It’s a September Saturday morning.
Sunny yellow mums flank front porch steps along historic Percy Street as autumnal leaves rustle across sidewalks in Downtown Indianola. Layers of chartreuse duckweed cluster atop the lazy bayou as the town awakes to the faint hum of crop dusters zipping defoliant in the air.
It feels like fall in the Mississippi Delta, and for the children in the Indianola community, there’s the anticipation of a town festival steeped in tradition: the Indian Bayou Arts Festival.
The festival on September 23 marks six years that the arts and crafts festival—formerly hosted annually in Gilmer Park by the Indianola Chamber from the mid-1970s to ‘90s—was revived, now replanted eastward along the banks of Indian Bayou with proximity to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center and Blue Biscuit on Second Street.
Sand art, hand-carved wooden rubber band guns, hand-cut silhouettes and beaded jewelry handcrafted by Choctaw Indians are but a few memories of families attending the festival back its heyday.
Thanks to community-minded citizens and officers of Indianola Chamber Main Street and now with support from local sponsors, the festival has been resurging, featuring the works of craftsmen and artists from across the state and beyond.
“We wanted only true artists, no flea market or bought items being resold,” said Evelyn Roughton, proprietor of The Crown in Town restaurant, who was instrumental in the festival’s revival, along with Nancy Woods and Maggie Barnes.
“We thought it was important for Indianola to have an arts festival for local people to be involved in and enjoy, similar to Crosstie in Cleveland with a Kids’ Zone,” she explained. “Indianola needed that opportunity for all children here.”
Expect an eclectic array of mediums, from iconic handmade rocking chairs by returning artist Greg Harkins, known as the chair maker to U.S. presidents, to cotton picker sculptures by Lee Washington, fused glass by Carolyn Sturdivant of Old House Glass Works in Philipp, wooden creations by Maurice Smith of Brookhaven and handmade duck calls by Indianola’s Jay Whitfield. Myriad artists will display everything from paintings and photography to stitchery and jewelry.
Debuting this year is a new overall theme and updated festival name. With the addition of culinary arts, the festival has added “eats,” now officially renamed the Indian Bayou Arts and Eats Festival.
Alongside the visual artists, vendors will now include makers of artisanal, small-batch foods such as the iconic MeMaw’s Cheese Straws made in Yazoo City and fresh-made salsas and pepper jellies made from homegrown ingredients by Nathan Sanford, aka The Grumpy Man, from Purvis.
For sweet tooths, Belinda Chambers of Sugar B Bakery will be tempting festival goers with her Mississippi Delta-made brownies, fudge pies and scratch-made baked goods while Lexington Coffee will offer gourmet fresh-roasted coffee both by the bag and by the cup.
The inspiration for celebrating the region’s own handcrafted gourmet and homegrown food was largely in homage to a famous denizen: Sunflower County’s own Craig Claiborne (1920-2000), the legendary restaurant critic and longtime food editor of The New York Times.
“Claiborne is one of the three people who changed the way Americans eat,” said Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission.
“Along with James Beard and Julia Child, Claiborne influenced and educated America on global and regional foodways and ushered in what we now know as celebrity chefs, the Food Network and the propagation of cookbooks as literature about food.”
In 2014, the state of Mississippi placed a historical marker at his childhood home on West Percy Street where his mother, Kathleen Claiborne, ran a boarding house and a curious young Claiborne witnessed made-from-scratch southern dishes being prepared in the kitchen.
The home faces the site of the former Indian Bayou Arts Festival.
“The marker represented the first acknowledgement of a chef, food writer and restaurant critic as a historical figure in the vast Mississippi cultural pantheon,” said White, “and holds Claiborne in equal esteem with icons like B.B. King, Eudora Welty and Elvis.”
Kathy Manning, vice-president of Indianola Main Street and festival chairman, along with a local committee looking to expand the festival, wanted to pay tribute to the town’s extraordinary culinary heritage with community involvement—and the Craig Claiborne Pecan Pie Competition was born.
“We considered many iconic southern foods and dishes for this year’s competition and concluded that pecans are synonymous with Indianola due to the locally-based Indianola Pecan House,” said Manning.
Premiering at the 2017 festival, the bake-off encourages home cooks to prepare pies in their own kitchen to compete before a panel of judges in two categories, traditional and creative, plus Overall People’s Choice awards. Festival goers will also have the opportunity to taste the creations.
A special guest, Craig Claiborne’s own nephew, Claiborne Barnwell, a bona fide foodie, will be one of three judges critiquing and rating the pies. He and his wife Marion, longtime Indianola residents now living in Jackson, gave the festival their blessing in using the family name.
“Claiborne and I are sure Craig will be with us in spirit for the first annual pecan pie contest honoring him and probably furious that he can’t be a judge,” joked Marion Barnwell.
Other “presiding” pie judges will be local restaurateurs Karen Farrow of Karen’s Kitchen in Indianola and Stafford Shurden of Drew, who adds farmer and Sunflower County Justice Court Judge to his resume, in addition to owner of Stafford’s Market & Deli.
The Craig Claiborne Pecan Pie Competition is being sponsored by Guaranty Bank and Indianola Pecan House with custom designed Mississippi Delta pottery pieces being awarded as trophies. Proceeds from entries will be donated to the Mid-Delta Arts Association in support of renovations underway in Brindley Theatre.
While local cooks are vying for titles, costume-clad pooches parading in the annual Delta Dog Show presented by Planters Bank will compete for Best Behaved, Cutest, Most Unique and Best Dressed. Always a hoot, the dog show benefits the Sunflower County Humane Society, which will have animals needing homes available for adoption.
Between Main and Second Street, there will be gospel in the air as local church choirs take the live music stage, kicking off the festival with a noteworthy lineup including The B.B. King All Stars at 10 a.m. The Big Time Rhythm & Blues Band will keep the tempo jumping with successive artists playing all afternoon.
With children frolicking along the shady cypress tree-lined banks of Indian Bayou within steps of the museum that honors the King of the Blues, the newly crowned Indian Bayou Arts and Eats Festival promises to ignite the senses, forming a new era of memories as art, food, music and history collide.
Entry forms to the Delta Dog Show are available at the Indianola offices of Planters Bank. For pecan pie competition entry forms, visit The Crown, Guaranty Bank in Indianola and Belzoni or Indianola Pecan House.
The Indian Bayou Arts & Eats Festival, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., is an Indianola Chamber Main Street Project sponsored by the B.B. King Museum, City of Indianola, Community Bank, Double Quick, Guaranty Bank, Mid-Delta Arts Association, Indianola Pecan House, Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola, Mitchell Distributing, Planters Bank, Southern Bancorp, Sam Rosenthal Leasing and Rentals, and WDMS FM 100.7
For information, call Cherri Kirk at 662-887-4454.