2:20 p.m. Feb. 23
Its never too early to start planning the road trip from Chicago to New Orleans for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. One mandatory stop is Chamoun's Rest Haven Restaurant in Clarksdale, Miss. I called yesterday to make sure they are still open. They are.
Here's an edited version of a story I wrote from a visit in early 2004. I was hungry. I had spent half a day talking to musician-producer Jim Dickinson at his North Mississippi compound. Then I went to this classic diner to eat Lebanese food. I think Mississippi is an underappreciated state.
CLARKSDALE, Miss. -- The parched terrain surrounding Chamoun's Rest Haven Restaurant is best-known for nourishing the blues. John Lee Hooker, Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters all came from this part of the Delta, 75 miles south of Memphis. Blues are not usually linked to Lebanese cuisine. But the Rest Haven has been serving kibbies in the Delta since 1947........
.....The traditional Lebanese dish consists of ground round steak, cracked wheat, onions, pepper, salt and olive oil. Kibbies are served fried, baked or raw. Homemade pita bread is served on the side.
The Rest Haven is at 419 State St. (Highway 61), just blocks from the Delta Blues Museum. When Muddy Waters was a young man, he sang on the corner of 4th and Sunflower, a mile and a half northwest of the Rest Haven. The restaurant is owned and operated by Chafik and Louise Chamoun (sha-moan). Chafik's cousin Woodrow and his wife, Amra, built the restaurant in 1947. Their parents were born in Lebanon.
The Rest Haven is as quaint as a Route 66 roadside attraction with its long evergreen awning and clean white brick that was cast in nearby Indianola, Miss. The same brick can be seen in a motel across the street and a nearby subdivision. The Rest Haven seats about 120 customers in a cafe and a separate dining room. "I'll tell you, 99 percent of the people who come here from the Netherlands, Germany or Boston know about our food better than the locals," Chafik Chamoun says while sitting in the diner on his Sunday off day. "Did you hear about the tabouli?" Well, no.
"Tabouli is our appetizer salad," he says. "You get parsley, cracked wheat, green onion. You can put a tomato in it and put some olive oil and lemon juice on it." Blues lovers from all walks of life have found the Rest Haven. "I don't know if you know the ZZ Top?" Chamoun asked. "They were here."
He walks over to a wall of fame and points to a picture of the bearded Texas trio eating kibbies and grape leaves. Chamoun continues, "I was busy making a living. I didn't know anything about the ZZ Top. It was 10 in the morning and these guys with long beards walked in. I asked my wife, 'Who are these people?' My wife said I better not say anything. She said, 'These people are famous. They are the ZZ Top.' They have been good to this town. They raised money for the blues museum. They've been here three or four times."
ZZ Top had a hit with "Tube Steak Boogie," but to my knowledge they've never written a song called "True Delta Kibbie." The meat is at the core of the kibbie. "It is not hamburger," declares Chamoun, a ringer for the late Anthony Quinn. "And it's not ground beef. You get the leanest meat you can get."
A local butcher trims off every piece of fat for the Rest Haven. He then grinds the meat not once, but twice. The cracked wheat is prepared by Ghossain's, a Lebanese bakery in Youngstown, Ohio. The bakery owners are from Zahlee, Lebanon, the hometown of the Chamouns. The wheat is boiled, dried, cracked and shipped to Mississippi.
"We get 40 packages of wheat every other week," Chamoun says. "Each package has six loaves. That's what we go through in a week's time here."
Chafik, 72, and Louise, 66, studied at the American School in Zahle, Lebanon, during the 1950s. She was an American citizen. Her father died when she was young and her mother reared the family on a farm in Lebanon. "I wanted to go to America more than anything," Chamoun says. "You were looking for a better life. You read about the United States. You think money grows on trees. There is more to it than that. You have to work."
Chafik works at the Rest Haven between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. six days a week. Around lunchtime Chafik will head home for a 20-minute nap. Louise doesn't come around the restaurant much anymore, but she does drop in occasionally to see how the kitchen is going and to make sure the premises are clean.
Every morning the kitchen makes homemade chocolate, strawberry and coconut pies, each one stacked with an Elvis pompadour of meringue.
