When movie crews descended on Jackson in 2010 to film The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel about the city’s maids in the 1960s, they transformed the streets of its trendiest neighborhood into a retro backdrop. Given locals’ loyalty to mom-and-pop stores like Brent’s Drugs, where you can still sit at the counter and order a chocolate malt, it didn’t take much to pull off cinematic time travel.
This year, Jackson marked the anniversary of one of its most difficult moments 50 years ago, when the civil rights activist Medgar Evers was shot in his driveway by a white supremacist.
A lot has changed here in 50 years, though Jackson’s population of fewer than 200,000 still gives it the familiarity of a big country town. Over a dish of peach cobbler at one of the city’s beloved dining spots you can feel time rewind, and Mississippians’ old-fashioned charm is no rumor.
Lately, top-notch restaurants and music venues have joined Jackson’s soul-food restaurants, creating a relaxed marriage of old and new. With community groups organizing music, food and art festivals seemingly every weekend, there’s never been a better time to visit the self-proclaimed City With Soul. If you’ve got a long weekend, from Friday afternoon to Sunday brunch, here are some suggestions.
• A writer’s refuge: A stroll through the rolling hills of the historic Belhaven neighborhood is the perfect introduction to Jackson’s laid-back mood. Join the couples power-walking past bungalow-style houses, parks and front-yard vegetable gardens and make your way to the home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Eudora Welty.
Born in Jackson, Welty lived here most of her life and made Mississippi her subject. You can tour her home, which is arranged to look as it did when she was still writing in the 1980s. Then, the couches, coffee tables and chairs were stacked high with books, which guests had to move to find a seat. Guided tours are available Tuesday through Friday at set times (tickets, $5).
Next, take a lap around the Belhaven University campus, across the street from the Eudora Welty House, and breathe in the scent of magnolia, the state flower.
• Living history: When Mississippi’s “new” Capitol building (the first had architectural flaws and still stands a few blocks away) opened in 1903, electricity was an uncommon luxury in the rural state. That may be why the architect Theodore Link installed over 4,700 decorative light bulbs throughout the Beaux-Arts-style building. The historian Brenda Davis said that on the night of the grand opening, as 20,000 spectators gathered in the pouring rain, the illuminated Capitol must have been as captivating as a fireworks display.
The lights are just one of the ornate building’s eccentricities, the stories of which provide a candid portrait of the state’s history. The Confederate battle emblem still occupies a corner of the state’s banner, and the face of the Choctaw Indian Theresa Whitecloud is at the top of the Senate rotunda. A ghostly portrait of Gov. James Vardaman in the first-floor hallway has him looking as pale as a vampire. You can take a self-guided tour, or come by earlier in the day for a free guided tour.
• Sophisticated Southern: Jackson’s historic downtown is primarily a place of business, with lunch spots, parks and museums scattered among the office buildings. But a few ambitious new restaurants have begun challenging the after-dark quiet. The most impressive newcomer is Parlor Market, where the kitchen executes playful interpretations of classic Southern fare. The chef Craig Noone, who was raised in Jackson and returned to open the restaurant in 2010, died in a car accident a few weeks after Parlor Market’s first anniversary. The executive chef Matthew Kajdan has pushed forward with Noone’s vision of locally sourced cuisine. A memorable entree on the frequently changing menu paired lamb ragout with squid ink cavatelli, lady peas, preserved lemon, pickled chilies and mint ($25).
• Honky tonk: Head over to Hal and Mal’s, not far from Parlor Market, started by brothers Hal and Malcolm White. The bar and restaurant has been bringing blues, jazz and country bands to Jackson for more than 25 years. Pictures of past acts plaster the walls, as do their signatures. The bar keeps regional beers on draft.
• A venerable survivor: Farish Street was the center of African-American life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era, but in recent decades the street has nearly emptied out. The Big Apple Inn, which opened more than 70 years ago, is one of a handful of businesses to survive the exodus. The limited menu includes smoked sausage sandwiches ($1.25) and pig ear sandwiches ($1.25). For breakfast, you can ask them to add an egg.
When he was a field officer for the NAACP, Medgar Evers had a small office above the restaurant, and he used to hold meetings inside with Freedom Riders, one of whom was the owner’s mother. Although the street, bustling then, is now mostly silent, little seems to have changed inside the restaurant. A gleaming soda vending machine nods to the present, and after you taste the homemade hot sauce, you’ll be grateful for this allowance.
• Taste of the rural: The Jackson Farmer’s Market at the Mississippi Fairgrounds will give you a taste of the rest of the largely rural state. Try the hand-churned goat’s milk ice cream and buy some Mississippi-made soap, cutting boards and cornmeal to bring home. The market is held Saturdays year-round from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with additional hours in the summer.
• Mississippi greats: Lemuria Books, a Jackson institution, has changed locations a few times in some 38 years. Don’t be fooled by its current site, in a shopping complex next to the highway. Once you step inside the cozy store, pick out a book and sink into one of the plush, timeworn couches, you’ll begin to feel Lemuria’s magic. Perhaps it’s John Evans’s love affair with books coming through.
Evans started the store because he had a hard time finding books in pre-Amazon.com Jackson. Today he’s cultivated sections on everything Southern, from cooking to gardening, literature to religion. Lemuria also has a room of rare, signed books. Beholding Faulkner’s signature on a limited-edition print is humbling. Check out the website’s events section to find out if you’ll be in town during a book signing with one of your favorite writers.
• Fondren finds: In Fondren, Jackson’s hub of creative, locally owned businesses, the more you look, the more you find. At Sneaky Beans, a good place to stop for a cup of coffee or a craft beer ($4), posters advertise concerts and events around town. Check out Morning Bell Records & Studios, inside the converted Duling Hall, once a school. Across the street, Brent’s Drugs, a throwback luncheonette, served as the setting for one of the scenes in The Help.
Next explore the shops inside the mixed-use building Fondren Corner, like Blithe and Vine, which sells designer clothing and jewelry, or Swell-O-Phonic, offering snarky Jackson-themed T-shirts ($20) and skate gear. When you’ve finished shopping, sit on the patio at Babalu, a tapas restaurant, with a Cat 5 in your hand — similar to a mojito, but with Mississippi-made Cathead Vodka instead of rum.
• At the drive-in: Walker’s Drive-In isn’t really a drive-in. The beloved restaurant, considered by many to be the best meal in Jackson, manages to make retro diner decor elegant. At lunch, patrons crowd the booths for the redfish sandwiches, sweet potato fries and salads. During dinner, the menu changes entirely, with entrees like lamb with curry-tzatziki sauce and appetizers like fried oysters with warm Brie and apple slaw.
• Going underground: Underground 119 brings together the best of Jackson, with music of all genres and a diverse crowd. The club has a $10 cover for some acts. Tom Ramsey, the chef, who left a career as an investment banker and lobbyist to follow his dream, frequently makes the rounds to make sure everyone’s having a good time.
• Sweet tea: Eating at Two Sisters’ Kitchen feels a little like coming home, and only in part because it’s inside an old house. The restaurant was named in honor of the owner Diann Irving Alford’s sisters, who still provide some of the recipes. Take a plate and fill it with a comforting Southern meal: collard greens, fried chicken, black-eyed peas, macaroni and cheese, biscuits and fried okra are just some of the items that rotate on the lunchtime buffet ($12.50 on weekdays, $15 on Sundays). Sit down inside the house or out on the patio, where there’s often live music. It’s an easy way to get a helping of all things Southern, and the servers are as sweet as the tea.