Cook, author, and musician, Matt R. Moore, wears a lot of hats. Most recently, he’s been leaning into his role of “adventurer”: For his newest cookbook, Serial Griller: Grillmaster Secrets for Flame-Cooked Perfection, Matt traveled across the U.S. to talk to chefs and grilling experts all over—who shared their delicious signature recipes and riveting stories. Below, an excerpt from the book telling one such story: that of Hoover’s Grocery & Laundry, helmed by owners Sylvester and Mary, and their legendary three-down ribs.
The Delta. There is, perhaps, no place in our country more misunderstood, mythic, and luring. Built primarily on the wrong side of history, most Americans have either shunned the area entirely or, most likely, forgotten its existence altogether. It is isolated. It is complicated. But it is beautiful.
My first introduction to it came after spending a few days in Greenwood, Mississippi, with fellow author, Martha Foose. During those few days that lingered like the Yazoo River, my cup never ran dry, and my plate—and heart—remained full.
Seeking a return to this inimitable piece of earth, I reached out to Martha to ask who has the best grilling game in Greenwood—and that is how I found Sylvester and Mary Hoover.
“I, like those that came before me, was born in the blues. Whatever ill’d ’em, the blues would heal ’em,” Sylvester Hoover tells me. His grill lacks any traditional ways to close the vents or damper that are necessary to control temperature. Stuffing the holes with crumpled aluminum foil, and wedging a screwdriver into the hinge, Sylvester smiles, telling me, “I make do.”
Inside Hoover’s, I meet Sylvester’s wife, Mary. Before she greets me with words, I’m flashed a smile that makes me feel as welcome as if she was my own momma. The smile leads to a hug, as is Southern tradition. After exchanging a few pleasantries, we quickly get to work on one of her signatures—peach cake. Like my own momma, I notice nearly nothing is measured—except the love.
Hoover’s Grocery is situated in Baptist Town. It received its name due to the baptisms that took place in the 1800s in the small creek that once ran strong, but now only trickles, through the district. After the Emancipation Proclamation, the neighborhood became made up entirely of freed African Americans, but in those days, business owners were largely white, and thereby had even more control to pressure a collective race that had already endured the worst of humanity.
The son of sharecroppers, Sylvester recalls his earliest memories of being dragged on a cotton sack through the rows while his mother picked cotton on the Whittington Plantation. His family was caught in a cyclical existence of debt to the landowners—something Sylvester was able to break by attending school off the plantation.
When I ask about how he met Mary, Sylvester is less than forthcoming. I decide to walk back inside, where Mary is whipping up a batch of coleslaw, and she tells me the story. They were on a basketball trip, and when the two saved seats for each other, Sylvester moved in for the kiss. “I slapped him,” Mary tells me. About that time, Sylvester walks back in after lighting up his charcoal fire—he was hip to our conversation. Not skipping a beat, Mary tells him to “Get inside, clean up, and cut up the chicken.” When I ask if this is the regular discourse, Sylvester rolls his eyes lovingly, saying, “All the dang time.”
I, like those that came before me, was born in the blues. Whatever ill’d ’em, the blues would heal ’em.
Sylvester got his professional start serving as a manager of the Jitney Jungle grocery store chain. When an opportunity came up to purchase Truett Grocery—the famed spot where bluesman Robert Johnson purchased his Prince Albert tobacco—Sylvester became a business owner. He expanded, and downsized, over the years—some planned, others not. Truett burned in 2007. Nowadays, Syl, as he is called by most, is content to have one store, while also leading local tours on civil rights and the history of the blues.
Sylvester might be manning the grill, but he will be the first to admit that the heart and soul of Hoover’s, and perhaps Greenwood, is inside. He is speaking of Mary—or Ann, as he calls her. Mary has spent nearly thirty years working in the kitchen—her cooking has been lauded throughout the region, garnering national praise, including from Ms. Oprah Winfrey. But Mary does not shy from sharing about the period in her life when she decided to step away.
“I had buried my father, mother, sister, and brother all within the confines of a few months.” Her smile had dimmed, she tells me, and she needed some time to do some soul-searching—outside of the kitchen. After taking some time to travel and visit her own children and grandkids, Mary took up the responsibility of caring for premature babies—holding them and giving them the same love she fueled into her cooking, to sustain a new generation.
During our conversation, I notice kid after kid walk in from off the street and request everything from a burger and fries to a breakfast sandwich. Mary is patient, she is kind—despite the fact that these kids are anxiously hungry. Minutes later, the kids head back out the door, warm food in hand—but the cash register never rings. “We take care of this community,” she tells me.
When the ribs are ready, I devour nearly half a rack, right off the bone, along with a heaping of smoke-laden beans and an extra helping of sweet peach cake. I wash everything down with a cold 40 oz. adult beverage.
After finishing my meal, we peruse our way next door to the Back in the Day Museum, an old home that Sylvester and Mary have converted to show folks how their ancestors lived for generations. There is no electricity, but the light cracks through mismatched siding and broken windows. It’s almost as though we’ve lost ourselves in another place and time.
But right on time, Sylvester breaks the silence. “The Delta causes you to rethink all of your senses—the sight of the country, the smell of the water and its low-lying fields, the hums of the blues, and of course, the taste of our food.” When I ask about the missing fifth sense, he laughs.
“Son, our food just doesn’t just taste, it feels too.”
Have you ever been to Hoover’s Grocery? Let us know in the comments.