot of time away from their intended tasks. Area restaurants have been providing lunches in various forms since the old timey farm stores first opened.
One of the first, Fratesi Grocery near Leland on Highway 82, has been feeding hungry farm hands since the 1930s. Partner Mark Fratesi has been working in the grocery, deli, and general store and he has also been working the turnrows himself on the family farm.
“We’ve been doing that probably as long as when my father and his brother built this store in 1941,” Fratesi said.
The notion of the farm lunch has changed and transformed over the years. Early on, farmers would bring the “cotton choppers” and helping hands by the store and they’d go in four or five at a time out of truckload of a few dozen.
“About four of us would be at different stations and they’d buy a dollar’s worth of meat, they’d pay for it right there,” Fratesi said. “And they’d go down to the cake department and buy a Moon Pie and then go down to the soft drink department and pay for it. The truck driver would stand by the door and he’s let four or five in at a time. As soon as one went out, he’d let another one in. That was the only way we could accommodate them back then.”
These days as farms are more mechanized and there are fewer laborers, farmers put in food orders to pick up for their help. At Fratesi’s as well as other stops, the offerings are all top notch and quite desirable and delicious.
“We have plate lunches and sandwiches of your choice. Some farmers call in with x-amount of plate lunches while other farmers call in and order special things for each person,” he said. “We’re not equipped to cook a whole lot of different things in my kitchen, so we cook certain things on each day of the week.”
Monday is hamburger steak day while Tuesday is spaghetti and meatballs with homemade sauce. Each day has its own flavor. “Thursday is deep-fried pork chop day and it’s the most popular,” he said.
Most places that offer farm lunches have fish on Fridays as well. Fratesi has a steady business of farm lunches and that also is enhanced by the weather as rainy days lead to fewer workers in the field needing food. But he gets a lot of farm related customers as those at the nearby Stoneville Research Facility.
“We do a few things other stores can’t. We debone chickens and stuff them, we debone pork chops and stuff them and sell homemade gumbo, homemade spaghetti sauce and homemade Italian sausage.”
For the past two decades, Kenoy Harris has been putting together mouth-watering hamburgers as well as sandwiches at Kenoy’s Burger Restaurant. Farmers come from all around the Clarksdale area to pick up carry-outs of his creations to their workers for lunch.
“I cook burgers, sandwiches and cold cuts for farm lunches,” Harris said. “It’s a big part of business in the spring and fall.”
Farmers call in their orders to Harris which mainly consists of his famous hamburger, fries and a drink.
“I’ve been cooking them for over 20 years and I have people come as far as Nashville and all over that hear about the place,” Harris said. “My number one seller is the ‘Two Fisted Burger’—you need two hands to eat it.” His burgers can be dressed with lettuce, tomato, onions, pickles as well as American or Swiss cheese. Mayo, mustard and ketchup can be requested as well.
In Indianola there are many restaurants to choose from, but for lunch there are chain fast foods and a 50-year favorite—Peasoup’s Lott a Freeze, also on Highway 82. The second-generation family business is in its second location on the East West corridor and has been serving farm lunches since its inception. Co-owner Brenda Lott notes that the farm lunches are big business.
“Most farmers order off our menu—the steak finger basket is inexpensive but you get a lot of food, so they order that a lot,” Lott said. “They order chicken, they order burgers, they order po-boys—we do canned drinks, so they don’t have to fool with fountain drinks and spilling them in their trucks. Most of them have the things they like to eat. Some will even get salads. We have a lot order catfish on Fridays.”
Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:30 a.m. until and closed on Sunday and Monday, Lott sees plenty of farmers.
“They’ll call in their order in the morning when we get here and we’ll have it all boxed and bagged and ready to pick up when they get here,” she said. “We do a lot of farm orders in the summertime. It’s a pretty big group of farmers that eat with us. In this town there’s not a lot of options at lunch. If you’re trying to get something and you want it organized and on time, they come here.”
Tara Herrin, owner of the Catfish Cabin in Cleveland has plenty of farmers who rely on her culinary skills to keep workers happy and well fed in and around Bolivar County. “We’ve done it for a while. I’ve been at the restaurant for 18 years and we started lunches in 2005 and soon thereafter with farm lunches,” Herrin said. “Over the last several years that has picked up for us.”
Each day, Herrin sends out a text to her farm customers with a menu attachment.
“They call it in and we’ll have it ready for them to pick up,” she said. “Whatever we have on the buffet is what is available to them. Some like a meat and three vegetables and a drink. But some don’t want to deal with the drinks. Some like a meat and two vegetables. They can call as early as 10:00 a.m. and tell us what they want. We have one farmer who likes each one boxed and bagged with utensils, so he just hands them out. We’ll do whatever we can to make it easy for the farmer.” Wednesday is hamburger steak day—“one of the busiest days. Tuesday and Friday, we have catfish. Pork chops are a big day—we have that at least once a week.”
Herrin offers a monthly account billing or pay daily plan to make things easy for the farmers. “When they are all going, we are busy from 11:00 a.m. to nearly 1:00 p.m. getting them out. There have been days where we have 75-80,” she said. “We’ve tried hamburger day but they prefer the plate lunches.”
In Tunica, farmers have many choices, especially the Levee Commissary and The Blue and White Restaurant. The Levee Commissary owners Ed and Patricia Miller have been feeding hungry farmers and their help for quite a while. “We do plate lunches and sandwiches and sometime burgers and fries,” Ed Miller said. “We have a regular menu and the call in the orders and we make them up.”
The Blue and White Restaurant gets plenty of orders for cheeseburgers but the hamburger steak, fried chicken and catfish get plenty of attention as well.
“Sometimes we might do 40 lunches but it just depends on the farmers. They don’t always eat at the same place. They’ll hit us twice a week and hit others,” he said. At the Blue and White Restaurant, Steven Barbieri and his staff work to address the hungry workers in and around Tunica.
“Most of our lunches are a meat and three or meat and two vegetables and a piece of bread and the drink comes with it,” Barbieri said. “A lot will still order a hamburger and French fries but the meat and three is the most popular. If we’re having fried chicken and hamburger steak with green beans and mashed potatoes, they order those and we pack them up and they deliver them to the workers individually.”
For the hamburger orders, Barbieri puts all the condiments and dressing on the side, so the workers can create what their burger their way.
“We’ve been doing this since 1937 when it opened. I’ve been doing it myself for 15 years since I’ve owned it,” he said.
When Barbieri took over there were more than 150 farm accounts “that had been charging lunches for 50 or 60 years.” These days the number has whittled its way down near 30 or so.
With limited hours, Larry’s Catfish House in Itta Bena serves farm lunches on Friday but has been a niche with supper and farm workers for the past two decades. Owner Larry Kelly
“If they are working late planting or harvesting, they’ll pick them up late and take it to them,” Kelly said. “We’ve got ribs and chicken but most of the time the workers want the catfish. During the busy season we do a good many of them for Friday lunch. But when they’re working late, they’ll pick them up Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday night.”
The catfish plate lunch comes with five sides—French fries, hush puppies, baked beans, fried okra, corn on the cob and some slaw. And they serve ice tea and lemonade for the drink.
“They call it in and we’ll have it ready at the pick-up window,” Kelly said.
All across the Delta, farmers and their working hands get the day’s work done with a great lunch—sometimes supper—from a delicious Delta eatery.