The Rest Haven breakfast crowd is known for fetching the coffeepot to serve themselves and their neighbors. And check the words of wisdom from Louise's needlework behind the diner counter: "By the Time Your Children Are Fit To Live With, They Are Living With Someone Else."
Chafik and Louise were married on Nov. 29, 1953. They haven't been too busy to have children: Mona, 39, is an educator in Tyler, Texas. Paul, 41, is an engineer in Conway, Ark. Elizabeth, 45, is a nurse in Ashland, Ky. Vivian, 47, is an assistant principal in Cleveland, Miss. Robert, 50, is a Memphis attorney. And Paula, 43, works at the Rest Haven. She is also a dietitian. "The kibbie is real healthy," she says. "It has bulgur pure cracked wheat and there's no fat in the meat at all."
Chafik and Louise arrived in New York on May 5, 1954. The newlyweds came to America on a Greek passenger ship. They had about $200. They ate the nightly special of pickled fish and spaghetti. The trip took 21 days. "There were 1,800 people on the boat," Chamoun recalls. "The ticket was only $300 per person, so you didn't expect the Queen Mary." They did have the good fortune to run into some Lebanese people who brought along kibbies and cabbage roll. "We were in heaven!" Chamoun says.
Lebanese people have immigrated to northern Mississippi since the 1880s. They opened grocery stores, peddled goods and worked on farms. "There used to be many Lebanese here," Chamoun says. "Now, there's 20, 25 families." (Clarksdale's population is 20,000.) Chafik's first job was to help an uncle run a Clarksdale nightclub, circa 1955-56.
"People came from the farm on Saturday and would go to downtown nightclubs to hear the blues," he says. "On Saturday night it was like Broadway. People were walking everywhere." But a new world opened up when Chamoun's grandfather gave him $300 to buy a green 1951 Plymouth. Trouble was, Chamoun did not know how to drive a car. "A friend of my uncle's taught me," he says. "His name was Oxodine. We drove a 15-mile radius on Highway 49. We didn't park, he didn't show me how to pass, we didn't do anything. We came back and he said, 'You know how to drive'. I went to visit one of my kinfolks. I was so proud of my car, I didn't want to park in the street. I was scared somebody would hit it, so I parked in the driveway. When it came time to go, I didn't know how to back up the car.
"But the hardship is the best experience."
Using his newly acquired skills, Chamoun became a traveling salesman for Raleigh Products. Locals knew him as "The Raleigh Man." Chamoun drove up and down Highways 61 and 49. He would get nervous every time he drove past Parchman, the Mississippi State Penitentiary on 46 acres along Highway 49. Blues guitarist Son House did time here (1928-30) and Elvis Presley's dad, Vernon, spent eight months at Parchman in 1938 for forging a check.
Most of Chamoun's clients were farmers. He sold on credit, but farm people always paid back on time. "It was like Avon," he says. "I would go house to house. I sold hog medicine. Perfume. Pie fillings. Sometimes the farm people would buy stuff from me just to help me, too." Chamoun kept his goods in the trunk. He stopped at a house, opened the trunk and customers would gather around the car. They pointed at what they wanted to purchase. He would point at the price. Chamoun takes a drag off a thin brown filter cigarette and says, "I could speak a little English. But I couldn't understand everyday English."
In 1968 Chamoun found a burst of energy from his kibbies. He opened a small grocery store on Friar's Point Road, outside of town. He built on a 25-seat diner, which is where ZZ Top discovered kibbies. "I was making pita bread," Chamoun says. "Then we made a kibbie sandwich. That brought people in. After that, I sold cabbage rolls and grape leaves. The next thing you know, I'm selling lunch."
Chamoun also sold Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles in a Highway 61 dealership. And during his remaining free time Chamoun was still "The Raleigh Man." In 1990 Chamoun and his wife took over the Rest Haven, which was operated by a cousin. Of course, it would be a cliche to say the rest is history. Every meal at the Rest Haven is a new celebration of America's cultural crossroads.
Chamoun's Rest Haven Restaurant is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily except Sunday. Reservations are not required (662-624-8601).