Kibbe at the Crossroads: A Lebanese Kitchen Story In the late 1870s, Lebanese immigrants began arriving in the Mississippi Delta, working first as peddlers, then grocers and restaurateurs. Kibbe, a meatloaf of sorts, is part of the glue that continues to hold the Lebanese family culture together in the Delta and beyond.
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Kibbe at the Crossroads: A Lebanese Kitchen Story

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Kibbe at the Crossroads: A Lebanese Kitchen Story

Kibbe at the Crossroads: A Lebanese Kitchen Story

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Hidden Kitchens, today, travel to the Mississippi Delta into the world of Lebanese immigrants, who began arriving in the 1800s, soon after the Civil War. The Kitchen Sisters - producers Nikki Silva and Davia Nelson - take us to Clarksdale, where barbecue and the blues meet traditional Lebanese meatloaf in a story they call "Kibbe at the Crossroads."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAT DAVIS (Owner, Abe's BAR-B-Q): Lebanese foods, we make it every Sunday. I make kibbe, cabbage rolls. When I get depressed, I make grape leaves. I'm Pat Davis, Abe's BAR-B-Q in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the famous corner of 49 and 61. We've been in business since 1924. My father was from Zahale, Lebanon -came to America in the early 1900s. They moved to Clarksdale. They were doing good peddling. Back then, the Lebanese people mostly were peddlers. 1924 when my father opened up a barbecue restaurant.

(Soundbite of song, "Cross Road Blues")

Mr. ROBERT JOHNSON (Legendary Bluesman): (Singing) I went down to the crossroads.

Mr. DAVIS: This is a main highway where the crossroads are. And we think that that's where Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil to play good blues music. Robert Johnson used to sit around where those sycamore trees were, playing his blues guitar, drinking a Bud and eating one of our barbecues.

Mr. CHAFIK CHAMOUN (Owner, Chamoun's Rest Haven): They say the blues was born here at Clarksdale. We have a blue museum here. I don't want no more blues. I have a blue when I was young. We used to have that blues in the field, an old country. My mother singing all that sad songs I love. Forget it - cutting the wheat, picking the grapes.

My name is Chafik Chamoun. I live in Clarksdale since 1954. Me and my wife, Louise, we got Chamoun's Rest Haven, I would say the oldest restaurant in this Delta.

Mr. JOE SHERMAN: Great raw kibbe, great tabouleh. We go there every January on the way to a duck hunt.

I'm Joe Sherman. We were Chamouns. My grandfather, when he came across the border through Mexico, they Americanized it to Sherman. And the Rest Haven - it's got an old sign at front and Mr. Chamoun, he'll be sitting there at a table with a telephone taking orders. If he's not, he's sick.

(Soundbite of telephone ringing)

Mr. CHAMOUN: Rest Haven, may I help you? They ordered spaghetti, hamburger steak, kibbe sandwich - that's our best-seller - kibbe sandwich.

Mr. JIMMY THOMAS (Managing Editor, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture): Kibbe, it's pretty much the national food of Lebanon. It's a meatloaf of sorts.

My father's family came to Mississippi Delta from Greater Syria. I'm Jimmy Thomas, managing editor for The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. One of the earliest stories of Lebanese in the South was a man who had come to the Port Of New Orleans. And he knew there were other Syrian immigrants there. So what he did - he stood on the dock and screamed, kibbe, kibbe, kibbe, until someone came.

Mr. CHAMOUN: When I came here in 1954, I bought about two dozen of ladies slips and nylon stockings. I sold that stuff - go from house to house. Thirty years. I tell you, the poor people in those days, they knew I was trying to make a living. They buy something just to help me.

Dr. SAMMY RAY (Professor Emeritus, Department of Marine Biology-Texas A&M University): Early on, I decided I wasn't going to be a peddler. My name is Sammy Ray, professor emeritus at Texas A&M at Galveston. My father was peddling dry goods to the black sharecroppers. And he was very dependent on black community - that's where he made his money.

(Soundbite of music)

Dr. RAY: My father's Syrian friends who were peddlers would come, and a big deal was a Lebanese picnic. Taking a live goat or lamb to a riverbank. And my father would slaughter the kid, flesh(ph) it. My mother would make rice, snow peas, and she would cook it in the stomach.

In the early '30s, my father bought a barbecue stand and Rosedale, Mississippi on the edge of Black Town. And we lived in the back of the barbecue stand. In the early days, I had problems because of my color. I was too dark to play with the white folks, and I was too light to play with the black folks. I got beat up, called a dago and a wop.

(Soundbite of music by Robert Johnson)

Mr. DAVIS: We lived in Riverton. A lot of Italian American, Lebanese Americans lived in Riverton, along with African-Americans back then, you know? Tina Turner and Ike Turner worked for my uncle at the grocery store. We knew all these people. And to be honest with you, we were all in that category of not a real citizen, I guess.

(Soundbite of song, "come In My Kitchen")

Mr. JOHNSON: (Singing) …in my kitchen…

Mr. DAVIS: Three black men came into the cafe, and this is probably in the '50s. And daddy took there offer. four or five farmers - they started calling them names. And I told daddy he needs to run them out of here. And dad said look, they are coming here to eat something. Don't bother. When they left, they told my daddy, you know, this is a good way to lose your business, to serve black people.

And we were tested in 1965. They got a bunch of kids - black kids - went to all the restaurants on the highway, and every one refused them except Chafik's Rest Haven - to my place. And everybody else got lawsuits against them.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. THOMAS: We used to have this list of all these famous Lebanese people: Casey Kasem is Lebanese, and obviously, Khalil Gibran.

Mr. DAVIS: Ralph Nader, he is Lebanese. But the greatest person was Danny Thomas. I think I might have a CD of Danny Thomas singing "Athebee" in my car. I think.

(Soundbite of song, "Athebee")

Mr. DAVIS: We called ourselves Syrians when we first came here. And until Danny Thomas came and said he was Lebanese, then, we all began to realize that we really are Lebanese. Danny Thomas can say it. So we're Lebanese now.

(Soundbite of song, "Athebee")

Mr. SHERMAN: Sunday was - help me make the kibbe. And we'd only make a big pan of raw kibbe in a kind of it was on a mound, about maybe an inch and a half high.

Mr. DAVIS: You get the ram steak, real lean. Grind it. Put a cup of wheat to each pound of meat. Soak it in wheat for an hour.

Mr. THOMAS: Bulgur wheat, lots of onions, cinnamon, salt and pepper - and you can eat that raw, fried or you can bake the kibbe.

Mr. SHERMAN: And somebody would always take their palm of their hand, turn it up and make a cross in it. And then they'd put olive oil in it - blessed the kibbe, which kind of blessed the family.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Hidden Kitchen was produced by the Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee. Recipes for kibbe and all the Hidden Kitchen stories are available as Podcast at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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